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Grieving Made Me a Hypochondriac

There was a link between my imagined illness and my very real loss.

by Sarah Cottrell
Apr 12 2017, 8:38pm

Image: Unsplash

One midafternoon I sat in a chair pressed up against my grandmother's hospital bed where she lay minutes from death. I laid my head by her side and held her hand. Around us was a blur of family members and nurses. A machine dinged. Another machine pumped air into my grandmother's lungs. A cue was given and the nurse shut off the machines and we all watched in strained disbelief that this woman who had once lip-synced to the B52's with me during my cousin's wedding, who chain-smoked and swore like a sailor, and who taught me all the lyrics to every Queen song ever, was heaving her final breaths.

My grandmother had battled not one but two forms of cancer. The big one, the one that got nasty the fastest and that sucked the life out of her, taking her bouffanty hairdo and glamorous smile, was lung cancer. When she died, I felt nothing. Shouldn't I have felt something? Wasn't grief supposed to come washing over me in wails and cries? Instead, I felt a wide girth of numbness. 

In the weeks that passed, there was a funeral where my cousin held me up so that I could read the eulogy that I had written over a bottle of wine and a litany of angry tear-soaked swears because those wails and cries had finally come. My grief hurt me.

In the months that followed, I buried my feelings. I didn't talk much to my family about her death or how it shifted the central axis of my world. My grief could be ignored.

Soon, I was fine. Really. I was.

And then one morning, I woke up in a sweaty, heart racing panic that something was wrong, I felt sick and was absolutely certain that I was dying. After checking myself over for the hundredth time that week, I found it; a pea sized lump hidden in my armpit. I immediately phoned my doctor and got a same-day appointment where, for nearly 30 minutes, she patiently tried and failed to feel what I was feeling. She sent me home with no diagnosis and no referral. It would take a while, but eventually, I would come to the understanding that what I was experiencing was acute hypochondria brought on by the death of my maternal grandmother.

Grief had played a deceptive and unkind trick on me. I had temporarily become irrationally convinced that, like my grandmother, I was dying of cancer. I had some phantom disease that only I could feel and see and no matter how well I articulated this to my husband or my primary care physician, no one else agreed with me.

Was I experiencing some kind of mental breakdown? Well, yes, kind of. My grief, that same one that I tried to push off to deal with later, had found a way of being dealt with after all. "Intense grief can turn into personalized anxiety about dying, particularly if there is already a tendency to be obsessive about things," says Carol Kershaw, a clinical psychologist in Houston and author of the book The Worry Free Mind. "Losing someone you love is so profound, and if a person doesn't have a way of handling it, becoming hypochondriacal is one way to take the mind away from something terrible. Usually, this reaction diminishes over time."

Hypochondria is a word that gets thrown around in pop culture quite a bit, but the true definition of it and the genuine experience of it are often misunderstood. Googling a headache and finding that it is a symptom of brain cancer and then freaking out is not actually hypochondria, as much as it might feel that way in the moment. True hypochondria is a psychological disorder in which a person reports having symptoms that are not real, and for which no medical professional is able to find a medical cause. In order to be diagnosed with hypochondria, one would have to be afflicted with it to the extent that it disrupts daily life and that lasts for a minimum of six months, Kershaw says.

When the human brain is under the spell of hypochondria, there are a few things happening that can create an alternate reality for the person experiencing it. "In the midst of an acute episode of hypochondria, or illness anxiety, is the uniquely human ability to vividly imagine a possible future," says Mark S. Carlson-Ghost, an associate professor of psychology at the Minnesota School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University. "The reality is that the brain often can't tell the difference between fully imagined danger or danger that is real. The body pumps out adrenaline in either case. Hence the sweats in addition to the sense of panic."

Why does grief, presumably a purely emotional state, affect physical and mental health? My overactive imagination placed a cancerous lump in my armpit and then told me to freak out. I was so focused on being sick that my brain was making up symptoms that didn't exist. Carlson-Ghost explains that "grief puts us in a vulnerable emotional state and thus we are susceptible to emotional triggers of worry and anxiety that might not typically set us off. Worry can also negatively impact our immune system. And once a person experiences a genuine sense of risk, imagined or real, the adrenaline kicks in and that vulnerability takes on a physical form of sweats, rapid heartbeat, etcetera."

Grief is ugly and beautiful and complex. As much as I tried my best to rush through the process of it by ignoring my emotions and refusing to talk about my grandmother's death, it had a way of making itself known to me and made me temporarily sick with hypochondria. For all the frivolity pop culture assigns to the word hypochondria, the experience of it is wildly intense and frightening. In the end, for me, coming to terms with having to deal with my grief over my grandmother's death is what ultimately calmed my mind down.

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