It’s difficult to count the number of times I’ve developed coronavirus (or SARS-CoV-2, if we are being specific) in recent weeks.
On an almost daily basis, my chest has become tight and my breathing feels unnatural. Thanks to the fact I’ve now read every available global account of coronavirus, I remember survivors talking of having a ‘gremlin’ gripped to their chests or, more comfortingly, the hand of death.
I clutch at my heart and briefly wonder if this is it. Amongst all the morbid speculations on my own death, I never imagined my time on this mortal coil would be extinguished by the love child of Jabba the Hutt and a sneezing bat.
Imagining the tiny pathogen storming my lungs, I lurch forward and feel momentarily outraged. Where did it find me? Tesco? On my daily walk? Was it that jogger that ran past me and exhaled in my face?
I knew he looked pale.
Realising the magnitude of the situation, my heart begins to race. Never one to miss out on an medical emergency, adrenaline and cortisol join the party – breathless and ready to round up the rest of my body. With the Riot Act now read, it’s not long before I have pins and needles in my fingers and my legs feel like lead.
Any hypochondriac worth their salt knows that these symptoms are the calling cards of COVID-19.
Despite my best efforts – despite my own health anxiety and the strict sanitary routines that come with it – it’s found me.
I’m done for.
My Relationship with Health Anxiety
Of course, these ‘flare ups’ of coronavirus have quickly petered out.
In fact, it would be safe to say I’ve never had COVID-19 – not even a mild dose of it.
What I have had, however, is persuasive, constant and neurotic health anxiety. An anxiety that is fantastically skilled at masquerading as almost any disease.
I’ve had health anxiety for as long as I can remember. It began with a fear of being sick (emetophobia), which soon meant that I wouldn’t eat after 8pm, ride rollercoasters or eat scampi.
Sometime after that, my attention moved to meningitis (granted, it was quite the escalation). One day, our primary school teacher announced we would be receiving our vaccination for the disease; explaining its importance through a series of haunting photographs.
While the other kids gave these images a cursory glance, I clutched them in terror: staring at images of purple mottled rashes and swollen limbs. I couldn’t finish my sandwiches that lunchtime.
The result, of course, was some sort of meningitis PTSD, which resulted in me spending the next four years obsessively rolling glasses over heat rashes and insect bites.
While the worrying in itself is of course draining, it’s perhaps health anxiety’s flair for mimicry that’s the worst part. It makes me feel genuinely unwell – a shapeshifter that can parade as both a brain tumour and a common cold; a rare tropical disease and smallpox – a disease that hasn’t been seen since the 1970s.
Try hard enough and it could probably convince me that I’ve got testicular cancer.
Of course, in my 33 years of living, I should say I’ve (thankfully) never actually had any of these illnesses or disorders. In fact, the most unwell I’ve ever been was when I had a particularly bad case of salmonella.
However, this isn’t an irony that my health anxiety is willing to acknowledge. As far as it’s concerned, my life has been one long assault course of dodging, avoiding and hurtling over possible threats and challenges.
And now? Well now it’s in its element – staring wide eyed at the headlines and hyperventilating over images of bleeping, crowded ICU units.
If anyone has been waiting for this global pandemic, it’s my health anxiety.