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Commentary: Finding Some Unlikely Medicine for My Hypochondria

REBEKAH ROBINSON, HOST: And now, for the next in our commentary series: Uptown Radio’s Clara Grunnet shares a story about keeping control… and about letting go of it completely.

CLARA GRUNNET, BYLINE: I am not allowed to go on WebMD. My mother banned me years ago from going online and checking symptoms I had managed to overthink into existence. When I had a bad headache, it could be a brain tumor. Stomach ache, likely something with a kidney. Getting a tick from the long, dry grass in my mother’s garden almost certainly meant lyme disease. I think my sisters found my self-diagnosed hypochondria borderline entertaining, borderline hysterical. And it made the whole situation even more unbelievable when I woke up one morning about 3 years ago, unable to move.

I had spent the night at my mother’s place, and she half-way carried my 23-year-old body down to her car. We drove to the hospital where I spent the next many weeks getting tested for anything the doctors could possibly think of. They couldn’t figure out what caused the constant fever, rashes, sore throat, and paralyzing pain in all the joints of my body. At one point there was talk of lupus, and later a type of cancer called lymphoma. But eventually, they ran out of tests to do. This was the message they gave me on the night that the cancer-wing of the hospital had arranged for an outdoor orchestra to play a concert for the patients.

I could see the sun set from my window, and as the melody of ‘Knocking on heaven’s door’ began playing outside, I was pretty sure I was going to die.

But as may have become clear at this point, I do have a certain flair for drama, and this was not the end. Instead, it was a chronic and rare type of inflammatory arthritis. Some only experience one flare-up in a lifetime, others have frequent episodes.

This is probably one of the worst messages you can give someone who has spent her life worrying about rare diseases and freaking out over the smallest of symptoms. I pictured rushing to the hospital over a minor rash, and calling my doctor every time I have a sore throat. I had suddenly been given a very valid reason to worry for the rest of my life.

I wish I could tell you here that, ironically, getting an extremely rare disease cured my hypochondria. That would be a good story. But It’s also untrue. The catastrophic thoughts still enter my head, and they probably always will.

But somehow, lying in the hospital bed I had dreaded for so long, seemed to provide a kind of medicine. Previously, worrying had given me the false sense that I was in control. That if only I thought things through, I could prevent them from happening. But ultimately, I wasn’t in charge. There was a strange, new comfort in realizing that. And when I was forced to let go of the tight grip, in some way, it felt like relief.

It was after that, I packed up my life, and traveled 3,843 miles away from home to go to graduate school in New York. At first both my doctors and my mother were reluctant to accept it, and my insurance company refused to provide me coverage. But I was determined to go, because it seemed like the perfectly terrifying thing to do, to prove to myself that I intend not to let fear dictate my life.

And most days, I can still convince myself that that is true. Those are the days I go hiking upstate far away from hospitals, the days I walk barefoot on the little patch of grass near my house, and the days where I manage to push away the voice inside my head that tells me that the mole on my left shoulder definitely has gotten bigger.

ROBINSON: Clara says she hasn't worried much while being in New York… but she did manage to get some insurance.


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