It starts like this. You are lying in bed, poking your stomach, making sure all your organs are cool before you go to sleep. As you press the skin around your navel, you feel a twinge. It’s not a fart, and you definitely don’t have to poop. You press again, this time closer to where you think your ovaries probably are, and you feel something — maybe tenderness. Maybe swelling. It could be your period. It could be a tumor. Then, you flip open your laptop — Google “tender lower stomach when lying down.” The Internet, like a reliable girlfriend, tells you everything.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease.
You can’t seem to stop clicking; one link leads to another. The dire possibilities pile up into a mountain of panic. The more you think about it, the realer it gets. You have all the symptoms — clearly, it’s a tumor in one of your ovaries. Two days later, you are at the doctor’s office, sitting politely, your face tight from holding a mouthful of “What ifs” and “How will I tell my parents?” You sit there with your hands folded in the waiting room ready for your prognosis. Probably death.
It never occurs to you that it’s your thoughts that are giving you trouble, not your body.
When I was little, I prayed a lot. My mother was really into Jesus, so practically every Sunday, my brother and I were sitting on an uncomfortable bench in some house of worship. At first, I prayed for things like extra scoops of ice cream and bright-pink press-on nails. Then, I prayed that the orange seed I had accidentally swallowed at lunch wouldn’t grow to be a tree that exploded my stomach. Then, that I wouldn’t die from never-ending hiccups. My childhood worries took a dramatic shift once I hit adolescence and started to feel my first tingles of sexual desire. I found a book in my house that showed pictures of what could happen to you if you masturbated too much. It wasn’t pretty. After that, I prayed that masturbation wouldn’t turn me into a leper.
By the time I was twelve, I was flipping through my father’s copy of the DSM II. My dad’s work as a music therapist gave me access to a small library of books on psychological disorders that I scanned often during spells of boredom. At any moment, I would report to my parents a myriad of self-diagnoses. In the early ’90s, when our family got a computer, the Internet brought my anxieties to new heights. I just had to know everything there possibly was to know about what could go wrong in my body. And whatever could be wrong, I wanted to find it first.
When you have been freaked out about disease since you were a child, you don’t know any other way of being. My illness-related anxiety feels as quotidian as the weather. Some days just drizzle with worry; those are the days when the worst thing I think I have is IBS. Other days, it’s a full-on nor’easter, and I’m certain that terminal illness is festering inside me undetected. I plan my funeral (it’s huge and filled with ’90s R&B) and try to make peace with what seems inevitable. I moved through my college years, my first teaching job after graduation, and graduate school in this way.
It never dawned on me that I might have a serious problem until last year when I had one distinctly awful episode of panic.
I was in the midst of preparing for my PhD qualifying exams — a grueling process that required me to read 300-some-odd books as part of doctoral studies — when one evening I was sitting on my bed rubbing my eyes like people sometimes do when they’re tired. Somehow, as I rubbed, it seemed like my eyeballs had moved from their usual position, and I thought they might fall out of my face. I didn’t know what to do or who to tell, so I called a girlfriend and asked her about the likelihood of such a thing. She said she was 100 percent sure my eyeballs would remain firmly in their sockets.