21 July 2014

What's up, doc?

Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Health anxiety is a category of worry that only occasionally grips me, but it can make persistent sufferers' lives a misery. They live in constant fear of developing some awful, usually life-threatening, condition; a fear that may be provoked by the most innocuous of symptoms, or even ordinary bodily functions.

My latest experience of this was triggered - perhaps understandably - by my recent operation. 

Beforehand, I studied the literature the hospital had supplied about the procedure, so that I'd know what to expect, and what side effects and complications to look out for. A wise precaution, except that I'm inclined to latch on to worst case scenarios. 

'Perhaps two in every hundred women having the procedure develop an infection', I read. Over the following weeks, I conveniently forgot about the 98% who don't, and began to see this remote possibility as a strong likelihood. As this was a potential consequence of the treatment, ie tissue death, rather than purely a hygiene issue, there was little I could do about it.

What I could do, though, was buy a thermometer and take my temperature morning and night, to monitor for the first sign of trouble; exerting a tiny bit of control enabled me to tolerate the uncertainty.

However, that in itself then created a problem. I seemed to be 'running cold', with my temperature hovering around the 36.5ºC mark, instead of the more usual 37ºC. Was the thermometer inaccurate? If not, and this were my norm, would 37ºC actually represent a worrying rise? The radiologist had assured me that I'd know if I had an infection, as I would feel so unwell, but I chose to disregard that information and fixated, instead, on my temperature.

During my two weeks' convalescence, I also viewed every unfamiliar sensation as a possible indication that something had gone wrong with the procedure itself. Why did my legs and hips feel so weak? What was that intermittent twinge in my left groin? And what the heck had happened to my digestive system? Everything was a cause for worry, speculation and ridiculous misinterpretation: for a short period, I even feared that the blood supply to my legs had somehow been adversely affected.

Fortunately, time reduces the potency of any anxiety. A month or so on, my fear of infection had reduced to the point that I cut my temperature taking down to once a day. A few weeks later, I realised I'd forgotten to do it for several days and abandoned it altogether. 

At my follow-up appointment, shortly afterwards, the consultant told me that any risk of infection had long since past, in spite of my internet research indicating a need to be vigilant for up to nine months - beware internet research, especially if you're a worrier.

Most of us live in a state of denial as to our mortality. Health anxiety is just the other end of the spectrum, ie an all too great an awareness of it. Somewhere on that spectrum there is a middle ground to be had: between facing the realities of illness and death, and not letting those realities ruin your life.


Lindsay said...

I hope you are well on the mend now and feeling fine.

Internet research is a mixed bag. Some good information is out there but there is also so much nonsense. It's very difficult for us to know what sites are worthy and those that should be banned. Patient forums can also be of great help and support but invariably there is always someone who posts who knows better than doctors, who have seen a gazillion patients with a condition, and who give bad advice. Be aware of them.

Anonymous said...

Great post, especially the last paragraph.....a lot of wisdom in those words.

Helen Barbour said...

Lindsay, very true - I did find one or two useful sites, which proved reassuring in that others' post-operative experience reflected my own. However, you are likely to read a lot of scare stories, too.

Helen Barbour said...

ocdtalk, thank you!

Tina Fariss Barbour said...

I love the last paragraph, Helen--so much wisdom there! I hope you are on the mend and feeling better!

Helen Barbour said...

Thanks, Tina, I am very much better now, three months on.