urgent: cancel your black veil order right away

Because you won’t be needing them just yet – in a marvellous bit of efficiency, I’ve had my CT scan results back and everything looks normal. I’ve taken a look myself and I am assuming the ‘Unremarkable Head’ in the notes is a medical term and not someone critiquing my blowjob skills because they would be absolutely wrong. I could suck a golf-ball through a 40m garden hose without breaking a sweat.

What an opener! I was trying to be very good and sensible by not checking my NHS app to see if the results were in, and don’t get me wrong I was very proud of myself for those four minutes, but I cracked and checked on the off-chance. There’s nothing quite like that fear of clicking the link to look at your results and wondering exactly how long you’ve got left to live and how quickly Paul could order me a piano box. There’s also the very real danger of misinterpretation (which is why, if you’re anxious, you shouldn’t do this) and I know this from previous experience where I spent a good two days panicking about my heart only to realise I’d totally misread the detail and given myself a rough time for no reason. Exercise caution and if you’re unsure, leave it to the professionals. In fact, no, nevermind caution: always leave it to the professionals. I had a follow-up chat with the doctor who has reassured me that my bloods and my scan paint a pretty healthy picture and although I could stand to lose a couple of stone, I was actually doing bloody well. In the absence of him giving me a lollipop for being a brave boy, I made myself a certificate for the fridge:

So, how does someone suffering with health anxiety deal with getting an all-clear result? Interesting question, even if I say so myself. Which I’m obviously doing, as I’m writing this blog. You might expect that the relief is overwhelming, and of course it is after spending weeks telling yourself you’re on your way out and you’ve wasted your life, but this is where the fun of health anxiety comes in. See the next step of the trap is doubting the doctors. What if they missed something? What if they spilled some kahlúa on the results? What if every time they looked at the scan they popped their thumb over the exact place where something fizzy and nasty was growing? What if they ran out of oblique Simpsons references? What if what if what if.

Certainly, in darker times, I’ve gone down the route of assuming the worst and demanding second opinions and retests and wanting to look at their medical degree to assume they didn’t pluck it out of a crane-grab machine in a bowling alley (got one more in!). Let me tell you: it’s fucking exhausting. Not least because that level of narcissism, thinking you know better than someone who has trained for years and who doesn’t have an ulterior motive in seeing you shuffle off the Earth, takes some serious ego-upkeep. If we pop back in time a good ten years ago, and once you’re over the shock of seeing what a beautiful young man I was, you’d find me absolutely adamant that I was dying and everyone was wrong and why wasn’t anyone listening. My legs were going full Riverdance, my body felt like I’d been plugged into the National Grid, my balls were hurting, my brain was aching, my heart was clearly about to burst like a child’s balloon filled with butter. I was ill, and no-one was paying any attention, and any tests they did were lip-service at best. Honestly, I cringe with how arrogant I was, but that’s the indulgence of health anxiety: you’re simultaneously the cleverest and sickest person in the room.

Whaddya know though, here I am ten years later. I was ill, no doubt about that, but it was an illness my brain had created and then, because I was on edge for months, my body created physical symptoms not of some scary life-threatening disease but rather anxiety. You know when you get a fright – say you open your electricity bill and they’ve printed it on A3 to make sure all the numbers fit on – and you’re shaky and all-to-cock afterwards? It’s exactly the same with health anxiety – you spend so long worked up in a tizz that your body doesn’t properly shut down and relax. Like the cleaning of a house, it never ends. That’s another!

So you – or rather I – have a choice. You can choose to take steps to accept you’re not about to die and maybe this is a chaos of your own control, or you can keep distrusting the medical professionals and carry on sending yourself back into the storm. If you choose the former, you’ll recover, and if you choose the latter, you’ll worsen. At this point of the story it’s as binary as that. It’s how I beat health anxiety before: I decided enough was enough with fretting about every little twitch, every little shake and every little hiccup and just got on with things. And that is exactly what I am doing now.

I don’t doubt for a second that the next few weeks, maybe months, are going to be difficult at times: I am trying to come up with a good analogy for what it’s like at the moment and the best I can do is a river with a load of chemicals poured in. The balance of me is all over the shop and it’s going to take time to right it by de-stressing, being a bit more mindful of my reactions to things and, more importantly, not sitting on my fat arse and not doing anything about it. When I twitch I’ll accept it for what it is – the by-product of an overworked body. My eye will heal and stop being so much of a nuisance if I stop focussing on it all the time. The on-the-cusp-of-a-panic-attack moments will re-record, not fade away. And in time, just like the many, many times before, the ship will right itself. Because what’s the alternative? I retreat further into myself and waste my life worrying about what could be? No fucking chance: I’ve got books to write and a dog to play with.

And, at the end of all of this, if it turns out I do have something terrible, I can at least turn around and say to him, as I gasp my last in the best damn hospital room that an eighth-book royalties cheque can buy, that I was right all along.


Oh, before I go, actually: as I was writing the previous entry, I remembered a passage in one of my favourite books, Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (so good they named him twice) where he recounts his own experience with a flush of health anxiety. If you ever wanted to hear what health anxiety is like as described by someone who can actually write a joke, now’s your chance. I’ve copied it out below.

I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch – hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into – some fearful, devastating scourge, I know – and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.

I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever – read the symptoms – discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it – wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance – found, as I expected, that I had that too, – began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically – read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.

I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee? Why this invidious reservation? After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed. I reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I grew less selfish, and determined to do without housemaid’s knee. Gout, in its most malignant stage, it would appear, had seized me without my being aware of it; and zymosis I had evidently been suffering with from boyhood. There were no more diseases after zymosis, so I concluded there was nothing else the matter with me.

I swear, if it was Jerome K Jerome who got me onto health anxiety (and men smoking pipes in boats), I’ll be blaming my English teacher for time evermore. Damn you Ms Westgarth!

Oh and another final, final point – I’ve had so many wonderfully kind messages both on here and our various social media streams. I have tried to reply to them all, and I’ve certainly read each one, but the difficulty becomes I spend too much time talking about this so it never leaves my head. I will always try and reply at some point, but if I don’t, please do not take offence. I’m writing these blogs for myself, so that I may look back in the future and realise what a silly goose I am. I’m publishing them because I know others find them helpful, and that’s just fine. But if I don’t correspond, that’s not a reflection on the quality of your discourse or an apathy towards your predicament, but rather me taking steps not to overindulge my silly, fussy, always over-thinking, brain.