My sister’s favorite story about me goes like this:
During the summer of 1999 I had an emergency(ish) appendectomy. About a week later, still sore and slow moving, I went with Dave to have lunch with some friends in Davis. After lunch I had to go to the bathroom. While I was there doing my business I looked down and saw that my abdomen looked purple. Naturally I freaked out because obviously I was bleeding internally. I returned to the table and, in a panicked whisper, informed Dave that we had to go home because I WAS BLEEDING INTERNALLY. After we walked home, I showed Dave my lower abdomen and said, “See? It’s purple! I’m bleeding internally!!” Dave said, very calmly and sweetly, “You’re wearing purple underwear and it’s reflecting off the skin of your stomach.”
Okay, maybe it’s not Stephanie’s favorite story, but it ranks pretty high on her list and after thirteen years still makes her laugh. I like this story for a couple of reasons: a. the punchline never gets old and b. it’s a great example of how my hyperactive imagination colors everything, especially things related to my health. Like anyone whose imagination encourages them to see things that aren’t really there, I see internal bleeding where there is only purple underwear, or a heart attack where there is only a sore left arm. Or a stroke. Or melanoma. Or…
Before I paint myself as a complete lunatic, however, I have to say that my fears about my health are at least sort of grounded in reality. I have a few actual chronic health conditions. I was diagnosed with asthma when I was five(ish), and as a child and teenager I had a few pretty serious attacks requiring middle-of-the-night emergency room visits. I have never experienced anything more terrifying than feeling like I can’t breathe. And to experience that fear more than once as a child leaves a mark. At least that’s how my therapist once helped me to rationalize my hyper vigilance about my health.
But as a child I didn’t make the kind of creative leaps from familiar symptoms to dreadful diseases that I do as an adult. I knew that my wheezing and shortness of breath were caused by my asthma and allergies and that, for example, if I went over to Jennifer Keeping’s house to play I would need to bring my inhaler because they had a cat. The connection was clear, and though it was scary and sometimes the symptoms hit me when I didn’t expect them to, which was even scarier, at least I knew exactly what was wrong with me. (That didn’t stop me from worrying that I was going to die, but I think that’s a valid worry. People DO die from asthma, even though my father assured me otherwise to keep me calm during attacks.)
I’m not really sure when I stopped making those clear connections between my symptoms and their causes. I think my first “heart attacks” happened in my mid-twenties; I distinctly remember walking through the restaurant where I worked feeling really concerned about the tightness in my chest. Looking back I can see that it was simply anxiety–I hated my job, so naturally I was tense and anxious while I was there. But at the time it seemed so obvious that I was on the brink of cardiac arrest.
As I get older I seem to be getting worse at interpreting my symptoms rather than better at it. And the Internet does not help. Instead it facilitates those creative leaps from purple underwear to internal bleeding by providing me with more details than I need about every illness known to humankind. More than one doctor has suggested to me that I should avoid websites like WebMD because they will only feed my obsessions and intensify the feeling that I am spiraling out of control.
Recently that spiraling feeling has gotten even worse, so I decided to write this post because I am tired of being ruled by my unruly imagination and sick of assuming the worst, of seeing bears where there are only bushes. But I’ve been wrestling with this post for a few weeks now because I’ve had a terrible time figuring out where it was going. And then my friend Emily reminded me to keep it simple. And with that reminder something important clicked for me. I realized that I choose how I interpret my symptoms, and if I choose to keep it simple, then a sore neck does not have to mean I have meningitis, it more likely means I need a new pillow. In the grip of my fear, I had forgotten that I have any choice. Suddenly, with that realization, everything has snapped back into perspective, suddenly the heart attacks and strokes have stopped. Or so I have chosen.
Post script: In October my sister had a beautiful baby boy named Brayden. He was pretty big for a little guy, so she ended up having a C-section. When she was about to go home from the hospital, I sent her a text message telling her not to wear any purple underwear. A few days later she sent me a text to tell me she had a purple stomach–she had a real hematoma and needed a medieval torture device called a wound-vac to help with the healing. I spent a week at her house doing laundry and cooking while she was going through this, and it’s clear to me now that if I had actually been bleeding internally after my appendectomy, I would not have been able to walk home from the restaurant to show Dave my purple stomach.