My boyfriend (Andrew) has been sick for a month, diagnosis pending. He experienced extreme fatigue, mild fever, night sweats and hot/cold flashes during the first two weeks. We went to see a doctor, and he was given a blood test to check for all the usual suspects (mono, chronic fatigue syndrome, etc…) No swollen lymph nodes, no rashes, no pain. What the hell is wrong with him? We were looking forward to hearing from the doctor, expecting to finally put a name to whatever is invading his body. The results came back negative for everything, however, his doctor mentioned his liver enzymes and white blood cells were elevated. Awesome. Without a diagnosis, I had to take the matter into my own hands. Google informed me of the following possibilities: Lymphoma, Hepatitis, Lupus and Menopause. Damn you Google, damn you. By this point, Andrew is texting me daily saying things like, “Babe, I want you to know that when I die I hope you find someone who loves you as much as I do. Please don’t ever forget me.” After the third week, he started to feel better but developed a chronic dry cough. The doctor called him in for a second blood test to, “See if something grows” in his culture. We’ve been puzzling over his symptoms for weeks, I don’t care if a new civilization emerges, just tell me what he has.
If we were thinking rationally, we would have gone with the most likely explanation: a mildly threatening virus. Yet, rational thinking is far from what instinctually occurs when many of us feel vulnerable. Catastrophic thinking, on the other hand, is a process I know well. When there isn’t an easy answer or obvious solution, our minds may search through an infinite supply of possibilities and pull out the most horrifying options. The tendency to think of the worst possible situation has a seemingly adaptive quality. We think we are preparing for the worst case scenario. When the universe doesn’t give us a concrete answer, we are often compelled to create one that will match the anxiety we feel internally. Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream” is the quintessential artistic expression of anxiety. Munch was able to portray the agony of anxiety with his broad and garish brush strokes. Yet we are left questioning, “What is he so anxious about?”
Whether you are a billionaire or beggar, philanthropist or psychopath, you will one day be faced with death. Every person becomes aware of their fate and must process the notion of non-existence. The idea that I will one day seize to exist is really disturbing to me. Without any religious ties, I can’t rely on faith for comfort. Essentially, I think my greatest fear is the loss of meaningful relationships. I define my life by the people I connect with, making it difficult to fathom the alternative. Through existentialism we can philosophize about the human experience, and process the fear of this ultimate disconnection. According to Viktor Frankl, only by searching for meaning can we define our identities and choose the life we want to live. I believe anxiety results from the narrow view that we do not have a choice. Although we can’t control our fate, we are capable of making choices everyday that can enrich our lives.
Although I make sincere efforts to lead a meaningful life (pursuing my dream profession, forming close bonds with friends and family, helping others when I can), sometimes anxiety creeps back in unconsciously. I’ve noticed that I am a lot more concerned with my health than I have ever been. I was pretty reckless in my early twenties: drinking, smoking and partying all night. Now I find myself laying out my vitamins every morning and giving smokers the evil eye for polluting in my presence. If someone is sick around me, I’m convinced I’ve already caught what they have. Although I don’t have full-fledged hypochondriasis, anytime I feel my health is at risk, I catastrophize and assume the worst. Is fear of being sick really just a fear of death? Albert Camus suggested our anxiety, our fear of death, is a rational response to the “absurdity” that is our existence. From his perspective, the world is random and unfair; we can live for a century or get hit by a bus tomorrow. Moreover, it implies there is no meaning in the world beyond the meaning we give to it. Bad things happen to good people, and we have to navigate the world knowing this fact. Is there anything more absurd than that?
I suspect my recent hypochondriac reactions are a consequence of having so much to lose. I’ve always had anxiety tendencies but prior to moving to Chicago, they centered on relationships and rejections from grad schools. Now that I am in love with my city, school and boyfriend, I’d like to stay healthy enough to enjoy this time in my life. Maybe my awareness of how little control we really have propels me to worry just a little on the irrational side. Oh, well…more chicken soup for all.