May 11, 2012 1 Comment
I was diagnosed with PVC or premature ventricular contraction — in layman’s term: heart palpitations. The doctor said it’s nothing to worry about, but still, I went into a swivet and morbid images begin to haunt me. I would suddenly wake up at night “feeling” chest pains or some other discomfort. Occasionally, while walking to or from the office, I’d “feel” an onset of a headache or shortness of breath. I am hovering the liminal space between hale and infirm. Or, am I just imagining these frailties? Am I becoming a hypochondriac?
With these questions continually badgering my consciousness, I revisited Bob Dillon’s The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives. The book documents James Boswell’s English Malady, Charlotte Brontë as a Little Nervous Subject, Charles Darwin’s Expression of Emotion, Florence Nightingale and the Privilege of Discontent, the Exaltation of Alice James, the Delusions of Daniel Paul Schreber, Marcel Proust and his Common Sense, the Not-of-the-World Glenn Gould, and Andy Warhol’s Magic Disease. Each famous personality looked at their “disease” differently — according or against contemporary thinking.
Most of us may probably be familiar with Brontë who wrote Jane Eyre; Darwin; Florence Nightingale; Alice James, famous for her diary on English life and manners in the 1800s; Marcel Proust, notable for his In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past); and, of course, the eccentric Andy Warhol. I had to Google Boswell and Schreber to find out that the former is attributed as the “reinventor” of the biography genre, while the latter’s claim to popularity (or notoriety) was having his memoir on his mental illness analyzed by Sigmund Freud. Gould, meanwhile, was a classical pianist and conductor.
In his introductory chapter, A History of Hypochondria, Dillon wrote:
“You were well one minute ago, and this minute you are unwell. Your symptoms came on, and with them your fear, in a stray moment of solitude. Perhaps you and your body were alone in the bathroom, with leisure to examine your naked flesh, time enough for your fingers to find a lump where no lump should be, for the unsteamed mirror to reveal a rash or for your hand to pause as you reached for the soap, an obscure twinge dragging at your innards. Or perhaps it happened at night, while you were alone, or as your lover slumbered: on the verge of sleep a sudden sensation as of something shifting inside, a low waking in the dark as a dull ache intruded on your dreams, or towards dawn a more diffuse feeling that mortality was near.”
Many of us know someone we can describe as a hypochondriac — a relative or friend who is obsessed with confusing, and sometimes varying, symptoms. Or someone who hears about a new disease and instantly fears that they already have it. In today’s popular culture, the term “hypochondriac” is oftentimes uncomplimentary, and a “health-o-maniac” is commonly an object of derision. This condition, at times, is confused in media depictions with malingering or conscious “faking.”
Hypochondria, at one time, was considered the male version of “female hysteria”, a once-common medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women, which is today no longer recognized by modern medical authorities as a medical disorder. Its diagnosis and treatment were routine for many hundreds of years in Western Europe. Hysteria was widely discussed in the medical literature of the Victorian era. Women considered to be suffering from it exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble”. (Wikipedia)
Hypochondria, however, is not always thought of as a psychological problem. The ancient Greek word hypochondrium refers to an area of the abdomen below the chest cavity. Abdominal problems, and sometimes ulcers, were once believed to be part of the “hypochondriac syndrome.” As medical science progressed, tangible causes of such maladies were soon diagnosed; and physical complaints with no clear cause were soon labeled “hypochondriasis.”
Most medically recognized mental and physical ailments have likewise, at one time, been labeled hypochondria. What was considered hypochondria in Schreber might be diagnosed now as Cotard’s syndrome, or schizophrenia. The “complaints” Warhol had may today be called body dysmorphic disorder, a fascination with imagined flaws in one’s appearance.
However, Dillon’s The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives, although analytical, does not support a particular approach to the disease or its treatment.