Pandemics and Hypochondriacs

To put it rather gently, I have tendencies towards anxiety. Of the health-related sort. I have never related to a fictional character more than when the 16-year-old protagonist of John Green’s novel Turtles All the Way Down is finally kissing the boy she likes but can’t stop being distracted by thinking about the resulting transfer of millions of bacteria between their mouths.

I have learned to manage this issue pretty well through a combination of good scheduling, deep breathing, positive self-talk, guided meditation, weighted blanket, CBD oil, acupuncture, baths, and numerous other forms of self-care. I know how to recognise unhealthy thought spirals, and have a strict rule of never, ever Googling my symptoms–a rule that I am fairly successful at keeping most of the time.

I have a caring and sympathetic family doctor (I also adore his kind and reassuring assistant) and a pragmatic physiotherapist, both of whom I can–thank heavens–visit for free whenever I want, thanks to living in a place with good, affordable healthcare. Some people complain about Dutch doctors and their reluctance to overprescribe antibiotics and other medications. But for me, it is a perfect fit. All I want is to be able to go in and describe my symptoms and have an authority figure reassure me that everything is OK.

The other day I went in for a scheduled, routine exam. When he asked if I had any health complaints and I answered in the negative, my doctor seemed genuinely (though politely) surprised. I guess that doesn’t happen very often. And probably he sensed the same manic energy emanating from me as always when I visit. But I really didn’t have any weird headaches or unexplained stomach aches or acid reflux or mole that has looked the same for twenty years but just suddenly made me start worrying. I presently have no symptoms to match my current health anxiety topic. Which is of course–do I have to say it out loud? I’ve been making a point not to, because I don’t want to be that person–the thing that is disrupting markets and travel all over the world. Covid-19. SARS-CoV-2. 2019-nCoV. The 2019 novel coronavirus.

During the past two months I have been trying extra hard not to be a paranoid hypochondriac. But when the secret thing you’re always guiltily worried about is suddenly headline news every day for weeks, it can bring on a sort of mental vertigo. The more other people start worrying about the thing you know you’re not supposed to worry about, the harder it is to keep your equilibrium.

I know I’m the crazy person who worries way too much, but now my anxiety brain starts wondering, what if I was ALWAYS RIGHT? You know, like Winona Ryder’s character in Stranger Things, who just knows her son is communicating with her through a string of weirdly blinking Christmas lights, even though nobody else will believe her. I am always mentally at the point of catching and expiring from one deadly disease or another. Never more so than now.

When the entire world seems to be spouting the sort of stuff I usually only hear from my own paranoid brain, it’s harder to stop the feedback loop. For example, people keep posting this chart, and the irrational thought I have every time I see it is, ‘oh, great. I just turned 40 and doubled my chances of dying.’

I do have a rational brain as well. In fact, one of my other best coping mechanisms is to keep that rational brain busy with dense academic texts. When I am decoding sociology jargon or complex philosophical concepts in my head, there is less brainpower left over to worry about whether my immediate physical survival is in question.

So from that perspective, grad school is a great place to be, and a perfect distraction. From another perspective, it requires me to take public transport every day. There is one train stop between Amsterdam Zuid and Leiden, and that stop is Schiphol airport. So the likelihood that I’m sitting by someone coming back from a ski vacation in northern Italy or a business trip in China is something I actually should probably stop thinking about right now.

Fortunately, some of my favourite familiar coping mechanisms have become evidence-based recommendations. For example, compulsively washing my hands. Wiping off my seat tray, computer keyboard and phone. Going around the house sterilising doorknobs and light switches. I am now not only normal but responsible. Which just proves that you never know when that annoying anxiety tic is going to come in handy.

I do admit to indulging in a bit of retail therapy. Hand sanitiser here. Two-for-one packages of cough drops there. Extra toothpaste. Dried beans. Dog food. OK, I even ordered a package of face masks on Amazon a month ago, before they got insanely expensive. They are supposedly arriving today, although I am a bit skeptical that they ever actually will, since with this long of a shipping time I suspect that the seller is probably drop-shipping from China.

I actually already own a few pairs of reusable cloth N-95 face masks. I wear them when the air quality index (which I also compulsively check) goes up into the moderate range. I had mild asthma as a kid, and my lungs get sensitive when they’re exposed to a combination of cold air, pollution and exercise. Not to mention when I get stuck behind someone who is smoking while cycling (Dutch people do everything while cycling). I don’t really want to wear them now even for my usual reasons, because 1) getting germs on a reusable mask seems like a bad idea and 2) I’m afraid they will make me look paranoid. Which is ironic, since if there is one thing I consistently am, it is paranoid. But I don’t want to be that sociopathic kind of paranoid they keep telling people not to be about the coronavirus. It feels a bit unfair that suddenly my particular anxiety has become not only widespread but socially unacceptable.

Two days ago the first case tested positive in the Netherlands. Which made me feel suddenly calm. Unfortunately, that’s a sign that my brain has decided the anxiously-anticipated disaster has struck, and it is time to go into focused crisis mode. I haven’t been sleeping particularly well lately.

The only bright spot is that there seems to be a possibility that if an outbreak happens in our area we might be confined to our houses. There is absolutely nothing my anxiety brain likes better than holing up and hibernating. A month-long quarantine? I can totally do that. Bring it on!

All this to say, thanks for asking, we are kind of not OK right now. So hug your favourite hypochondriac. Or better yet, wave reassuringly at her from a distance of at least three feet whilst coughing responsibly into your elbow.

What do you think?