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19 August 2023

A hypochondriac learns to live with her body

Could being gently beaten with birch leaves allow me to sit with my bones, and stop looking up symptoms on WebMD?

By Marie Le Conte

I’ve long believed that the NHS ought to follow in Spotify’s footsteps and release an annual “Wrapped” compilation. Sure, I enjoy knowing that I am in the top 0.5 per cent of fans of a guitar band no-one else has thought about since 2007. What I would find more gratifying, however, would be to get a detailed list of every cancer I’ve googled in a given year.

I would love nothing more than to sit in my mother’s flat at Christmas, fizz in hand, and scroll through all the different types of degenerative conditions I was once convinced I had. Was I, in 2022, the person who spent the most time on the “young onset Parkinson’s” page despite having none of the symptoms? I hope I was. I’ll do better next time if not.

After all, it seems unlikely that my hypochondria will ever go away. If I have a body, I will constantly worry about it breaking. It’s the only thing my brain knows how to do. Do I have limbs? Great! Now to wait for them to betray me in some way. Having constant and crippling hypochondria is an odd way to live. It both separates the mind from the flesh yet ensures that the two get stuck in an endless, malevolent embrace, like Sherlock and Moriarty.

If I get a pulsating pain in my foot it will make me anxious, because I will assume it is a nerve condition and I am bound to die young and in pain. The anxiety will prevent me from sleeping and will make me vape relentlessly, meaning that I am likely to develop a headache. The headache, I will have no choice but to conclude, is a sign that I have some form of tumour that is likely to be terminal, and what is more anxiety-inducing than that?

It doesn’t help that I have the skin sensitivity of an inbred princeling. Sometimes my immune system will remember that pollen exists, as a concept, and it will decide to have a rash about it. There isn’t much I can do about that.

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There is, however, something I can do about how I react to it. Because I spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that I spend a lot of time thinking about my body, a theory has begun emerging. Hypochondria seeps in when there is a gap between your body and your mind. Lack of familiarity breeds suspicion, and a lack of trust is likely to make you worry.

I was a sharp and tiny child and I knew what was good for me, so I grew up focusing on my mind and ignoring my body. Leaning on my innate Frenchness as a teenager, I smoked a million cigarettes every day and counted “sitting down” as my main hobby. Seeing your bones as anything but an inconvenient mode of transportation felt gauche. All you needed, surely, was wit and uncomfortable shoes.

By the middle of my twenties I was fat and always bloated, because things fall apart if you don’t take care of them. I felt horrible all the time and I just couldn’t ignore it any longer. I started exercising, resentfully, and waved goodbye to the four pints I’d come to see as my usual pre-dinner snack.

I got thinner and stronger and I felt good, because I could feel nothing again. My body went back to being something on the side, an extra I’d not ordered but that was there nonetheless. It was great. My hypochondria got worse.

I spent time not only on the NHS website but walking up and down the neurotic’s breakfast buffet that is the internet. I’d compare the pages of WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, Healthline, and whatever hospital happens to have a dedicated SEO team, seeing which one had the tastiest explanation for why my elbow wouldn’t stop itching.

Eventually… well, this should be the point when I reveal that I found a solution, but I think we both know I haven’t. You read the intro to this piece not too long ago. I hope you remember it given it’s not a long column, and I’d worry if you didn’t (but then, worrying is all I do).

I haven’t found a solution, but I think I can just about see a light at the end of the tunnel. A few weeks ago I went to a banya, and I lay down in a sauna as a burly and seemingly mute Russian man gently beat me with birch leaves. The air was so hot that I could feel it coming in and out of my lungs. If I breathed through my mouth, my throat started burning.

I focused on the twigs running up and down my back and legs because I had no other choice. I would have gone mad from the heat otherwise. Afterwards, I was guided into an ice bath and went in without thinking, then I recovered with some pickled herring and a shot of vodka.

The next morning was one of the most peaceful I have had in just over 31 years. My body felt supple and my brain like a marshmallow, bouncy and full of air. For two days afterwards, I felt like a different person, one whose mind and flesh were finally one, having gone through something remarkable together.

Sadly, it isn’t quite a scalable solution to my troubles. I have neither the time nor the money to spend every other evening in a Slavic sauna, and wouldn’t want my internal organs being slow cooked to the point of turning into a large boeuf bourguignon.

Still, it’s a start. I have found one way to really, truly sit with my bones and make the mush in my skull go quiet for a little while. There has to be others, and I intend to find them. If I am to live in this body for however long it lets me, I really should learn to treat it like a home, not an adversary.

[See also: David Nutt: “It’s the biggest breakthrough in mental health for 50 years”]

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