With their dramatic announcements and projection of the worst-case-scenario, contemporary international health scares – like bird flu – have more in common with hypochondria than reasoned diagnosis. Hypochondria is the rolling banner at the bottom of your private 24 hour news channel, continually broadcasting urgent threats to your population of one.
I am a hypochondriac and I don’t care who knows it – with the exception of my doctor. I want to keep her on side in case I ever become genuinely ill. This isn’t as ironic as it sounds. Just as there is both comedy and accuracy in the sentiment that ‘just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you’, it’ll be my luck that the first headache or chest pain that I don’t assume to be a brain tumour or a heart attack will be the one that finishes me off. I hope I see the funny side at the time.
Talking of funny, there’s a common perception that hypochondriacs are humorous Woody Allen types, wisecracking while they take their own pulse and breathe into paper bags. But the hypochondriac, dying her thousand deaths, is probably only as funny as your average mentally ill person. Hypochondriacs, suffering, at worst, hysterical paralyses and chronic fatigues, meanwhile insist that the symptoms have physical causes. ‘The doctor says it’s all in my mind’, is the outraged refrain. But given that our obsession with health has reached the point where mid-week early-evening television programming is dedicated to ‘Not Dying Young’ (and Jesus, all this pressure to stay healthy is worrying me to death) while, at the same time, claims about the health benefits of various foods and activities are undermined almost as soon as they’re made (remember they said drinking lots of water was essential for your skin; all nonsense apparently), I wonder why anyone would want to underestimate the effect on us of mental pressures or overestimate the ‘scientific’ establishment. It is this mixture of scepticism and anti-Cartesian Dualism that leads me to indulge my inner hypochondriac – to coddle her a bit, pat her hand, bring her grapes and lucozade.
A strange thing about hypochondria is that being convinced of your own imminent demise doesn’t necessarily make you any more likely to look after yourself. You might disregard the long-term effects of drinking, smoking and merrily eating tablespoons of salt from dawn till dusk, while still believing, daily, that you have leukaemia or meningitis. Likewise actual health scares are not consistently terrifying. Sure I once believed that I had Ebola, but that was after watching Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak. Likewise I put my uneasiness over bird flu and SARS down to their attack specifically on the respiratory system, because I have asthma (which also, let’s face it, is probably ‘psychological’). On the other hand Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease has never seemed to pose much of a threat. Perhaps it’s the vagueness about how long it gestates in the system or the possibility that when it strikes one might be mercifully unaware of one’s fate – or maybe it was the timing of the first scare, when everyone I knew was on the dole. One way or another, my memories about the height of CJD-panic are closely associated with ones of buying an awful lot of discount supermarket meat.
More likely though health scares are probably not so terrifying to hypochondriacs because they’re already our daily fare, our bread and butter. I once read that neurotic individuals can come into their own in times of war and crisis, while the easy ride of the comfort zone leaves them conflicted and introspective. Likewise, what with Bird Flu and obesity striking fear into the hearts of so many, you know, it’s just really nice to have company.