‘There’s Something Very Wrong With Me’ – Living with Health Anxiety
Waking up in the middle of the night for most people is an inconvenience. Perhaps it’s something they had forgotten to do whilst at work that day, or perhaps even it might be something as simple as they think they forgot to turn the oven off. Often this feeling subsides and ‘normal’ life resumes after a brief moment of panic or by compartmentalising what is important. Our health, clearly, is important to us all and we are often bombarded with messages of keeping fit and healthy and observing issues leading to the causes of major disease at any age. You only have to step foot public transport to see advertisements which all serve the purpose to educate before it’s too late, to put the fear of the unknown into us all. For the most part people read these posters discussing cancer and other ailments; store them for future reference and then carry on.
I am not one of these people.
For a very long time, I have suffered from IBS, which should come as no surprise considering the type of person I am. I’m a self confessed man with low self esteem. I know that’s quite a bleak appraisal of myself but a lot of that has to do with the bullying I went through as a young teenager trying to fit in and find my place at secondary school. For all intents and purposes I would say although I was a high achieving student, I was a low achieving social character. This made my mind nervous shall we say, susceptible to worrying on a large scale and becoming stressed very easily. Obviously the older I got, the better I got with this and now I would say that I have everything I wanted from life; a beautiful girlfriend, a nice car and a fantastic job after three hard years of university in a career which is just beginning to blossom for me.
So what’s the problem I hear you remark as many do. What could possibly bring you down from a life which has many positives? Me, like many people around the world, have a dark 1% of our brains. This 1% not only governs who we are as people, it controls aspects of our personal and social lives and it’s about time it was spoken about for what it truly is, disabling. Now, interesting use of the world ‘disable’ what does that actually mean? Well the definition of the word ‘to disable’ is ‘to limit someone in their movements, senses or activities’ and it’s the last word here which is particularly true in my case. Before I begin properly, I am not claiming that I am crippled in the most traditional representation of the word but when I explain properly what I mean, perhaps you might get an appreciation of exactly what my life, every day more or less, is like.
It was November of last year when things started to get bad for me. I was in a highly stressful job working the usual horrible hours of the hospitality sector. It was an annoying nervous cough which started it all, my mum and girlfriend commenting that ‘Hey you’ve had that cough for a while now you should probably go see someone about that’. Now for me, who suffers from gastric and IBS problems I initially palmed them both off. I was too busy but eventually due to the seed of doubt, I went to the doctor’s surgery. A doctor took one look at me, prodded me about a bit and said ‘most likely nothing to worry about but I want you to go for a compulsory chest X-Ray to rule out any big nasty’s’. It was then at this moment, that my brain changed forever. I got sucked into the world of Dr. Google and the bleak underbelly of health anxiety and it caught me, it got me really good. I became obsessed. Naturally ‘the big nasty’ the doctor was referring to was cancer and in this particular case, Lung Cancer. I became fixated with the idea that I was dying. I had test after test all showing ‘No further action’ but I simply wouldn’t listen. I spent a large proportion of my life Googling my symptoms on the phone and sure enough I ticked every single box. Chest pain… yeah I have that one. Coughing persistently for longer than three weeks…. oh and that one as well. The list went on. I lost sleep and concentration at work, my fear got worse and in the end it got so bad that I had resided myself to the fact that one day a doctor was going to turn around to me and say ‘I’m really sorry Adam but you have lung cancer and its terminal’.
It was at this period that I was seeing my doctor at least once a week. It felt like I had to keep going back for reassurance, surely at my age that can’t be happening. The more upset and anxious I got the worst my symptoms became. They were crippling at points, I cried in bed some nights. I thought of my girlfriend, our life together. I thought of my family and what it would be like for them. And I thought of Dr. Google and how maybe he can help me find a way to cure myself. The vicious circle of doctors for reassurance and the internet to ruin it began and lasted for six months. Eventually my doctor said she felt I needed to speak to someone as this had all the hallmarks of a mental health problem. I didn’t even consider it for a split second; my view was ‘no, you are wrong. I am dying’.
No matter what anybody said or did (and may I add they were all incredibly understanding and supportive) I couldn’t shake this bug I had caught. One day, I spoke to a clinic in Leeds and a gentleman answered the phone. He was a psychotherapist and he said he got these types of calls all the time and he was more than happy to try and help me break down the wall I had built around my brain. At first I was embarrassed, and then I became afraid before finally seeing him. It was this meeting which made me understand that I wasn’t alone. That the feelings and the world I was in wasn’t as black and white and that health anxiety is 100% a real thing. I began my CBT therapy and for weeks I went to see him and each time I did I felt I got a bit of my life back. The final nail to get it back was an all clear CT scan and finally the weight lifted, almost overnight.
Those six months of my life were disabling for me and for many people out there, maybe even yourself reading this feeling like this is you, the problem is very really and totally terrifying. It affects every single aspect of your life. It’s through the right help and guidance and knowing that you aren’t alone that you can get through it. There are places you can go and people you can talk to who understand how the mind controls the body. It’s the process of ‘I think therefore I am’ which is particularly damaging. The anxiety is another layer above issues like IBS which cause chronic lifelong problems. It’s with you when you are happy, when you sleep, when you eat, when you do everything. For those reading this who have never lived through this, please understand this is not made up nor is it something you can simply switch off. The mind is a powerful thing and if you know anybody suffering with something like this please be as supportive as you can be. Patience and a vague understanding is so integral to make those like me feel we aren’t a hindrance and more importantly, alone. I have thankfully made positives steps but I’m not out of the woods just yet. It’s a long process but I’m hopeful eventually one day I’ll be free of it once and for all.
If this has hit a nerve with you, help is available.
Please remember if this is you, you are not alone and it’s a marathon and not a sprint. I still attend sessions with my therapist because I had a relapse thanks to Dr. Google this time due to my IBS (of all the things!) I will leave you with this as something my therapist said to me, “You can think about mortality and over think things if you like certainly but also you can maybe start to live and enjoy your life. What a difference that would make don’t you think?”
Oh and that cough never did go away.
By Adam Findlay, Aged 24.