You Have an Illness (Anxiety); Just Not the One You Think You Have
by Ben Knight
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It’s weird. You can be carefree and devoid of fear. Impulsive and strong. A shining light in a world you perceive as dull. It’s weird that you can be all of these things and then, just as abruptly, be none of them at all.
I’ve always had sweaty palms, always had this odd breathing pattern where I would try to inhale and hit a wall—needing a deep sigh to break through this wall in order to achieve a satisfying breath. For a while, I figured these were just insignificant hallmarks of what made my body unique; unobtrusive, and benign.
Until they weren’t.
It was late autumn and the chill of winter loomed over my family’s house, afflicting those close to me with variations of the common cold. While most of us fought off the virus without much a thought, one of us didn’t recover. One of us got worse.
She wasn’t ‘under-the-weather’ sick. She was really sick. Her door stayed shut, lights turned off, contact restricted. I didn’t really know what was going on—but whisperings of cancer and scary blood test results whirled around my house. It was the kind of thing that you don’t talk about. You just nudge at the thought of it until you break through the thoughts and they sort of just fall away into a delicate memory box somewhere in your brain.
I nudged all I could. I went about my daily business. I went to my Master’s course, to my friends’ gatherings, to my job. People told me stories and jokes but they lost their meaning—communication was alien. I lived underwater, my vision a haze of a flailing sunlight and confusing bubbles. I don’t remember any of it. What was taught, what was paid for, what was said; I didn’t care.
And it was this fact—that I didn’t care about my friends, that I couldn’t empathise with my sick family member, that my overriding reaction was to yearn for my own mental clarity—that scared me.
It was my failure. My inability to stand up in the moment. My selfishness.
In a time of great peril for someone else, I drew the blinds closed and shut out the world. Instead of being a vestige of support, I was a lifeless husk, despondent and self-loathing. I would bargain with myself that it was just my body’s survival instincts kicking in, just a natural reaction to stress. But who was I kidding? I wasn’t the one fighting to survive.
But as it turns out, neither was she.
The week I’d occupied lulling inside a delirium was for naught. The bed-ridden days spent in the dark by someone close to me were the result of rogue kidney stones, not cancer. The stones caused her some scars when they were removed, but a full recovery was always in the cards when her true diagnosis was uncovered.
But cancer, the malignant entity it is, hadn’t finished with me. It slid through spiderwebs and mouse-holes, the ghost of its ubiquitous misery preying on my mind. It chewed, it engulfed. It was insatiable.
One morning, I woke up and felt something odd during my ritual stretch. Lumps on my neck—barely the size of eraser heads—that weren’t previously palpable. Normally I would have just ignored this. Perhaps if her false-positive scare never happened I would’ve ignored those lumps and been able to just move on.
But I couldn’t.
These lymph nodes—ironically designed to protect your body’s system from harm—became my Cthulhu. I was obsessed. Every ten minutes I would feel them in their enlarged state and bite my tongue. I was convinced I had It.
I became a prisoner of my own ridiculous assumption, spending half of my days relentlessly pummeling Google and WebMD:
‘What size is indicative of malignancy in lymph nodes?’
‘What are the accompanying symptoms of Hodgkin’s lymphoma?’
‘What is the incidence rate of blood Cancer in males under thirty?’
The information I extracted pointed squarely towards the fact that nothing was wrong. I was fine. But I couldn’t believe it. I knew something was wrong. In retrospect, I was right the whole time—something was wrong, it just wasn’t cancer.
My doctor, observing my symptoms of anxiety and irrational fears, told me that I was suffering from acute stress disorder. She told me it would go away soon, that time heals all wounds, that therapy might help, that pills probably wouldn’t. She was gracious, sympathetic, and fleetingly comforting. But she forgot to tell me one thing—that mental wounds take much longer to heal than physical ones.
My doctor’s assurance that my symptoms—physical and mental—would dissipate did little to halt my mania. I assaulted her with demands of x-rays and blood tests. I would get my chest x-ray and place it up against the window next to a printout of a terminally ill cancer patient’s. I would compare my blood test results against those who had so much more to lose. My brain justified that each scientific journal, each new little piece of information would help abate my worry. This created a toxic self-reward cycle: feeling good after learning a specific symptom of cancer that I didn’t have, only for the concern to soon after rear its predictable head so that I could validate myself and feel good again.
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I confided in some people, but most of what I told them was immersed in lies.
Every cough and every headache and every night I woke up with sweat soaking through my sheets only served to perpetuate my nightmarish delirium. Of course all of these symptoms were associated with the specific cancer I was convinced I had. Of course they fucking were.
The panic was the worst. The simplest way of describing what it felt like during those six months is that I constantly felt like I was dying. I thought each day might be my last. Death lurked around every corner, mocking my feverish foray into hypochondria. I took measures to cope with the anxiety—I bought a heart rate monitor to assure myself that, in times of panic, my heart wouldn’t implode. I downloaded a breathing app to assure myself that, in times of panic, I wasn’t going crazy.
But they didn’t work, because I was.
Without fail, as the safety of light dissipated, I would pace around my room, opening and closing doors, walking in and out of the shower, spitting out blood from my mouth that wasn’t really there. I would lie down, get up, lie down and get up again. I was seeing double, unable to connect mind and body, each motor movement a cruel joke played out by an unknown entity. I ached for the answer to a question I didn’t have.
Living in this panic-induced sate of depersonalisation gave me an idea. I had long desired to express my mental struggles artistically but found it nearly impossible. Every song I’d write felt imposturous, like trying to describe an indescribable experience. But portraying the anxiety as someone else’s—a character’s—transformed it from an undoable task to an enjoyable feat of acceptance. Living vicariously through this lyrical invention gave me an outlet—not for expression, but for company. Though fictional, this unnamed character helped me believe I was not alone in what I was coping with.
Each lyric was distant but cathartic as I moulded each line with the intent of keeping the story an arms-length away from my own.
She’s coming down
But I’ll beat here there
All the chemicals
They touch her hair
The marrow inside
Her bones isn’t there
All the drugs
How could this be fair?
I started to use online forums and soon found I was not as isolated as I once thought I was. My specific fears—which had warped into unrelenting obsessions—were discussed at length. Many on these communities detailed their own stories of finding lumps in their neck and dreading lymphoma. Their own secret manias. They shared their plight with a level of bravery and determination unbeknownst to me. Their transformations from posting fearful stories of disdainful doctors and night sweats at 4am to empowering, inspirational words of acceptance and triumph emboldened me. I took my arm away from what I was writing and fully embraced my experience. I wanted to learn from it, not just for myself, but so my struggles could become another person’s accomplishments.
Just another normal day
I feel no sense of time
Just another feeling
I will not care for your peace of mind
As the words began to flow easier, so too did the turmoil that plagued my waking life. I withdrew the veil from my face and confided in friends and family the extent of my troubles, prompting them to reveal their own struggles. We came together as friends and family, transforming a once intangible support network into a perpetual talisman of hope and protection.
A few days after finishing the song I developed a fever accompanied by trouble swallowing and a tickly, dry cough. Consulting myself in the mirror, I observed a number of white pustules taking residence in the back of my throat. I slammed my jaw shut and just stared at my reflection for a while, smiling. Because—in what is retrospectively an ill-advised decision—I knew I wasn’t going to the doctor. I knew I would be fine.
And, soon enough, the cough was gone, as was the infection with it. I wasn’t there yet, but I had to admit I was getting better.
Sometimes now the panic still sets in. Thoughts of terminal illness, my decrepit body lying in a dark room always seem to be around the corner, out of sight but not quite out of mind. But these days are few and far between and these thoughts are spectres of what they once were. In a way, this experience has changed me for the better. I’ve become a more encompassing, more sympathetic human. It resulted in a matured perspective on life allowing for greater understanding of compromise, selflessness, and self-control.
Dealing with these issues artistically granted me the confidence to seek professional help; to better understand and, therefore, better convey my struggles. Though I am still in the initial stages of a therapeutic relationship, these sessions have indicated the significant impact that clinical assistance can, and will, have in the future. I look forward to working together with my family, friends, therapist, and my artistic outlets to pick up the mental and emotional pieces that were ripped from me. I feel like I’m almost there.
As for the lumps on my neck—they’re still there, the same as they were over a year ago. But they’re my friends now. They serve as a gentle reminder of where I came from, what I’ve been through and that I should share my knowledge in the hope that it might help just one person get better, as others did for me.