My name is Constance and I am a hypochondriac. I always have been and I always will be — until the grim reaper snares me and takes me to meet my maker. In fact, this is exactly my problem: I see death at every turn. Each ailment, ache or pain rapidly becomes evidentiary of the imminent collapse of a fatal organ. My life is lived in a perpetual state of health anxiety. But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I believe that hypochondria — defined by the World Health Organisation as ‘persistent preoccupation with having one or more serious and progressive physical disorders… commonplace sensations and appearances are often interpreted by a patient as abnormal’ — has many benefits. First is the pleasure of self-diagnosis, now enhanced by Google. With my neurotic obsessing over my infirmities and the web at my fingertips, I know far more about my illness than any doctor. I can bask in a secure state of sanctimony: I know I am right and you, doctor, cannot begin to understand the illnesses that rot the very core of my being.
Similarly comforting is the knowledge that we are not alone. Hypochondria has long been documented and complainants are often those that you’d least expect. Charles Darwin (famously reclusive) kept a diary of his health in which he documented ‘trembling’, ‘palpitations’ and a sense of impending doom. Charlotte Brontë suffered from intermittent bouts of hypochondria, describing it as ‘the preternatural horror which seemed to clothe existence and nature’. Another famous patient is Marcel Proust, who lined his room with cork to protect himself from the outside world and its ills.
Such histories provide solace to the modern hypochondriac. They also serve as cautionary tales: all of these victims died — and therefore we will too. They were right to be worried; we should be also.
Hypochondria is a somatoform disorder, meaning that ‘if any physical disorders are present they do not explain the nature and extent of the symptoms or the distress and preoccupation of the patient’. This is why hypochondria is insatiable: it is the gift that keeps on giving.
Not all sufferers share my enthusiasm. There is a darker side. It can develop into Munchausen syndrome (also known as Hospital Addiction Syndrome) — a psychiatric factitious disorder whereby patients become so obsessed with the idea of being unwell that they induce symptoms. Munchausen by proxy — when a carer exaggerates their ward’s illnesses — is more alarming, and has been described as a form of child abuse.
Regular hypochondria is, unquestionably, a manifestation of external concerns or stress-inducing events. In the 18th century, physician William Buchan observed that hypochondria ‘becomes daily more common in this country, owing, no doubt, to the increase of luxury’. And so it continues. I like to tell myself that sufferers of hypochondriasis will live longer. The unerring desire to prevent death can, surely, only help us dodge our inevitable fate for a little while longer.
Hypochondria offers its patients a sense of control and can be a distraction from other worries. I, for one, have yet to find anything quite as comforting as the conviction that I am permanently on the cusp of this life and the next.