Terminal Woman

I once worked with a nurse who admitted, “Whenever I get a headache, I worry that I have a brain tumor.”

Knowing what it is like to worry about having an undiagnosed illness, I nodded and said, “Maybe that’s because, as a nurse, you know too much.”

The nurse laughed and said, “You’re right. In nursing school whenever we studied a new disease, I imagined that I had the same symptoms. It was horrible! I wasn’t the only one in my class with this problem. There were others who were doing the same thing.”

During my lifetime, I’ve had many occasions where I have worried that a mole was cancer or an uneven heart beat indicated heart disease or a prolonged cough after a cold meant lung cancer. Having anxieties isn’t a joke. I can hardly imagine what a basket case I would have been if I’d actually gone through a nursing program!

People who worry about their health are called hypochondriacs…or is that hyperchondriac? The other day I decided to look up the word. I discovered that a person can have either hypochondria or hypercondria. Both are illnesses of anxiety. The distinction between the two is close. Hypochondria describes a person who thinks they are always ill despite a doctor’s assurances that they are well, while someone suffering with hyperchondria fears having an illness. I think I come in strong under the hyperchondria definition.

I learned at a young age to not talk about my fears. People sometimes laugh at you. Other times, even if they don’t laugh, you know they think you are wack-a-doodle crazy. A person with mental health issues gets very little sympathy. On the other hand, a person who falls and breaks a leg gets tons of condolences and pampering. That’s unfortunate, because anxiety can often be just as or more painful than a broken bone.

From observation, I’ve noticed that every illness has a range of severity. On a scale of one to ten, we might rate a medical problem anywhere between mildly irritating to incapacitating. I think my hypercondria falls in the two to three range. I live with it, I can manage it, but I have times where it irritates me more than others.

Through the years I’ve marginally learned how to determine by examining my symptoms if I truly have a health problem or an anxiety problem. If I’m extremely worried, the real problem no doubt is anxiety. If something hurts, but doesn’t hurt as much as the anxiety, I’m probably going to live.

I think I’m a pretty sensible person, so I don’t know why I have this problem. I guess when I was a child and discovered that no one lives forever, I suddenly felt very temporary. I am annoyed at how frequently I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of a fatal illness. At times, I ruefully, chidingly call myself the terminal woman.

Many people have worse problems. Recently, while on an airplane returning from North Carolina I met a young woman who I’d rate no less than eight on the scale of anxiety. She began to talk the minute my daughter and I sat down next to her. She said, “I have a disability. The stress of traveling is making it worse. I have IBS, migraines, depression and anxiety.”

For the next 900 miles she explained all of her symptoms, how she is trying to live with them and the problems they have caused her. At times, she leaned her head against the seat in front of her and looked like she was about to begin moaning. I thought, “Being ill is bad enough, but when the illness completely consumes your life, that’s a whole different matter!”

I felt sorry for the young gal. I tried to be attentive, but I’m not a very good traveler, myself. My ears pop and I lose half of my hearing as the plane gains altitude. When it tips to one side to turn, I become nauseated. My inclination was to suffer in silence, but Tami and I listened to our seat mate.

When the plane dropped altitude, I looked over at my daughter. She had gone all Zen by closing her eyes and breathing slow and deep. Later, as we went to claim my suitcase at the airport terminal, she explained, “I had absorbed so much anxiety by then that I needed to relax. I was also worried that both of you would begin to throw up.”

I said, “Thanks for being so patient. That gal needed us to listen and show sympathy. Did you notice that I tried to introduce other topics to disarm her overly developed self-absorption? She needed us and I needed her for a reality check. Having her for a seat mate was no coincidence.”



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