A Bad Case of Hypochondria

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

A Bad Case of Hypochondria

In 1996, WebMD was born and, luckily for them, so was my sister. Since the age of ten, she has turned to their articles like a devoted Christian turns to the Bible. For her, Jeff Arnold is a prophet. Hypochondria is her religion.

It all started in the fifth grade, when my sister was at swim practice. She had just taken off her silicone cap and was running her hands through her hair, when she felt a strange bump in the middle of her head. It’s happened, she thought, cancer. Before the rest of her team had finished hurdling themselves out of the pool, she had already called my dad on our shared Firefly cell phone. He was only fifteen minutes away from picking us up at our neighborhood Rec Center, but my sister couldn’t wait. She started interrogating her older teammates, following them as they walked around confidently in their skin-tight Speedos. She was dying to know how long she had left to live.

“Do you mind if I just, uh, touch your head?” she began asking, her arm already extended before anyone answered her. It had been a week since she had learned about tumors in science, so she knew not to waste time.

My sister successfully examined eight skulls before someone told her she was being insane. They explained to her that it wasn’t normal to touch other people’s heads, stroking them with her fingers as if trying to read braille. Then, her teammate — hoping to put an end to my sister’s odd behavior — introduced her to the “leading source of trustworthy and timely medical information,” opening a can of worms that would take years to shut close.

The discovery of WebMD transformed my sister from an occasional worrier to a sweaty-palmed symptom checker. When she was twelve, my sister came home from school convinced that her knee pain was a sign of osteosarcoma (my parents had to pull out a dictionary to know exactly what their middle-schooler was saying). When she was fifteen, she told my family that her birthmark was actually melanoma. And, in 2015 alone, she had three MRIS and two CT scans — all of which found her to be a healthy, though slightly neurotic, young girl.

Most parents probably wouldn’t have put up with my sister’s unlicensed obsession, especially as they juggled the demands of a household and the obligations of a full-time job. For my parents, her hypochondria proved to be contagious. As my sister and I grew up, our kitchen cabinets gradually filled with the newest and most powerful vitamins — no Flintstone chewables allowed. We took probiotics every morning to ensure a healthy gut and carried liters of Purell to school to protect ourselves against 99.9% of pre-pubescent germs. My parents started texting our doctors daily: Dr. Edwards became endearingly known as Rick.

Because of this lifestyle — the one prescribed to me growing up — I didn’t believe my dad when he visited Yale last fall to tell me that my mom had cancer.

Hypochondriacs weren’t supposed to get sick, I thought, at least not for real.

One Thursday in late October, I came out of class to find my dad sitting on the steps of the English department. He wore the navy blue t-shirt I had bought him for his fiftieth birthday, along with a pair of oversized jeans. He had his arms crossed tightly over his chest when he saw me but still managed to flash a slight, coffee-stained smile.

My dad has never been one for surprises. He plans all his trips months in advance and emails every member of our family a detailed itinerary. Whenever he has dinner with a client, we know the restaurant he has chosen, and even sometimes his order. When he cuts his hair, he take selfies — first alone and then with the barber. My dad feels obligated to keep us informed about everything he does. If something were to go wrong — he always explains — he would want us to know where to find him.

Because I didn’t receive three weeks-notice of my dad’s arrival, I knew something was wrong. Was my grandpa okay? Were my parents getting a divorce? Did something happen to my dog? I had just spent an hour in class trying to understand my world within the parameters of “First Order Logic,” but it took only seconds for everything I knew to stop making sense.

“Pa, what are you doing here?” I asked, holding my breath as deliberately as a swimmer diving into cold water.

“Your mom has cancer. Her treatment starts in a week.”

My body began to shake as if I were driving through an unpaved road. This can’t be happening, I thought. What about her appointments with Rick? I knew my mom still frequented his office, even when my sister and I were away at school. She had just called me a few weeks prior to complain about the construction inside Rick’s building. “Can you believe Rick’s changing his tile floor to carpet?” she had asked me, with a tone of utter disgust. “Their office is going to reek of Miami’s humidity, oh gosh, and imagine all the sweat.”

I felt the floor buckle and roil beneath me, as my eyes welled with tears. I dropped to the ground, buried my face into my knees, and cried.

Any kid in my situation would have probably hugged their parent immediately or at least drilled them with questions about how the doctors had discovered the cancer and what exactly was meant by “treatment.” But I stayed silent — muted with disbelief. I didn’t want to know where the cancer had started, where it had spread, or what would happen if it continued. I couldn’t even bear to look at my dad. The man standing before me had always been the one to hold my life together, but now he was the messenger responsible for tearing it apart.

Growing up, I had learned to accept my family’s medical mania because I thought — no matter how it annoying it was — the Haubold hypochondria would protect me. Every trip to the doctor confirmed that I was okay, that my family members were healthy, and that life was moving forward exactly like it should. I spent each day convinced that we were all immune to any real medical problems, especially those we already entertained inside our heads.

That night in October, once my dad had left, I finally called my sister. We hadn’t spoken in a couple of weeks, so the first hellos were awkward, almost strained.

“How’s everything going?” I started.

“Just applying to jobs, so kinda stressed.”

“Yeah, I feel that.”

When we had finished catching up, I finally asked her — the seasoned hypochondriac — what was really on my mind. “What does WebMD say about this?” I paused. “What treatments should we be looking at?”

“That site’s bullshit,” she answered,her voice cracking over the phone.

I immediately hung up, realizing that, for the first time, I had a reason to be scared. My sister was beginning to turn her back on her religion, but we were in desperate need of salvation.


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