Wednesday, January 13, 2010

It all started when...

I don't really know when my "anxiety" started. I think I've always been a rather anxious person. When I was a kid I used to worry about being left places (even though I never was), about blowing away on a windy day (thanks to my lovely older cousin telling me a lie) and I suppose I had a fair amount of social anxiety in new situations - I was always the shy kid.

I can, however, pinpoint when that anxiety developed into a laser-honed awareness of my body and a constant nagging fear of disease. And it seems to have followed, rather than occur during, a most stressful period.

I had finished my freshman year of college - a year of constant academic stress, roommate troubles, a somewhat unstable ralationship and a bit of an eating disorder. I had just changed a lot in my life - new wonderful roommates, new wonderful boyfriend, new wonderful major - and I was finally able to smile and breathe and ... BAM! That's right - health anxiety entered my life in a big way and still hasn't found its way out despite the passage of more than five years. FIVE YEARS! That's a lot of tense muscles, heart palpitations and sleepless nights, my friend.

It started like this:
My friends from home came up to my school for a weekend and decided to share some gossip. Evidently they'd heard that some people from our old high school had become infected with HIV due to intravenous drug use (still don't know if this was even true, mind you). I thought "Oh how terrible!" then "What a scary situation!" then "What if I have it?!" Some might see this as a narcissistic reaction and, to a point, that's what health anxiety is. It's an inappropriate fixation on oneself and one's seemingly benign bodily functions to such an extent that they take over your life. And WHY did I think I might have HIV just because these former classmates might? Because I had ever used drugs? Certainly not. Because I had any interaction with the aforementioned people? Nope. I just thought I did - not from drugs but from past relationships I might not have been too happy with at the time.

What began as a mere thought, a pinprick of fear in my heart became an obsession of almost two years. That's right - TWO YEARS. But that's insane, you might say. There are tests, you know. Oh, I know all right - I had three of them. Three perfectly negative, perfectly reassuring tests. It still took me six months after the last one to actually believe it.

You see, after that first "what if", I turned to the internet - a base of information I used to create my own personal hell. Had I experienced a fever a few months before? Could that have been the virus taking hold? What were these white lines on the sides of my tongue? Were they oral hairy leukoplakia - a problem sometimes associated with having AIDS? What were the tiny bumps in my throat? Were they the swollen lymph nodes that surely signified infection? And then, my boyfriend fell ill. My wonderful, sweet, handsome new guy suddenly had a high fever, swollen glands, a sore throat, night sweats and nausea. That's it, I thought. I have it and now I've ruined someone else's life too. Despite all the facts stacked against either of those possibilities - I was sure. The reality? My boyfriend had mono. Was that my fault? Possibly - but it was certainly not life threatening. However, the psychological damage was done.

For the next month or so I spent hours (often into the early morning ) searching symptoms and convincing myself that I was ill. I saw signs everywhere - commercials about getting tested, people purchasing books at the college bookstore on the topic, TLC's "Waterfalls" playing on the radio and then the most poignant one of all. You see, I had finally convinced myself I had to be tested. After killing myself with worry and spilling my guts to a friend (who was sure I was fine) I decided there was really only one way to end the madness - a test. The night before the test, I had to hide my overwhelming anxiety from my family, needed to distract myself - so I turned on the TV. Selected an episode of Sex and the City and settled on the couch. It was an episode I'd never seen before. The one where Samantha has to get an HIV test. I was doomed.

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