Anyone who has ever suffered anxiety attacks, or full-blown panic attacks, knows that there are few more frightening things in the world, other than Japanese horror movies and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responding to the question: “What does Bill Clinton think, through the mouth of Mrs Clinton?”
No, anxiety is just no fun. For no apparent reason at all your heart suddenly starts to beat at breakneck speed, bits of your stomach twist and fill with dread, your limbs begin to shake, there’s pain in your arm and you’re faint, the world starts to roar in your ears, a cold sweat breaks out on your brow. You might have these, or a thousand other petrifying sensations that you recognise quite clearly as the Four Horsemen of the Apocollapse. This is it. You’re dying of a heart attack, or a stroke, or something even worse, and the quack in the emergency room is sitting there blowing off his Hippocratic Oath and telling you to “Relax, it’s just anxiety.”
It’s bad enough for adults, but kids who suffer panic attacks or symptoms of anxiety before they’re old enough to know what either of those is, are more likely than others to grow into accomplished hypochondriacs. This is a fact I have researched, and while my sample size is limited (one), it’s reliable (me). And it’s hardly counterintuitive: a twelve-year-old terrified by what feels like a heart attack is very possibly going to grow up to be predisposed to big fears based on little symptoms.
I’m one of these benighted souls, and I can tell you that nothing makes a hypochondriac happier than a new illness to probably have. Terror is, after all, another form of thrill. Or if you want to get all scientific about it, they’re both powered by adrenaline. Sometimes our same old-same old repertoire gets boring, and our families are no longer so likely to look up from their knitting, or to break their empty gaze into the middle distance, when we darkly suggest that our shortness of breath could well be an impending heart attack. So from time to time we like to be able to add something new—SARS, or dengue fever, or chikungunya—to the most recent probable cause of our ongoing demise.
Swine flu, also known as the H1N1 virus though I keep calling it the H1N1 visa, has arrived just in time, because ankle cancer, based on the itchiness inside my foot cast, had long outstayed its welcome. It (swine flu, not my foot cast) is rampaging around the word, spread by a class of humans I like and admire: travellers. They’ve gone and given a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘globe-trotters’.
Based on all the screechy television coverage and the dire newspaper editorials, based on all the fatalities and the lightning geographical spread, and based most of all on my previous experience, swine flu should be scaring the IV drip out of me. But here’s the thing: I am strangely unmoved. I find myself quite calm. People are getting sick and even dying all over the place, but I can’t detect the faintest stirring of anxiety in me.
It can’t be that it’s because I don’t have it yet, because not having something yet is not really relevant to a hypochondriac’s thought process. It might be partly because when I hear the words ‘swine flu’ I imagine millions of microscopic pink pigs with wings and evil expressions buzzing around like motes of dust, and it’s hard to get upset through the giggles.
I simply can’t explain it. There’s nothing for it but to wonder whether I haven’t managed, through years of stringent disciplinary measures such as and denial and drink, to overcome the most egregious of my phobias.