A Hypochondriac in a pandemic
“My fallopian tube hurts,” I grumbled. “I think I twisted my fallopian tube.”
I was nine, sitting at the dining room table with my family. My abdomen cramped up and my eyes grew wide with fear of the unknown. I looked down at my plate — the food perfectly divided and counted out into sections — and pushed it away. In a matter of seconds, I’d determined I was dying.
What was the point in finishing dinner?
My parents laughed and laughed. They knew I’d just swallowed some food the wrong way or something.
“Jenna, you’re fine,” my mom grinned. “Do you even know what a fallopian tube is?”
My parents still tell this story at parties and family gatherings over a decade later, and I don’t blame them.
Out of context, it’s funny: A little girl cries out that she’s injured a reproductive organ by eating? What nonsense!
But days, months and years flew by and incidents like the infamous Night of the Fallopian Tube became more frequent. I went from cute, to drama queen, to insufferable to those close to me.
I was like a worn out comedian, and my audience was growing less amused and more exhausted and annoyed of my ridiculous health obsessions.
Only, I was never trying to be funny.
Of all the diagnoses I’ve attempted to give myself over the years, hypochondria (illness anxiety) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are some of the only ones that have been accurate. From what I can remember, I’ve grappled with them since that day at the dinner table, and even a little before.
I was finally getting them under control last year, though.
Then a pandemic hit and gave me a whole new set of anxieties to add to my list.
You actually can twist your fallopian tubes, by the way. It’s called adnexal torsion.
You didn’t think I’d just make something up, did you?
I ran upstairs to the bathroom outside my bedroom and reached my hand out for the soap.
Pump-pump-pump — empty. I rolled my eyes.
“Shit,” I whispered to myself.
I must not have calculated my rotation correctly: kitchen sink, downstairs sink, upstairs sink. Where did I mess up? It was the first week of class, and I’d already run out of a full container of soap.
I tossed the empty bottle into the trash and cursed Bath & Body Works for making tiny soaps so expensive.
Earlier that week, my housemates had raised an eyebrow when they found me washing my hands in their bathroom downstairs. Out of embarrassment, I’d temporarily removed their sink from my rotation and had been using the upstairs bathroom more since.
Rotation aside, my hands were dirty and that was what I needed to focus on. I’d accidentally touched someone else’s water glass, right on the rim where the mouth goes.
It’s one thing when I’m in my own head, dealing with my own anxieties about my health. I’m used to that. But with everyone around me panicking about the pandemic, my few voices of reason, both external and internal, hardly hold power over me anymore.
I made a beeline toward the kitchen, thumping back down the stairs and holding my hands out in front of me so I wouldn’t touch anything else, including my clothes.
I turned on the kitchen sink — not too high or too low, too hot or too cold — and poured a glob of blue Dawn soap into my left palm.
Usually, I prefer orange Palmolive. But hey, desperate times call for desperate measures.
I turned the faucet off and shook my hands in sync with each other four times to dry them off before grabbing a paper towel to finish drying.
Paper towels, while bad for the environment and my conscience, are much more sanitary than the reusable cloth hand towels hanging from our stove.
I sighed and grabbed my keys, slinging my purse across my body to go to the store. I needed soap.
The weight of my purse wasn’t distributed correctly, so I stopped to fix it, rearranging its contents to sit just right on my body.
I started again, making my way toward the back door to my car, and in my haste made yet another rookie mistake.
I glanced down at my hand, the skin dry and flaky from frequent scrubbing, and saw my slender fingers gripping the doorknob.
I looked into the invisible camera in front of me, breaking my very own imaginary fourth wall.
With my uncontaminated hand, I unzipped my purse and plucked my hand sanitizer out.
I shuffled up to the deserted Harris Dining Hall on Miami’s south campus. As I walked, I watched my feet, hyping myself up for all the people I was about to see, doors I would have to touch and the 11 seconds I would have to remove my mask for some lady to swab my throat.
I looked up and stopped in my tracks. I scanned my head left to right to see a line of over 50 kids and assumed my position at the end of it.
While mandatory COVID-19 testing has been a headache for most, I was relieved when I received the email to schedule an appointment.
For the past seven months, I’ve had a COVID scare at least once a week. Not because I go out or come into contact with people who’ve tested positive, but simply because COVID-19 exists and my brain has it sitting on the front burner.
My thermometer has died because I’ve used it so much, though it’s never once read above 98.6.
And damn, are those little thermometer batteries expensive.
Once I made my way through the outdoor line, I entered the doors to a waiting room to fill out paperwork.
You may be wondering the reasoning behind why I, a student with severe anxiety about germs, illnesses and a plethora of other things, didn’t choose to remain remote this semester.
Two reasons: Mom and Dad.
“You need to get out of the house, Jenna.”
“You can’t stay inside forever, Jenna.”
Blah, blah, blah. Whatever.
Reluctantly, I opted to return to on-campus classes and look where it landed me: waiting for a COVID test with potentially infected peers.
I forced myself through the remaining preliminary motions, giving dirty looks to anyone who got too close to me as any sane person, anxiety-ridden or not, would.
When it was my turn, a nurse with a plastic face shield called my name. I followed her through a series of hallways and into a room. I think her name was Connie.
“You’ll get your results in about three days,” Connie said. “An email if it’s negative, phone call if positive.”
“Let’s hope I get an email then,” I laughed, nerves making my voice go high pitched.
Connie gave me a silent, toothless smile with squinty eyes that let me know it was time for me to make my exit.
Three days later, I got my negative results back.
24 hours after that, I was beside myself.
My temperature was 98.9.
There are some things you just shouldn’t do when you’re in a rush.
Like paint your nails, go to the BMV or use a mandoline slicer.
I stood in the kitchen, glancing back and forth between the clock and the food on the cutting board in front of me.
I had less than 10 minutes to finish prepping dinner before I had to leave for work.
The last thing I needed to do was make the salad. I pulled out the cabbage and the mandoline slicer and started shredding into a big bowl.
As the last chunk of leafy greens grew smaller and smaller, I was forced to fold my fingers in so they wouldn’t end up as a salad garnish.
Too little too late.
Hearing the back door knob turn, I looked over my shoulder and away from the slicer to see my boyfriend walking through the door.
In a split second, a sharp pinch made me wince and I looked back at my station to see quite a bit of red.
I’d cut a gash in my right thumb, just behind the nail.
A million thoughts shoved themselves into my mind.
Should I go to the hospital? How much blood am I losing? When was my last tetanus shot?
I was reeling. Tears filled my eyes, not from pain but from fear. In fact, I couldn’t even feel anything. I'd gone numb.
Noticing I was frozen, my boyfriend instructed me to start washing it out. As the water from the kitchen sink temporarily cleared away the blood from my hand, it exposed a wound that was deeper than expected.
“Call my dad,” I squeaked at him. “He’ll tell me what I should do.”
My boyfriend held up his phone toward me, displaying my dad’s concerned expression on the Facetime call. I explained the situation.
“You know how you always told me I wasn’t allowed to use the mandoline?” I said.
He gave me a universal dad look — lips pursed together and eyebrows raised — and sighed.
Even on a day off from work, the man never gets a break.
Knowing who he was dealing with, he told me to go wrap it tightly and hold it above my head to slow the bleeding before heading to the E.R..
“Don’t forget your insurance card,” he added.
Upon entering through the automatic doors of the hospital, I realized I had put myself in one of the places I hate the most.
Becoming hyper-aware of the germs and sick people I was now surrounded by, I signed in shakily and took a seat on my boyfriend's lap in the waiting room. The receptionist gave me a funny look, but there was no way I was putting my butt on one of those nasty chairs.
You could not pay me enough, especially during a pandemic.
Five minutes had passed since the lady behind the front desk told me someone would be with me shortly.
Then 10. Then 20. Then 30.
You’d think the word “shortly” would be honored in the emergency room setting.
In the half-hour that I waited, a nurse ordered and received her pizza delivery, the receptionist had a full phone call with her little sister and I told my boyfriend “this is how I die” three times.
American health care at its finest.
When I was finally called back, I did my best to be pleasant. A middle-aged nurse in blue scrubs directed me to a room in the back and asked me to sit on the bed.
The bed was lined with white bed sheets, but no disposable paper cover. Usually, I have no shame and would ask if the sheets were clean and how many had sat on them before me.
Then I remembered this woman would most likely be the one sticking a tetanus shot needle into my arm.
I decided to cut my losses and bite my tongue this time.
After typing out notes on what had happened to my thumb, she let me know that she and a doctor would be back shortly.
I shot a look at my boyfriend.
“Shortly,” I mouthed silently.
I sat with one hand in my lap and the other in the thumbs-up position at eye level, doing my best not to touch anything I didn’t have to.
When the nurse returned with the doctor, I unwrapped my sad-looking finger and the doctor squinted.
Given the unnecessary mass of bandages I’d engulfed the wound in, I think she thought it would be bigger.
“When was your last tetanus shot?” she asked.
I didn’t know, but now I was certain I needed one to survive.
I laid in bed, staring at the ceiling. I squeezed my eyes shut and willed myself not to pick up my phone again.
But, like most nights, the cycle had a hold of me.
Think, obsess, think, obsess.
I grabbed my phone and clicked it on, and the light from my screen felt like it burned my retinas.
I added that to my list of things to get checked out.
2:36 AM, my phone read.
I opened Safari and scrolled through my tabs: sinus infection deadly? will my sinus infection turn into meningitis? how do you know if sinus infection is meningitis? meningitis symptoms.
Earlier that day, I drove myself to urgent care where they said I had an ear and sinus infection.
But for several days prior to my trip to the doctor, I was sure I had nasopharyngeal cancer. It took all my energy to talk myself off that ledge and fall onto the much more logical meningitis platform.
I’ve learned that it freaks doctors out when you come on strong like that. You have to ease them into it.
Plus, you’d be pissed if some 19-year-old journalism major came in and questioned your 10 plus years of medical training, too.
They called in a prescription for amoxicillin and Mucinex ER for my infections and sent me on my way.
That’s it? I asked myself.
Let me make something perfectly clear: I do not want to be sick. I do not want to have something wrong with me. I do not want to die. This is not a Munchausen’s situation, people.
In fact, I want so badly for there to be nothing wrong with me that it’s all I can think about most days.
To a hypochondriac, headaches are brain bleeds, leg cramps mean amputations and stomach grumbles are deadly ulcers.
And in your head, you’re convinced that you are going to die.
In combination with OCD, the experience is paralyzing.
One summer I thought I had polio because I was having pain around my spine. The same polio that’s been eradicated from the United States for like, half a century, if that gives you any idea what kind of anxiety my brain is working with.
Nonetheless, I was not confident in the accuracy of Oxford’s urgent care, so I texted my parents, both of whom are nurses.
Me: “How would I know if my sinus infection was turning into meningitis?”
Dad: “It’s not or they would have sent you to the hospital.”
Humans make mistakes sometimes, Dad.
I pushed, like always.
Me: “But how would they have known? What’s the difference?”
Since the Night of the Fallopian Tube, my parents have dealt with a lot from me.
Hours of panic attacks.
Frequent doctor visits.
Hundreds of phone calls to them that were meant to be “emergency only” while they were scrubbed into surgery cases at the hospital.
To be fair, we have very different concepts of the word “emergency.”
Regardless, it’s a miracle they haven’t gone completely mad after years of what I can barely handle myself.
Now, four hours away from them at school, I miss them.
I’m not one to get homesick. I’ve always been pretty independent. But right now, in the middle of a pandemic, I feel small.
I feel helpless.
I miss them rolling their eyes at me.
I miss their reassurance every five minutes that I’m okay, even though it’s hard for me to believe them.
When I’m in the thick of an obsessive episode at school, I usually close myself in my room. I lay on my bed, pace the floor or swivel in my desk chair.
I don’t eat.
I don’t sleep.
I don’t recognize who I am when I look in the mirror.
The brain is absolutely incredible. It can learn how to play an instrument, heal itself after a concussion and even memorize every word to “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj in less than a day so you can impress your fifth grade best friend.
But like most things that seem too good to be true, there’s always a catch. And as incredible as the brain is, it is equally as frightening.
My brain can make me feel real symptoms, real pain and real fear that I’m dying from some horrible disease, day after day. I have intrusive thoughts and obsessions that control me.
Some days, even if I’m alone, I can’t get a minute to myself.
Everything in my life is one wrong move away from spinning out of control at any given time, and in the midst of a pandemic, I’ve lost much of the little bit of control that I once had.
In normal circumstances, I have a lot on my plate.
I’m dealing with keeping germs away, making sure every muscle in my body feels symmetrical, counting most things to four and worrying that if I don’t say the right thing every night, everyone I love will die.
With all that, just staying grounded in everyone else’s version of reality is a lot, and the COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer.
I do what I can to hide this side of myself from most people because let’s face it, I come off a little crazy.
Trust me, I’m the first person to acknowledge that.
But to the people who know me best and love me unconditionally, well, they still think I’m a bit of a lunatic.
And my brain and I are okay with letting that slide.