Cough cough

Lockdown was a blessing for hypochondriacs

Few people who know my family would have expected me to be our voice of calm during the Covid pandemic. I am a worrier on constant alert who requires a daily SSRI to remain functional. My sister, meanwhile, is so blithely relaxed that, as a child, she absentmindedly wandered over the edge of the stage and into the orchestra pit during a ballet recital curtain call. (She was fine. I still have flashbacks.)

But as Covid turned the world upside down, it upended our roles, too. After a lifetime of calming my fears, real or imagined, my sister now needed me to reassure her; the howling fantods had come for her at last. Of the two of us, she was the one to have the first full-blown meltdown, emailing in a panic that she was sure she had a fever; that naturally, this must be Covid; and that it would inevitably be fatal, so I could have her jewellery and clothes (we wear the same size) but not her shoes (I run smaller). I, meanwhile, was perfectly unruffled, able to reassure her that she would be fine, everything was fine.

Washing groceries and sanitising the mail was entirely new to most people but I was an old hand at all of it

I was certainly fine, for, perhaps, the first time ever. I couldn’t help feeling like Covid was something I’d been training for my entire life. Washing groceries and sanitising the mail was entirely new to most people but I was an old hand at all of it, thanks to the obsessive-compulsive disorder that had begun plaguing me in my early teens. Avoiding touching doorknobs was a well-developed muscle, a bike I never forgot how to ride. Monitoring my body for symptoms was an unremarkable part of my daily routine. My sister, unused to seeing danger everywhere, was overwhelmed, while I felt like I finally knew what I was doing. I came to think of our newly inverted narrative as a Tale of Two Sisters: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

For me, it was the former. I loved being stuck at home. Suddenly, my circle of worry was circumscribed to entirely manageable square footage, populated only by my husband and two children. On the rare occasions I left the house, I encountered surfaces sterilised to standards I’d only dreamed of at my obsessive-compulsive peak. My own home was a great deal less pristine, but it was familiar, and comfortable. For a homebody who requires routine, this was fantastic, marred only by the guilt I felt for living my best life during a global catastrophe that was killing unfathomable scores of people daily.

Depression and anxiety increased 25 per cent worldwide during the pandemic

I was also, I’m ashamed to say, smugly satisfied that I was finally being proved right. The invisible contamination I’d always suspected all around me now actually was everywhere. You could get sick – really sick! – just standing there. No wonder lots of people suddenly became as anxious as I’d been my entire life.

Those like me whose default setting is constant worry paradoxically found ourselves unusually calm. We knew how to manage under these new conditions, and we felt validated they were giving others an opportunity to walk in our shoes.

My sister found the restrictions too confining. Her Covid anxiety settled down after a couple of weeks, and she quickly reverted to her normal routine. I realised this when she posted: “We’re all just brushing our teeth once a day now, right?” Furloughed from work, she was able to relax her hygiene rituals to previously unacceptable lows, confessing that she was only showering when her body odour got so bad it woke her up at night, a process that took about three weeks.

Others, however, remained on high alert. Research now reveals how widespread our collective anxiety became. A World Health Organisation study found that depression and anxiety increased 25 per cent worldwide during the pandemic. In America, where I live, rates were even higher. According to statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control, rates of anxiety and depression were four times higher in 2020-2021 than in 2019.

It was, in many ways, a heyday for hypochondria, though we no longer call it that; the term was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013. The preferred label today is “illness anxiety disorder” and, as a sufferer, I’m grateful for the change, never having found “hypochondria” a particularly apt name. From hypo (under) and chondrion (rib cartilage), the term was originally used by Hippocrates to describe the thoracic region of the body. This area was thought to be the seat of unhappiness, and Galen later employed the term to describe emotional stomach problems. This form of hypochondria was considered a true medical condition rather than a mental one, caused by an excess of black bile, and was treated with bloodletting and laxatives.

I couldn’t say if that’s more or less effective than the methods we used to treat it during Covid: doomscrolling news and stockpiling toilet paper against the unknown void. I mostly avoided these activities, instead spending my time sewing dresses I said were Batsheva knockoffs but more closely resembled the kind of frocks favoured by polygamist cults and the bunker women of American sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It seemed like the appropriate wardrobe for days spent sheltering at home.

When the weather warmed we began taking our children on socially-distanced strolls that my husband called Tense Family Walks and I described as an opportunity to argue in different places. But this wasn’t fair or true; we were neither tense nor argumentative. At worst, we were bored.

And so the months passed. We stayed healthy, even when we began venturing out into the world, shielded by masks and, when they became available, vaccines. Our son was the first to get the virus, a year and a half into the pandemic and a week before the vaccine was approved for his age group. My panic was brief, subsiding as soon as it became clear he had a mild case that would respond well to a steady infusion of Lego sets.

I didn’t get Covid myself until December 2022, having managed to avoid it for so long that I began to think this was the one disease to which I was immune. My sister, who’d taken a lot fewer precautions than me but remained Covid-free, was starting to think the same until she caught it at the exact same time and two thousand miles away.

By that point I’d had all my jabs and boosters and while I wouldn’t call my case mild, anyone else probably would. I spent a congested week in bed watching every single episode of the Great British Baking Show. My sister reported almost no symptoms except for increased irritation she described as “extreme stabbiness.” I understood, as I had it too. Other than that, things went about as well as could be expected.

What I hadn’t expected was that the overwhelming anxiety I’d managed to avoid the entire pandemic would arrive after I’d recovered from the virus. Every day now, I was knocked down by waves of dread so crippling it felt like I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. The other shoe had already dropped: I’d caught Covid, and I was fine, so why was I so worried now?

Because of science, apparently. Research shows that increased anxiety can be a lingering side-effect after a Covid infection, especially in the short term. It is already starting to subside, however, and I’m realising, like many who suffer from both health anxiety and persistent Covid symptoms, that long Covid can in its way offer comfort as I now have something to pin my worries on. Before the pandemic I would have considered the memory lapses and profound lactose intolerance I’ve had since Covid as clear evidence of impending doom in the form of Huntington’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Now I remind myself that these symptoms, like my recent bouts of anxiety, are Covid holdovers. Nothing to fear but fear itself, and I’m used to that.

I spent my time sewing dresses that closely resembled the kind of frocks favoured by polygamist cults

As for my sister, who is now back at her job as a restaurant server, she reports that her experience with Covid anxiety has left her more sensitive to those who are still dealing with it. So when a masked and gloved couple recently arrived at her restaurant with a thick stack of the large, absorbent sheets used to house-train puppies – and proceeded to blanket their table with them, then sit on a nest of three pads apiece – she did not laugh or roll her eyes, just treated them with kindness and patience.
I’m trying to treat myself the same way.

Jennifer Traig is the author of “Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting”, “Well Enough Alone”, and “Devil in the Details”

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February 2023, Main Features

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