Living with Health Anxiety

As a child, I was often rushed to the hospital for shots of adrenaline due to asthma attacks.

Though I have no cognizant memories of these incidents, the threat was real. Unlike, say, the threat that loomed every time I drank something that “went down the wrong pipe” and my father would rush to grab his coat screaming, “She’s choking!”

The paranoia and neurosis permeated my psyche, while at the same time I knew for sure that I was constantly unsafe in my body, allergic to everything, and often left out of a world filled with Golden Retrievers and hayrides.

When I was 15, I spent several early mornings before school having genital warts frozen off my vagina. This was due to statutory rape, as were the follow-up cervical biopsies for HPV. Pre-cancerous, the doctor said, her tone chastising to imply that I was a slut. I was lied to, of course, and coerced by a full-grown adult man. And now I was diseased, untouchable, a pariah. At least that’s what I believed for at least a decade until the narrative around HPV shifted into the public discourse. Normal, common, no big deal. Mine had been cleared for years and I was still warning every potential partner. Oh, I guess I’m OK now.

But I was never really OK. With every tingle in my fingers, I was sure it was Parkinson’s. A TV movie about ALS made me want to devote myself to the cause because I was sure it would be the thing to end me. Progressive neurological diseases became my health obsession du jour. Until things started happening that were very real and something quite different.

My second pregnancy broke my immune system. At first, I thought the frequent sinus and ear infections were just a part of this pregnancy. But the infections and fatigue spells continued for years after my daughter’s birth and eventually culminated in a Sepsis, which almost ended my life.

I’ve never fully recovered – physically or mentally. And from there I learned that I have primary immunodeficiency, making me susceptible to everything and no longer treatable with infusions because I am just on the edge of abnormal so no insurance company would cover it anymore. This is a cache-22. I’m happy to not be considered among the sickest and reliant on the treatments that debilitated me for over a year. But I’m also terrified to not have that backup protection in an infection pandemic.

Needless to say, the past two years have absolutely wrecked me. How immunocompromised am I? Will the vaccine work for me? Did I make enough antibodies? What is safe for me? Am I a normal human being? Am I healthy? Am I dying?

The answers have always been unclear. But I finally felt my first burst of optimism after an antibody test after my third shot which showed a very good antibody response (this was after several low tests that floored and broke me). This was also the day Omicron news broke and the Delta cases started their rapid post-Thanksgiving incline.

So, the optimism was short-lived. Especially when I remembered what was happening the third week of December. Two separate cancer checks.

I have had a new and very suspicious mole on my ass for at least six months. If it were anywhere else that was visible to me I probably would have had it checked immediately. But you tend to forget something when you can’t see your own ass. I worry I waited too long. That it’s spread.

I also have my annual mammogram. Which I usually get through with minimal anxiety. But not this year! This year all I can think about is how common breast cancer is among Jewish women and how I must be next.

I can handle surgeries (I’ve had two brutal ones). I can handle chemo (the year of plasma infusions gave me a small taste of the side effects). I can handle suffering and pain and counting down days until I get better.

But I can’t handle being more immunocompromised in this pandemic. My biggest fear is chemo or immunosuppressants that will officially make me completely unsafe in this petri dish of a country and keep me completely isolated from most of my loved ones. How would I live like that? How will I get treatment when hospitals are overfilled and understaffed? How will I ever see my mother? My boyfriend? How will I be safe with my kids in school?

I spiral out on the worst-case scenario because examining the worst-case scenario is how I have always processed things. Is it the best way? Probably not. But years of therapy and mental health medication haven’t saved me from something that feels ingrained and ancestral.

THIS is what batters my brain and spikes my anxiety and drives me into the abyss. This is my own personal mental health hellscape that I can’t break free from. I know I am not alone in this. But that doesn’t make it any less lonely. Or terrifying.

Because, sometimes my biggest fears come true, and sometimes the crisis is entirely manufactured. And in every case, only time will tell.

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