Why making it to 20 is a big deal: my experience with health anxiety

Getting older is a huge milestone for those of us who's health anxiety convinced us we'd never make it that far.

Annabel Hogg
30th June 2022
Image credit: Polina Tankilevitch, Pexels
It feels appropriate to be writing this less than twelve hours before I leave my teenage years behind and embark on a new decade. I’ve never been someone who’s cried about birthdays. Coming from a family full of medical professionals, I’ve always been witness to lots of stories about people dying too young and so I always remind myself that aging is a blessing and one that not everyone is afforded. This year, however, I’m more grateful for this new lap around the sun than ever before. That’s because this time last year, I’d have bet my life savings that I wouldn’t see twenty.

I’ve always being somewhat of a hypochondriac – it’s hard not to be when your brain is an encyclopaedia of medical conditions that you don’t have quite enough knowledge to be able to rationalise. In my early teens I created ‘sepsis bingo’, which – you guessed it, counted how many times sepsis could be said in a day in our house. There are so many positives to growing up in this environment. Drank too much and need putting in the recovery position? I’m your girl. Need a rash looking at? I’ll be there rolling my glass over it. In fact, to anyone who isn’t of my anxious disposition, it’s probably quite a cool environment to grow up in – and for most of my life, it was.

However, in the spring of last year, something changed. I read a non-fiction book where the main character’s 19-year-old little sister and planned maid of honour died of Leukaemia. Immediately, I found myself on the NHS webpage finding every piece of information I could about the cancer. Pale? Check. Random bruising? Check. Nosebleeds? Check. If it could happen to that girl, it could happen to me, right? My fears escalated when the next week my sister got engaged and I suddenly became 19 years old and set to be her maid of honour. It’s crazy writing this and seeing how I latched on to a book and convinced myself it was predicting my future, but it wasn’t crazy at the time.

Any pain, any rash, any gland and any slightly odd feeling was a death sentence.

Naturally, my mum reminded me that I had always been pale, always had nosebleeds and always bruised easily. But it didn’t matter, there was no convincing me. I feigned a smile and told my mum I believed her but deep down I was planning my funeral and imagining what it would be like for my family to lose the baby of the clan.

The Leukaemia obsession was just the start (though albeit remained my greatest fear throughout my health anxiety). From that point on I developed a fear of dying young. Any pain, any rash, any gland and any slightly odd feeling was a death sentence. I used to have a diary where I’d write my symptoms in and try to rationalise them – there could be up to 10 a day. Now, I don’t even notice those muscle spasms, which just goes to show how truly fixated I was on my body.

What started out as a fear became an obsession. No amount of reassurance from my mum or my sister (a qualified doctor) could settle my fears, at least not for more than five minutes. When a new symptom struck, I’d shut down for days at a time. If I was going to die anyway then what was the point in doing anything? This was particularly difficult when I came back to university as I didn’t have instant access to that temporary reassurance from my sister (although, a special thanks goes out to my friends who answered the same question two hundred times on every night out without the slightest idea of what I was talking about). But I didn’t want to make friends, didn’t want to express my emotion, didn’t want anyone to get attached to me and then have to live life without me.

Obsessively googling symptoms is common for those with health anxiety. Image credit: Pixabay, PhotoMIX-Company

Those first few months of second year were the worst of my life. Washing up piled, my hands would scour my collarbone for lumps about 1000 times a day (what if I just didn’t feel properly? I needed to feel it again) and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I just didn’t care – what was the point?

Around October time I had a phone call assessment with the NHS and the therapist told me that he thought it had gone beyond health anxiety and was now in the realms of OCD. The therapist helped me to find distractions (my favourite being a horse-riding show aimed at 7-year-olds) and triggers. I asked my closest friends to be careful about what they talked about in front of me and since then I’ve never heard so much as a cold get mentioned in front of me. Things started to get better.

I started therapy at Uni (which I would thoroughly recommend to anyone going through the same thing). These sessions helped me to unpack where this obsession started and we discovered my fear was less about dying and more about my family grieving me, as if it would somehow be my fault. After months of therapy and avoiding triggers, I was and am so much better. I wish I could go speak to me from a year ago and tell her that she would be writing this the day before her 20th birthday.

Organisations like Coppafeel do amazing work to remind us to look out for lumps and bumps, but for those with healthy anxiety or OCD, checking for abnormalities becomes an obsession. Image credit: Leanna Thomson

I’ll always be nervous of health. A combination of my anxious disposition and a childhood that filled me to the brim with medical knowledge means this is a fate I’ll never escape. You might catch my face drop whenever someone mentions breast cancer, you might even see my hand drift over my collarbone occasionally.

But you won’t see me running away from life. You won’t see me fearing love, friendship, my degree, being my sister’s maid of honour or anything else I was convinced I’d have to leave behind.

It’s true that me being healed doesn’t mean that any of these things are now promised. The sad reality is there’s a tiny chance that I could get Leukaemia. Acceptance of this is one of the first steps to healing. But there’s also a chance that I could get hit by a bus, win the lottery, marry Harry Styles, and become an international rugby player – but I don’t think of any of these things every day, so why should dying be any different?

Tomorrow is never promised, but that’s not a reason to stop living today. To live life in fear of something that could happen is to ignore all the beautiful things that are happening, and it’s something I won’t do any more. I couldn’t have got here on my own and I urge anyone else going through the same thing to seek help. If death is so scary, then that means life can be great– right? It’s time to start living it again.

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AUTHOR: Annabel Hogg
she/her| second year english literature student| relationships sub-editor 21/22

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