by Mark English
In casual conversation, a friend mentioned a video clip she had seen which depicted a little girl apparently being sucked into the jet engine of a plane on the tarmac. My interlocutor was skeptical but was open to the possibility that this might have actually happened. Later I checked it out and told her – via SMS – that it was fictional (taken from a game, actually). Light banter back and forth. “Don’t overthink it,” she said when the discussion got a bit convoluted. Me: “But overthinking is what I do.” She: “We are in the same club. Overthinkers are genius. But they don’t live long.”
I hope she’s wrong on that last point. I thought immediately of a couple of examples (one being the pianist, Glenn Gould) which might suggest that she was on the money. But, however you define overthinkers, and whatever the lifespan statistics may be relating to particular human groups, everyone is different. We all have our idiosyncrasies, our own priorities, values, myths and coping mechanisms. What’s more, one can always nudge the odds in one’s favor.
On the longevity front, I have a dual strategy. The first part involves applying reason to ordinary matters of living. Eating well. Exercising. Doing things to maximize my chances of staying healthy and trying (difficult at times) not to do obviously stupid or foolhardy things that increase the odds of an early death.
The difficulty comes in when those dangerous or foolhardy things are not simply stupid but are also meaningful in some way. For most people, sex is probably the main culprit here, directly (in terms of the risks involved in certain types of sexual behavior), but also indirectly. The psychological stresses associated with most romantic attachments (jealousy, breaking up, etc.) inevitably take their toll and, sadly, completely overwhelm some. (1)
There is also the problem that behaviors perceived as cool (and so conducive to maximizing sexual opportunities) are themselves all too often harmful to health. The cool option is not always the dangerous one, of course. ‘Cool’ is not synonymous with ‘dangerous’. Stupidly dangerous activities are generally uncool. But cool is usually perceived as incorporating an element of risk-taking.
The second part of my dual strategy is less rational (at least on the surface). It’s all about hoodoos.
I am using the word in the sense of something that brings bad luck; it was used throughout my childhood and early adulthood by an aunt who lived with us for a time and who took us children out on a regular basis. Her usage of the term was mostly related to sport but sometimes to politics (sport by another name). The gist of it was that any statement of confidence was tempting fate. Pride before a fall, that kind of thing. In simple terms, you put a hoodoo on someone by predicting their success. This mode of thinking was driven deep into my impressionable brain. Which explains, to some extent at least, my hypochondria.
This is how it works. I always half-expect the worst, but avert my gaze. I assiduously monitor symptoms but avoid consulting doctors as far as possible and especially that reckless destroyer of peace of mind, Dr. Google. If symptoms are apparently serious or getting worse, I’ll make an appointment with an actual doctor. But generally I just stay observant and live from day to day.
The trick is to stay ignorant but not too ignorant. Medical practitioners tend not to live long lives. No doubt there are all sorts of reasons for this but one of the main ones is, I think, that they know too much about what is going on under the skin. (2)
My hypochondria works as a kind of double bluff or perhaps as what Douglas Hofstadter would call a “strange loop.” It involves turning the tendency to worry back on itself in order to neutralize it (at least to some extent).
In the back of my mind I am constantly aware of the possibilities of serious illness (and of course of the certainty of you-know-what). This awareness prevents the sort of complacency or overconfidence which would be, as it were, tempting fate – the equivalent of putting a hoodoo on oneself.
So far, so irrational. But there is method in my madness, because my self-identification as a hypochondriac is strangely reassuring. It is my rabbit’s foot, my security blanket; but it is a charm of which the workings are clear and open rather than mysterious, being driven by simple deduction rather than blind superstition. My lucky charm has (or at least appears to have) logic on its side.
Of course, it’s not enough that someone simply deems himself to be a hypochondriac. You’ve got to have genuine hypochondriacal tendencies for this particular lucky charm to have any potency. In other words, other people – preferably doctors – have to make this judgment. And from an early age I have had indications from various medicos that I am the genuine article. (3)
For example, I remember seeing a general practitioner when I was in my early twenties and traveling. I was a bit stressed and imagined that I had had a stroke or something. He was marvelously calm and slightly amused and wondered if I had read Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. I had, actually. I knew the passage he was referring to – a classic account of how a certain type of person reacts to browsing through a medical dictionary. (4)
My hypochondriacal tendencies were exposed – and confirmed – again when I saw a well-known cardiologist not so long ago. He is famous for his rudeness, but it is a reassuring kind of rudeness, a kind of professional rhetoric. While I and few others (but not Jack apparently) were sitting in the waiting area, he came out of his consulting room asking, “Where’s Jack? Where’s Jack? I’m going to kill him.”
I had an X-ray which appeared to show problems with my heart and lungs. When the doctor saw the X-ray, he just threw it dismissively across his desk and said it was underexposed or overexposed (I forget which) and totally useless. He was almost aggressive in challenging me to say what the problem was. He did a quick hands-on examination (tapping and listening and so on). Nothing showed up. He made me feel a bit of a fool and I was enormously grateful to him.
My friend was right. Being an overthinker or, in simple terms, a worrier is not particularly healthy. But the intelligent worrier will use her logical powers to construct personal coping mechanisms to take the sting out of that sense of doom and dread that lurks within. I am a confirmed hypochondriac, I tell myself, so I probably haven’t really got that dreaded disease. Right?
More broadly, I try to channel my natural pessimism away from the personal and into the cultural and cosmic spheres. It’s the personal that counts above all. Personal optimism is all-important, for social confidence, for coping, for staying strong.
Forget about happiness. We’re not in that kind of world. The trick is to recognize the nature of our predicament but to stay upbeat. Like Brandon Flowers’ Mr. Brightside, for instance.
Or (to take a more serious example) like Friedrich Nietzsche. Before a horrible disease consumed his brain, that is.
- I am not denying the existence of happy marriages and long-term relationships. But most of my own observations and experiences – coupled with my literary education – predispose me to see them as the exception rather than the rule.
- In order to avoid unnecessary stress and worry, airline pilots follow a very similar logic to mine with respect to their aircraft. They are not interested in the mechanical side of things; engineers and technicians deal with that. They keep their focus on the instrument panel. If there are no flashing red lights, all is well.
- I am using the term “hypochondria” in its normal English sense rather than in a medical sense. The DSM does not list hypochondria (or hypochondriasis), but does include Illness Anxiety Disorder which, I take it, is what mild, common-or-garden hypochondria becomes if it gets out of control and becomes a medical issue.
- “It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt… I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch — hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into — some fearful, devastating scourge, I know — and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it. I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever — read the symptoms — discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it — wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance — found, as I expected, that I had that too, — began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically — read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with… I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.”