Friday, April 24, 2009

making myself sick...

So, the stress test went fine. I did the whole thing though by the end I was very winded. And all was well.

So it must have been Joe dying that made me worry about my heart. (Well, that and being disgustingly fat and out of shape! Work on that when I get back from Ireland, that's my plan.)

I used to make myself sick a lot. For much of my 20's and early 30's I was a full blown hypochondriac. I would develop new symptoms every month or so--usually something rare and untreatable that would lead to a horrible death...Funny thing is, I had to fill out a new form for my primary care Dr. a month or so ago when I had fallen and busted up my face (something to do with computerizing records) and left the part about 'medical issues' blank. When I got in to see him he stared at it for a long time.

"Don't you have allergies and asthma?" Mike asked, staring at my form.

"Yes," I answered, "but under control...."

"And did I make it up or did you really have prostate cancer a few years ago?"

"Oh, yeal," I said, remembering.

"The tinnitus has gone away?"

I listened for a moment, "No, still ringing...."

"And you use a machine at night for sleep apnea?" he said, knowing full well I did.

"Love it," I told him, 'works like a dream...."

"Did you take out those two titanium bars in the forearm?"

"Nope," I said, staring at the scars, "still there."

"Had gout in the past year?"

"Just a couple of times," I answered, finally catching on.

He looked at me for a long moment. "All those," he said, "are the kinds of stuff we doctors call 'medical issues'."

"Medical school wasn't wasted on you," I told him as he wrote all that on the form.

"Should we add the appendectomy?" I asked.

He smiled, "that goes under surgeries," he told me, "which you also left blank!"

I guess if I don't make them up, sicknesses aren't real to me. I had, sitting there in the office, forgotten all that stuff...

But all that stuff aside, I tend to think of myself as pretty healthy for an ageing, fat white man. I used to take all kinds of pills--even had those little gizmo's where you put your pills in little connected boxes for each day. I'd spend Sunday evenings loading it for the week and dropping a few various pills in the toilet by clumsiness, turning the water strange colors as they dissolved. Now I only use an inhaler twice a day that keeps my asthma in check (and covers the sins of my cigarettes!), a pill for cholesterol (it's taken my cholesterol down about a hundred points--someone asked me how you can lose a hundred points and I said, "start at 400") and a baby aspirin.

So, this little episode reminds me how easy it is to fall into hypochondria. Let me have some low level anxiety and have someone I know, years younger than me, drop dead and I'm getting stress tests!

Hypochondria, it seems to me, is a way of saying, "I'm here, I matter and I may be sick..." It's an attention getter and an embarrassment. Reminds me of old people sitting in the nursing home reliving their bowel movements of the last 24 hours, or lack thereof.... "I'm here, I matter and I can't stop shitting/can't shit at all...."

It's not that I'm not here and people don't think I matter. I have more love and concern in my life than most people because I have a whole Episcopal parish to worry about 'how I am'. One of my theories about what seems like an inordinate amount of only children going into ministry. There really are a lot of only kids hanging around leading churches. We're looking for the family we don't have--sisters and brothers, siblings by the dozens and hundreds. (I have a lot of theories about only children--like how we can find each other in a crowded room and just know the symptoms...but that's for another time....The Tribe of Only Children, I'll call it....)

I only met one person who was a worse hypochondriac than I was in my hay-day was a guy about 75 I knew in New Haven. He was one of the Tribe of Only Children, by the way. He was 75, whippet thin and walked 6 miles a day. He'd never smoked and didn't drink and lived on nuts and berries and about two dozen supplements, but he was always sure he was dying. He told me he couldn't keep a doctor because they didn't realize how sick he really was. He told me he wanted on his tombstone the inscription, I TOLD YOU SO! I think he died at 87 or so--got hit by a car on his power walk...something like that.

But I'm not the only one who makes themselves sick. Most of us do from time to time. I've noticed that I'm not nearly as likely to do it if I'm being even semi-faithful about centering prayer or meditation. The whole mind/body/spirit thing is pretty reliable. Lots of people are making themselves sick these days over the economy. Stress and anxiety are the real food and drink of both hypochrondria and making yourself sick. Saying to someone, "it's all in your head" doesn't respond at all to the reality. Things in your head DO affect your bodies--there's a whole cottage industry of people who will tell you that in their books and lectures and workshops.

The last few days I was 'thinking' I had heart problems and though it didn't go as far as inducing chest pain, it could have.

When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, I was sure my heart was failing. I wore out the Student Health Doctors and they sent me to a psychologist. She was a wonderful Swedish woman with a thick accent. I walked through a driving rain storm to see her and after I'd taken off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pants and hung my raincoat and coat on the radiator and dried my hair with paper towels she got me from the bathroom, she looked at me and said: "For someone who is dying of heart failure you don't seem to worry too much about catching a cold." Then we sat and thought about that for a while. It was our last session.

Irony may be the cure to hypochondria. Humor may be the best antidote to making yourself sick.

Losing 50 pounds wouldn't hurt either....

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.