A Tangled WebMD

              I was “only” 21 years old when I packed some Diet Coke and Chapstick into a bindle and took my virgin expedition to a diabolical realm called Hypochondrial Hell. It was my senior year of college, and I was still in (what I didn’t realize then was) the physical prime of my life. Rather than soaking up the fleeting moments I had with my schoolmates, I spent the spring hunched over my laptop, pounding search terms like “first MS symptoms” and “MS life expectancy” into Google, frantically and repeatedly. It was a practice that was only just starting to fester but that lasted far beyond the phase of graduation jitters. I would spend the following five years bouncing between the ER visits, doctors’ appointments, imaging centers, and therapy sessions that health anxiety dragged me through, reluctantly pestering poor healthcare workers for answers they didn’t have. Nobody but a bona fide fortune teller had the answers I sought, and that shred of hope died in 2016 with Miss Cleo.

              The fall after I finished college, in a rare stroke of good timing, my oldest sister offered me a job nannying my nephew. I jumped at it, largely because it meant I could put off looking for a rEaL jOb. But even with that keeping me occupied and useful—albeit, still very much in the throes of severe anxiety—the feeling that I was falling further behind the rest of the pack remained. My friends were working at cool startups in Chicago for dweeb bosses, or working for established brands in high-rises that overlooked the touristy part of Lake Michigan where everybody takes pictures with that giant chrome clitoris. And there I was, being given tutorials on how to use an AppleTV remote by my toddler nephew. My inadequacies loomed over me, like an embarrassing odor I couldn’t wash away.

              I felt profoundly and visibly flawed. Instagram, despite being in its early aughts, was still propelled by the concepts of status and comparison. No longer was I enraptured by the success and productivity of the people I knew, but now, by the additional expanse of Instagram hotties. And even the unemployed ones—especially the unemployed ones—were living in the lap of luxury while I was stuck on the proverbial toilet. Obviously, this was white entitlement on full display, my own derivatives included, but I was too dumb and self-centered to see that. What I did obtain was this: A – being unemployed was a career if you were hot enough, which I was not. 2 – Everybody knew somebody with a yacht except for me. And D – I was a swamp troll in the era of the Insta-model. Thus congealed the slime in my brain that not only was I emotionally and intellectually incapable of keeping up, but that my body was newly inadequate as well.

              Although I have the genetic predisposition for a body type I would describe as cherub-like, I was always a jock. I was zippy and accurate, like a mongoose, on the soccer field; I was hardworking and focused, like a honeybee, in the strength and conditioning room; and I was graceful, like an adult otter, and adorable, like a baby otter, in the diving well. But my relationship with athletics was also incredibly complicated.

              Diving is a highly mental sport that requires a lot of trust and belief in yourself. The times I was struggling the most with my mental state were reflected in my scores; and given that I dove from elementary school to college, I saw that pattern repeat itself all too frequently. My scores gave me a numeric indicator of my athletic ability and fueled the flames of my insecurities. The things I could control being judged on—variables that felt mandatory for higher points, like being thin—were at odds with my own physical health.

              So, before my senior season of college started, it was with incredible relief that I decided to hang up my jockstrap, so to speak, and quit the sport that had become so distressing for me. It was also with an equally incredible fear of what unknown physical form awaited me in civilian life; but like with many things in my 20s, I decided to burn that bridge when I got there.

              The initial freedom I felt over my time, energy, and body was indescribable. Like a common moth emerging from my pupa stage, I spread my wings and flew……into an indefinite athletic gap year. I spent the hours I knew my former teammates were practicing, lying in bed on my back, the heat and weight of my overworked Dell laptop sinking into my chest, its fan whirring like the labored breathing of an asthmatic lover. And I didn’t look back! In fact, I was already forging a new defining personality with unsurprising ease: the idiotic pothead!

              But in the same way people love to say, “too much of a good thing will kill ya,” apparently, “not enough of something you hate will kill ya,” too. Because in the absence of sports, and with the grip my eating disorder had on me easing, my brain found new ways to terrorize itself. Enter: the WebMD Symptom Checker.

              For the record, I don’t know how the symptom checker works now, because—per my therapist’s very specific instructions—I’m not allowed to go on WebMD. BUTT!, in the year 2012, I can tell you, that website, with the sexy, siren song of its symptom searcher, had itself, me, and my targeted advertising convinced that I had multiple sclerosis. Medically, MS is a highly variable disease, and can cover a range of symptoms; many of which can overlap with and/or be exasturbated (intentional sic) by anxiety. Muscle twitching, tingling, nausea, fatigue, …irritability. These were the things that I would lie in bed scanning my body for. If my body had any sort of MS-esque sensation, I’d turn back to WebMD to see what ELSE it could be—but in doing so, I’d just receive more and more confirmation.

              (To be completely transparent, I’m sure I helped push that algorithm along just slightly… I spent hours upon hours reading different articles and blogs about MS. But it got more extreme. As an unemployed 20-something, money came to me twice a year: on my birthday, and Christmas. More than several times, I sent a good chunk of that money to MS research funds, hoping it would pay off in dividends whenever I was eventually—and formally—diagnosed.)

              Over time, I moved beyond a strictly-MS fixation. Headaches were signs of terminal brain cancer, muscle twitches were ALS, heartburn was cardiac disease. It was a frequent occurrence for me to spend entire days crying in bed, hoping to fall asleep so that I could have a few hours of respite from the torturous thoughts. My then-boyfriend/now-husband/forever captive audience, Dan, would snuggle up to me and try to comfort me, but nothing he could possibly say or do in the entire world could soothe me—apart from telling me I wasn’t, and never would, get [x, y, z disease] with supporting evidence from at least three different primary sources. And in the trench of my severe anxiety, I started wondering when I’d lose Dan too.

              Spending time bogged down by my (deeply ableist) thoughts was no more beneficially spent than if I were truly feeling unwell. I spent years avoiding certain friendships because I didn’t see the point in getting close to people if I was going to be dead in a few years. I refused to do any form of exercise out of fear I’d spark a disease or an injury. I put off job-hunting because I didn’t even consider myself stable enough to make it through a job interview. And through that all was the awkward fact that I knew panicking to other people about my health was not only ungracious but callous.

              Apart from the social destruction that came at the hands of my hypochondria, I knew that if I were healthy, (which my rational mind told me I was,) I had been essentially masquerading as a sick person in regard to the health industry. I don’t care about the profitability of insurance companies or how they run their “business,” but where doctors, nurses, and administrators were concerned, I was a leech on their labor. I sat in waiting rooms alongside severely ill people, waiting to be seen by their doctors. Those appointments were little more to me than a short-term strategy against my hypochondria. Just an attempt to use the doctors’ professional opinions to convince myself that I was healthy. Meanwhile, for the people in the waiting room, those appointments were some of the worsts parts of their weeks, if not their lives.

              My understanding of this perpetuated the cycle of shame and self-hate. All the time I spent not crying in bed or hyperventilating into my bong, I spent despising what a sicko I was. “I’m dying… I’m evil… I’m dying… I’m an entitled asshole… I’m dying… I’m a burden to society…” I mean… they weren’t great options!

              But as the months dragged into years, and my symptoms remained stagnant and benign, it became undeniable that I wasn’t dealing with a physical disease, but a mental illness.

              Harnessing the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, I used my dad’s insurance to get myself into therapy. Over months and months of weekly sessions, my therapist gently bombarded me with coping mechanisms. I was using a biofeedback device during meditation so that I could practice concentration and deregulating my anxiety. I was doing breathing exercises and visualization. I was doing cognitive restructuring, and I was engaging in more scheduled self-care. I was setting tiny goals for delicate babies and meeting them. I started taking anti-depressants and anxiolytics, and eventually, I had the small and slow ability to untangle the bowl of trauma spaghetti I’d been over-serving myself since before hypochondria was even a floater in my eye.

              Over time, I was able to get through the day without a panic attack. I was still having deeply disturbing anxious thoughts, but I had gotten to a place where I didn’t give them enough life to derail my entire week. I regained my little sliver of what small control we all have over our time. (And in that, experienced the obvious realization that I was far more privileged with the time I had than most people in the world are.) I was able to give my mind and energy to the people and moments that deserved them. And the more of that I did, the more I was able to recede from the hypochondrial habits I’d forged in the previous half-decade.

              Without the tether of hypochondria, there’s still plenty to worry about! It’s just over more rational things, like if I were to ever get a shellfish allergy, or if an owl took my dog while she was taking a shit, or if my brakes were to stop working as my car hurtled down the highway. It’s progress. Although I’ve put a lot of work into myself, I give medication most of the credit—especially because every time I’ve deviated from taking it, I feel my anxiety starting to build its web(md) again, right in the front of my brain. So, I continue to use the tools my therapist gave me; and I continue to take the medication my doctor prescribed me. In doing so, it’s been years since I’ve been reduced to the fetal position for a day—let alone for fortnights on end. I know that’s not a universal experience, but I’m lucky that it’s been mine.

              Today, am I any more equipped to deal with a medical health crisis than I was before all of that? Almost without a doubt, no. I would be every bit as heartbroken as any other person if I were to get a life-altering diagnosis. If anything, I would maybe need slightly less patient education. But hypochondria did nothing to “prepare” me for if that ever is to happen. It left me with regret of time wasted, but it also left me with some good lessons.

              Worrying about my future never slowed down the clock. It didn’t motivate me to chip through any sort of bucket list, or make more art, or appreciate what I have, or talk to my friends and family more. I didn’t “begin life again” when I had my hypothetical brush(es) with mortality. All of that came once I started going to therapy and taking medication. In worrying about my health, I only ever spent the ride bracing for impact, and in doing so, I missed a lot of the view and gave myself some pretty bad muscle fatigue…. Can that kill you?






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