April 12, 2024
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Hypochondriasis: A Thousand Blows

Ah, yes! How sad are many of life’s truisms, especially those dealing with an individual’s limited life span and the many illnesses and severe medical conditions that may afflict him or her during that brief time. Between real and imagined ills, it’s enough to make one sick!

And when a person is abnormally anxious about their health, they are said to suffer from hypochondriasis, a fancy term derived from the Latin term for “abdomen,” the thought being that the upper abdomen or stomach is the ultimate source of the sufferer’s melancholic or morbid feelings. Being a hypochondriac may derive from many causes, some being “natural” to the sufferer, others a result of the peculiar nurturing that occurs in one’s upbringing. Most often, it’s a little of both.

As a relevant study, we’ll view the classic case of Shmuel Aydelman, a Teaneck resident of almost 50 years. Aydelman was born almost 70 years ago in Manhattan, the only son of an American-born mother and European-born father. In the family apartment on the Upper West Side, Shmuel had a large room to himself along with a rather commodious closet and adjoining full bathroom; his three sisters shared a second bedroom.

On the small night table next to Shmuel’s bed lay several reference books as well as assorted comic books and large picture books of the giant Golden Book series published by Western Publishing. Of most significance to our essay was a large, yellowing medical encyclopedia, at least 25 years old. As Shmuel was a precocious reader, he often opened the medical reference book and reviewed random selections. Over time, Shmuel began to collect quite a knowledge of symptoms and treatments for some of the most pernicious diseases known to man. If his acquired knowledge stayed theoretical, it wouldn’t have been a major problem; but Shmuel, seven years of age, began to suffer from a condition well recognized to plague (no pun intended!) young medical school students (15 years older and more than Shmuel), namely the unshakeable belief that one is suffering from one or more dread diseases one is studying about in his medical school classes.

Shmuel was hit hard by this “I read about it, I’ve contracted it” syndrome. In the course of the next year, following reading about the untimely passing of Red Skelton’s son from leukemia, Shmuel believed he had contracted the disease, searching for weeks for symptoms that the disease was progressing. When nipped on the finger by a pet dog of a friend, Shmuel was certain he had contracted rabies. No amount of reassurance from his parents and the friends’ parents convinced Shmuel that the dog wasn’t rabid and that he had nothing to fear. Next, Shmuel examined every jar and can in his mother’s kitchen for signs of contamination, in particular cans of tuna fish and pickle jars were examined for possible food poisoning or botulism. Finally, every puncture wound and laceration was suspected to harbor tetanus microbes, keeping Shmuel awake at night awaiting the first signs of lockjaw setting in.

One can only imagine the psychic suffering a hypochondriac such as Shmuel Aydelman endures, but it is not the hypochondriac alone who suffers. As is typical in such cases, Shmuel’s parents were beside themselves with deep concern over his preoccupation with his health. They acted to remove the medical reference book from his room, but Shmuel sought it out, ultimately digging it out of the front hall closet. No amount of counseling seemed to help; in the end, his parents had to admit to themselves that they might have to wait until Shmuel became a teenager—subject to peer pressure—before he would “grow out” of his morbid preoccupation with his health. Getting little relief from his parents’ new hands-off approach, Shmuel now was resigned to a fate of dying “a thousand theoretical deaths,” all traceable to his status as a hypochondriac.

Shmuel ages. He finds that possessing good skin leads to an active social life. As hypochondriasis can’t be seen from the outside, only Shmuel’s intimates might suspect he was a silent sufferer; however, when he ultimately married, he couldn’t hide his condition from his spouse, Bella. Generally hypochondriacs become experts at hiding their condition and truly suffer in silence; they become the most ardent phytobiotics: magic substances that can act swiftly and directly to combat disease.

Is therapy an answer for the syndrome? There are mixed results. Apparently Shmuel once went to a shrink, but he wasn’t impressed. Under hypnosis he confessed that what he missed most in life was to be “caressed”: The theory was that a simple touch would satisfy some deep psychic need. When the shrink suggested he ask Bella, his spouse, to aid in his therapy, he agreed to try:

“Bella, would you caress my hand, please?”

“What??”

“Caress, my hand please!”

“Caress? No one speaks that way or uses the word ‘caress’ anymore,” insisted Bella with conviction.

So much for therapeutic intervention. Shmuel would have to truly become psychically independent if he were to rid himself of his hypochondriacal condition.

I am happy to report a recent development that occurred around Shmuel’s 40th birthday, which can be considered at least a partial cure, a success story that can only be viewed as a triumph for self-analysis. It was on one sunny spring afternoon that Shmuel steered his car, a gray Lincoln LS, onto the FDR northbound in Manhattan for his homeward trek to New Jersey. As he motored in fairly light traffic near 125th Street, his mind began to turn to thoughts of his health and his psychological preoccupations. He thought to himself:

“Why am I so concerned with my health and thoughts of illness? When did this begin?”

Shmuel knew he had been this way for as long as he could remember, but quite suddenly, he thought that just maybe there had been a triggering event that could explain his condition, something that could explain the preoccupation with dying and death!

It came to him in a flash, so obvious that it seemed impossible he had never in his lifetime thought of it before. It was a realization that transformed an often frivolously perceived state of the mind to a matter of serious contemplation: When he was six years old, his mother had announced to the family the expected arrival the following June of a baby sibling. Being the only son with three sisters, this was news Shmuel was happy to contemplate. As the arrival date approached, plans were made to induce the baby; the obstetrician had a vacation planned and, for his convenience, arrangement was made for a delivery before July 4. The baby was presumably considered full term and so Shmuel’s baby brother was delivered early on a Friday morning late in June.

Before leaving home that morning, Shmuel’s father told him that a party, a shalom zachar, would be held that night at his home to celebrate the birth. Later in the morning, however, Shmuel’s father came home with a sad expression on his face. He took Shmuel by the hand and told him that there would be no party that evening, that the baby had died after about 10 hours because its lungs were not fully developed. Shmuel must have been stunned by the news. This was an era where no one thought about bereavement counseling for the very young, a type of counseling Shmuel was clearly in need of. Shmuel showed no overt signs of grief and disappointment, as his mother did.

But now as he drove up the highway toward home, Shmuel clearly understood that his hypochondriasis began within weeks or months of the death of his brother and could be directly related to that sad event: If death could suddenly take away the life of a baby, it could just as easily take Shmuel’s. To the fragile mind of a six-year old such a real-life danger was no mere speculation. Once Shmuel had his epiphany, he became significantly less occupied with his health, understanding at last why he had had these desperate feelings since he was little.

Today, even though we as a society are facing real, not imagined, health perils such as pandemics, we are thankfully aware of the impact on young and old minds of these concerns and look actively for signs of unhealthy preoccupation with disease. It is imperative that we limit this condition to the extent possible. If only day schools in the 1950s had teams of social workers on hand to intervene in times of family crisis, maybe all of Shmuel’s problems with hypochondriasis could have been avoided. Shmuel would have undoubtedly occupied a “seat of honor” in the school psychologist’s office, and hopefully would have enjoyed greater peace of mind and tranquility in the ensuing years.

Joseph Rotenberg, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Link, has resided in Teaneck for over 45 years with his wife, Barbara. His first collection of short stories and essays, entitled “Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment,” was published in 2018 by Gefen Books and is available online at Amazon.com. He is currently working on a follow-up volume of stories and essays.

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