It’s 11:43 on a Tuesday night and my Google search history lists articles like, “15 Ways To Stop Obsessing,” “It Must Be Cancer: How I Came To Terms With Hypochondria,” and the particularly helpful, “Internet Makes Hypochondria Worse.” In other words, it’s just another Tuesday night.
My heart is beating ferociously in my chest and I’m trying to convince myself that I’m not dying.
Four months ago, just after New Year’s, I noticed something rather alarming – I had forgotten how to breathe. For those of you who go day in, day out, never spending a passing thought on this autonomic function, it seems a ridiculous notion. How do you forget how to breathe? Are you some fucking moron? Just take a chill pill, shut your eyes and inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, look you’re good as new.
I thought it was ridiculous, too. A million other responses, logical responses, circulated in my mind. Bronchitis. Asthma. Panic Disorder. But two can play at this game. Bronchitis is characterized by a cough. Asthma by wheezing. Panic Disorder… can a panic attack realistically persist for six to eight hours straight?
It began with the yawning. Yawning indicates the body isn’t receiving enough oxygen. And when it seemed like I couldn’t yawn deeply enough, couldn’t suck in as much air as usual, it turned into a gasp. One sharp gasp and – ooohh, that hits the spot. But what happens when that isn’t enough? You notice you’ve stopped breathing through your nose – you can’t get enough delicious oxygen that way. That’s right, you’ve become a mouth breather. So you try and stop that, try to regain your regular unconscious function, but then you realize that all you’ve succeeded in doing is stop breathing altogether, and well, fuck, that’s it, you’re screwed now. And then you turn over in bed and look at the clock and it’s 5:36am.
Just go to sleep, you tell yourself. It’ll fix itself overnight. Just go to sleep. And finally you do – and then you wake up and have two blissful hours of peace before the shit brews up all over again.
I know what you’re thinking. Get off Google and go to a fucking doctor. There, you’ll find out one of three things:
1. You are sick, but what you have is treatable.
2. You’re not dying, you’re not even sick, but you are a head-case.
3. You’re dying. You really are fucking dying. Here’s a lollipop.
Some days, I’m not sure which one is worse.
Fortunately, after a few weeks of sweet denial, I got a Valentine’s Day gift I won’t soon forget. Waking up that morning, ready to trek to Windsor for a romantic Deer Park stroll and a fancy sushi date, I had to admit something very embarrassing to my boyfriend – and there is no way to put this lightly – I was having gash pains. You know, that gash.
Obviously, my first thought was that he’d had an affair, being that we’d broken up for a short time during the summer (“Don’t worry, baby, I won’t blame you, WE WERE ON A BREAK.”) and I must be dying of chlamydia or HPV. It didn’t help that the two-bit NHS doctor that I saw that afternoon jumped to the same immediate conclusion during my five minute “emergency exam” in which he examined nothing and gave me a number for the Tudor Center, a local sexual health clinic and recommended that I tell me boyfriend to come along too.
Luckily, my boyfriend is forgiving of my unrelenting paranoia, and I’m also comforted by my knowledge that he’s a terrible liar.
All the same, I was prepared to book my full STD panel, when I was saved by the sudden pain in my lower right back, which began that night after returning from our mostly-successful sushi date. I chalked it up to a stiff muscle, a lumpy mattress, popped some Advil, and it went away after that.
The next morning, the pain returned. I took some more Advil and roughly forgot about it. I was still experiencing those, ahem, other pains, but I was doing a good job of ignoring them. My boyfriend and I even agreed to go for a pub night with his sister, thinking after my third or fourth pint, I wouldn’t have to worry about feeling much of anything. Even when we left the house to shoot some pool before dinner, and the stiffness in my back returned, I was thinking, “Is it a beer night or a cider night?”
Over a half-dozen frames or so of American pool, I nursed a pint of Grolsch, hobbling around the table like a wounded war vet, wondering if the pain had actually gotten that much worse in the last hour or if I was just subconsciously milking it for a little boyfriend sympathy. I decided on the latter, reassured him that I was fine, and I limped along with him to KFC, not knowing that I would soon be spending the next six hours in the hospital.
And those six hours were glorious.
Don’t get me wrong, I was suffering. By the time we called my boyfriend’s mum to collect us because I’d collapsed on the sidewalk outside the KFC, I had vomited and was now in so much agony that I couldn’t talk or stand. When we got to the hospital, I couldn’t make it to the counter myself, so I had to relay my embarrassing symptoms to my surrogate family.
Following that, reception gave me two small white pills, which helped a little.
Following that, the ER doctor gave me two different white pills, which helped a lot.
Stoned on painkillers, the next six hours went by in a blissful haze, as I was redirected to A&E for additional testing. I had a spike shoved up my vein for more than half of that, as they continued to draw blood and inject me with foreign substances, but I had a smile on my face as I got to watch, one my one, all of my fears get ticked off the list in one fell swoop.
“You are not pregnant. Your blood pressure is normal. Your heart rate is normal. You don’t have cancer. You don’t have a sexually transmitted disease.”
I was fine with pretty much anything else beyond that, so I barely flinched when they told me, yes, it is a urinary tract infection, and yes, you probably have a small kidney stone. I was so happy to walk out with that news that I named my kidney stone Julian and began referring to him in casual conversation.
Naturally, amidst all that action, I forgot all about my breathing problems, because I’d finally distracted myself into not having them, and failed to bring it up with A&E.
Over the next few weeks, I had two follow-ups – one with an NHS doctor and one with my regular doctor in Canada. The NHS doctor listened to my lungs and told me they sounded fine, but if I was having any real problems, I should contact that clinic immediately for an “emergency exam.” Because that worked out so well for me the first time.
My regular doctor listened to my lungs and also told me they sounded fine. But he was slightly more helpful in that he suggested I try an inhaler, and if that worked, I’d know within 60 seconds if it was asthma-related. If it didn’t, it was probably stress.
As far as I can tell, the inhaler hasn’t worked.
I’ve also been to a third doctor, in regards to persisting urinary tract pains, and learned that it seems that Julian has not, in fact, left the building.
Which brings me to 11:43 on a Tuesday night, with my heart racing, trying to convince myself, no, those aren’t heart palpitations brought on by the inhaler, no, your kidney stone hasn’t mutated into a cancerous growth, no, you aren’t going to panic yourself into a heart attack at 22.
The list of options runs through my head:
Just open a beer and try to relax. (Don’t open a beer, you already drink too fucking much, soon it’ll be your liver.)
Pack and bowl and smoke it away. Turn on an episode of The West Wing or Nostalgia Critic and let it be a distant thought. (Sure, it’ll start out that way, but then it’ll be 2am and as the drugs wear off, the sensations will shoot through your limbs and chest and make it worse and maybe you’ll get so paranoid you will panic yourself into a heart attack and then what will you do.)
Face it. Just face the beast and let it know who’s boss. Close down Google. Stop counting symptoms. Stop trying to measure your heart-rate. Just face it.
At the end of the day, there’s only one thing you can tell yourself:
Sleep. Just sleep, and if you wake up tomorrow, you’ll know that you were never really dying.