Three years ago, at the peak of the pandemic, I lost my boyfriend to swine flu. He didn’t have a chance. He also didn’t die. In fact, he was never even sick—a smoker, he merely grew weary of my suspicions toward him every time he coughed. “Suspicions” is also a generous usage of the term here.
Realistically, while that relationship failed for a variety of reasons, the Year of the Swine Flu sticks in my mind as the very zenith of my derangement. The funny thing about what feels like “rock bottom,” is once you think you’ve identified it, another one rears its cataclysmic head. Not wishing to make light of his situation, I reluctantly adopt Charlie Sheen’s mantra from the height of his own very public meltdown: Rock bottom? That’s a fishing term.
I first recognized the sanctuary of medical facilities while on a routine course of antibiotics. (Most people dread the sterile atmosphere; I sometimes envision myself peacefully tucked into a hospital bed, soothed by a lullaby of beeps, clicks and whirs when I can’t sleep.)
I was living at home, still beatifically unaware of the years of mayhem awaiting me. It was spring, I was getting ready to go to sleep. Suddenly, I noticed the constriction in my arms, followed by the struggle to breathe. Before long I was running rabidly around my childhood home, stopping long enough to throw my arms around my mother’s throat, nearly strangling her. My parents looked on with horror, in their bathrobes, through the thick glasses they only wore at night.
The ambulance came, EMTs pumped me full of oxygen in the living room where I had grown up fumbling with instruments and breaking pieces off expensive vases. I was taken to the hospital, hooked up to wires and asked if I had been abused. My parents stood nearby, confused and tired, with what I thought was an edge of embarrassment. They had taken the time to get dressed.
I unhooked a necklace — from my youth — as I was wheeled into the x-ray machine. Didn’t they know I was dying? And from antibiotics?
But, rather than a death, it was merely the beginning. It was the beginning of endless specialists, of placebo prescriptions, of unfulfilling diagnoses, of skepticism. It was the beginning of delusions as farfetched as believing I was being poisoned by certain houses — “farfetched” only with the advantage of hindsight.
It was doctor after doctor, things removed, examined, injected.
Then, rather than a climactic resolution to what I saw as my impending termination, it was more like an explosion that merely fizzled out. It was the internet that finally helped me understand what—somehow—no one could tell me. I hardly feel it does it a justice to say: I was suffering from a severe panic disorder, the very acknowledgement of which was its own undoing. (I am reminded here of Schrödinger’s cat.) My fight-or-flight mechanism was in overdrive, like a crazed child with no outlet for its energy.
It didn’t make sense because the pain was in my body not my mind. And yet, it made all the sense. These were panic attacks, spells that lasted for days, episodes that birthed and then coexisted symbiotically with a hypochondria so extreme, so fueled by my addiction to information and answers and control, it fed off and subsequently perpetuated a complete isolation in the acceptance of my fate.
But the internet turned on me, quickly becoming my downfall. It facilitated the ultimate logical-emotional disconnect. If it could help me understand what, for years, no one could tell me, why not trust everything I uncovered? I don’t need to tell anyone about the danger of the internet—the endless, wasted hours—for a hypochondriac or otherwise medically-anxious person.
Only looking back can I understand how one experience paved the way and launched me into a different world of paranoia, eased by the information so readily available to me. Everything I wanted to know and didn’t — my body was the proverbial train wreck. “Rock bottom” was the very accessibility of information, each purported upward swing toward sanity and rationality about my health merely that.
By now, I am a self-made medical expert, ready to cede the reins on my own health. I understand my irrational anxieties are an unconscious means of making abstract uncertainties tangible and thereby more manageable. The limits of my body are, in some strange sense, less terrifying than the limits of, say, eternity. Nonetheless, the journey toward engaging with “reasonable” levels of medical concern is far from over for me.