Honestly, I'm not that bad, comparatively speaking. I've got a few friends that are pathological hypochondriacs. They make me seem like the bastion of mental health. Their hypochondria colors every moment of their lives, whereas mine simply informs it. You can see the movement behind their eyes the moment someone sneezes in their presence. By the time the sneezer says, "Excuse me," they've already been on the phone with the Centers for Disease Control, three immediate family members, and the head obituary writer for the New York Times. The gripping fear makes them incapable of really being a friend, because when you tell them about something wrong with you, all they're really thinking about is whether or not it's going to happen to them. They ask you about your symptoms as though they're being empathetic, but their motives are so transparent.
We all play these games. You hear that a friend has lung cancer and know that they're a smoker. That's an easy one because the cause and effect are so clear. But then another friend has lung cancer and they're not a smoker. Now we're into different territory. Is there a family history? Were they exposed to asbestos? Secondhand smoke? Do they live near a power plant? Did they ever spend a summer with Erin Brockovich? And when there doesn't appear to be any reason for them to have gotten lung cancer, when it's random and arbitrary, then that is proof positive that I, and my severely hypochondriacal friends, must have cancer too.
I grew up in a household that loved disease. Not like, loved. Sound weird? My father was a doctor and made a living off it, and my mother, according to her self-diagnosis, has been dying since 1963. My father always had medical paraphernalia around the house, syringes and tubes of blood in the refrigerator, and promotional items from drug companies in drawers and cabinets. I remember the pad next to the phone for writing down messages was in the shape of a colon. I'm not kidding. Disease was discussed at the dinner table with regularity. Between the soup and salad we usually had botulism, stroke, and retinitis pigmentosa. Someone in the family or extended family always had something.
For as long as I could remember, each of my parents would pull me aside, individually, to tell me that the other one was deathly ill and dying and then they'd go for a million tests, which they loved, and then there'd be nothing wrong. It was kind of a wish and a fear all rolled up in one.
For example, my mother would pull me aside and say, "I think Daddy has a brain tumor." And then he'd have tests tests tests and there would be nothing wrong. Or my father would say to me, "I think your mother has rickets," and then she'd have tests tests tests and there'd be nothing wrong. It was nutty. Maybe they needed the distraction from the realities of life, I don't know. My father did ultimately get cancer for real and died in 2001, but my mother is still frequently telling me that she's about to die. She's eighty-three, and while she's not in perfect health, she's nowhere near death. She's got lots of aches and pains and trouble with her eyes and ears, but none of her maladies are life threatening. Still, she told me just a few weeks ago that she'll be dead within a few months.
"Really? What from?" I asked.
"Oh, lots of things."
"Well, I've got a heart murmur."
"I've never heard of anyone dying of a heart murmur. And besides, you've had it for years."
"Well, I could drop dead of an aneurism."
"Yeah, well, so could I!"
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