After being reunited with her birth mother, Henrietta Ross learnt about a line of hereditary cancer. From that point onwards, intense health anxiety ruled her life. But by learning how to recognise her triggers, Henrietta eventually took back control
I’d never met a hypochondriac before, but I knew the term tended to be used pejoratively. It was a word thrown at some malingerer who spends their life frustrating over-worked doctors with a list of imaginary symptoms, or an old aunt who takes to her bed after a particularly difficult sneeze. It was never a word that I thought would apply to me.
I was the kid who loved the smell of my father’s first aid kit – those little saline wipes in foil packets, tubes of Savlon, and the antiseptic smell of surgical spirit. I used to leaf through first aid manuals just for fun, and I even took a great liking to the horror that is Annie, the CPR dummy, who my father often brought home in a suitcase as he was a sergeant in St John Ambulance.
Years later, I still liked Savlon but not manuals about health or CPR dummies in brown suitcases that look like dead bodies. I feared everything and anything to do with health or death. I had sympathy for Hans Christian Andersen who carried a note in his pocket that said “I only seem dead”, in case he should be buried alive.
I’ve always been anxious; struggled socially, occasionally been obsessive around food, and had panic attacks. But illness never usually worried me. When it did, I didn’t tell a soul because I felt horribly ashamed. Shame is often the one constant in mental illness. I didn’t know or like this version of myself, and felt utterly lost and alone.
I found out that on my grandfather’s side, all the women had died of breast cancer
I’d never known my mother growing up, and so knew nothing about family health history. When I first met her in 2012, I found out that on my grandfather’s side, all the females had died of breast cancer. He himself had died from prostate cancer and as my mother and I met, she revealed her sister was also battling cancer.
Reunion with a parent is an extraordinarily complex time emotionally, and my discovery about the medical history didn’t hit me until a few months later. I began to feel this odd sense of dread about my own health.
An odd sensation in my body, or finding a bruise or a lump, makes my heart drum like a rabbit’s paws when sensing danger. My lungs swell with ice, my stomach’s a ball of tangled chords. Immediately, I’m checking the bruise from different angles, in different rooms and in different mirrors, time and time again.
Then I’m on Google comparing my spot to the many images that load on the screen. Sweat dribbles down my spine. My arm feels numb. I read the 342 reasons for a spot, but focus on the couple that suggest it’s cancer.
I am up in the night checking my body, obsessively reading books, trawling the web for answers. All to ensure I’m well versed in what I may have to contend with at some point in the future.
At my worst, I would turn to my partner. Health anxiety is a form of OCD and I often think trying to obtain constant reassurance is a fundamental part of the disorder. It put my partner in a difficult position because no amount of reassurance could ever stop or lessen my anxiety. I also obsessed over my partner’s health, so every time he cut a finger, had toothache, a cold, or complained of anything, I would crumble.
It seems astonishing, but three years after meeting my mum, my every waking moment was occupied with disease. This was exasperated by the media, who constantly tell us about “the woman who had no symptoms but died of cancer in six weeks” or the “three signs you are about to have a stroke”.
I tried to get help, but my so called “mild anxiety” was brushed-off by psychiatry. It hasn’t been easy, it still isn’t. We need, and deserve, help, but it isn’t always forthcoming, especially in times of budget cuts and scaling back of services.
I did this alone by trying (and failed many times) to not trawl the web for 10–20 seconds, gradually increasing the time in small increments. I’d end up sitting as still as a statue, my mind and body so full of tension I couldn’t move. Those first few seconds – and later minutes – could be utterly unbearable. But if I got past them, things tapered off a little and I could try to re-establish a little control.
I had to learn when I’m more likely to get into an anxious spiral. I’m worse when I’m tired, when my period is due, when I feel vulnerable or am struggling with other aspects of my mental health. I still have to step into my thoughts at times and try to head off a bout of approaching paranoia, but being more aware of the anxiety and its subtleties helps me do this more effectively now.
Aristotle said: “Nature does nothing uselessly,” and it made me think of how much time I spent in my own nature worrying about things I couldn’t control. It’s the scariest part in some ways. Yet there is a freedom in not knowing what life will bring when you meet it from a less fearful, more curious place, and it has allowed me to become less enslaved by my thoughts, and to take back control of my life.
When Henrietta’s anxiety focuses her on the worst possible outcomes it overwhelms her life. She finds no help in the medical profession, feeling she is not a priority. Alone and forced to challenge her thinking processes in her own way, she pushes through her anxiety in small manageable increments. There are difficulties, but she kept her goal in mind: freedom from the enslavement of anxiety.