Two years ago I went through an episode of serious hypochondria. The gut squeezing, head pounding fear set in after I noticed a tiny rash on my skin. I googled and trawled through the internet , finding obscure forums and even more obscure doctors until I had turned a rash into a death sentence. It wasn’t one of those comical over reactions to Dr Google, no hyperbole here, I had genuinely convinced myself that I was going to die. I look back on it all now and cringe and laugh and wince at myself, but at the time, it was reality for me. Nobody could talk me out of it. I was suddenly in raw and passionate despair considering all I was going to lose.
The thing about hypochondria is that it is essentially ridiculous. Look at Aunt Josephine, a character from Lemony Snicket’s third book in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Her reputation is that of a ‘formidable woman’, a human without fear, but when she is introduced to us in the story, we learn that the death of her husband has caused her to become a shadow of her former self; a worried, paranoid, death conscious shadow. In the book and certainly in the new TV series she is portrayed as comically danger-aware. She doesn’t use her oven in case it burns the house down, and subsequently eats only cold soup, and she is deathly afraid of estate agents (If you live in London you might share the same fear). Her character is not put out there as being tragic and we aren’t particularly encouraged to feel a deep sense of sadness when considering her story, because her fears are obscure and irrational. But however ridiculous these fears seem, they were real for her, just as my fears were real for me. Whilst I was watching the new Netflix TV series and observing Aunt Josephine, I was reminded of a quote that my Dad gave me, which to this day helps me to manage anxiety and fear:
“Thoughts are not facts.”
I promise that if, like me, you suffer from anxiety or panic disorder, this is the most important thing for you to hear. Make it your mantra, say it to yourself, out loud if you can, whenever you hear that little voice in your head niggling at your insecurities and your fears. Often those who have intrusive thoughts aren’t helped by the fact they are incredibly imaginative. Thinking you might be in danger everyday is bad enough, but when you’re the kind of person who can imagine every tiny detail of that danger, from start to finish and with flourishes in between, that’s where the real unbearable fear comes from. The truth is that anxiety only gets worse when you let it, and you don’t have to.
The presence of fear will not change your fate. If you spend your entire life locked inside a house on a clifftop, there’s no stopping a hurricane from blowing it away. Life is a mess, really, but living it is the only option. It is in the high tides that we find our strength to climb higher still. Being alive is utterly magnificent, and even though we may be frightened, we must not let fear steer our story.