The Upside of Hypochondria

A talent for hysteria comes in handy during a pandemic.

Sick man with medical supplies

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I have lots of friends who work in the medical field and are exhausted by the extra burden they’re shouldering in these virulent times. Most of the things I do as a pastor are now discouraged — meeting people face to face, visiting hospitals and nursing homes, tending to the sick and shut-in. Electronic interaction is helpful, but it lacks the spiritual and emotional quality of holding someone’s hand. Still, it’s better than nothing, and I’ve found other ways to pass the time, chief among them wondering if I have the coronavirus and how soon I’ll die.

Being a hypochondriac, I have something of a talent for hysteria and regularly (several times a day) remind my wife how tenuous is my grasp on life. Every tickle in the throat, every bead of sweat, every pant for breath is a portent of my agonizing and imminent end. I’ve been a hypochondriac since early childhood, when I discovered the best way to get my parents’ attention was to feign death. I missed an entire month of fifth grade after convincing them I had leprosy, which I had learned about in Sunday school. It turns out that weakness, vision problems, and peripheral numbness are easy to fake. After the first week of acting, I convinced myself I actually had leprosy and sat around for three weeks waiting for my nose to rot off.

I have something of a talent for hysteria and regularly remind my wife how tenuous is my grasp on life.

It’s odd that the best month of my childhood was when I had leprosy. Mr. Evanoff, my teacher, had my classmates make me get-well cards. Jerry Sipes, who hadn’t liked me since I’d reported him to the teacher for peeing on the bathroom floor, wrote in his card that he hoped I died, and Patty Worely, whose dad was a minister, urged me to accept the Lord so I wouldn’t go to hell. She mentioned she was praying for me every day, which I’m certain ended up saving me from the leprosy I quite possibly had. My Grandma Norma sent me a letter with $10 in it, and my dad bought me a box of stale Hostess cupcakes from the Hostess Bakery Outlet in Terre Haute. Twelve cupcakes all to myself, which I think gave me diabetes, so now I’m just waiting for my legs to rot off.

The good thing about hypochondria is its tendency to fill all your waking hours, making other hobbies unnecessary. There isn’t a day that passes that I don’t wonder about the ailments my body is harboring — consumption, dropsy, palsy, and swine flu. I’ve had them all, probably. I fall asleep each night, praying I’ll make it to morning but doubting I will. Unable to sleep (a sure indication of hyperthyroidism), I climb out of bed, walk down the hall to my office, and jot down some notes to my wife regarding my funeral. There are a few people I don’t care for (Jerry Sipes, for instance), who I know don’t care for me, and I don’t want them showing up pretending they liked me. We hypochondriacs can’t stand hypocrisy.

I’ve given years of thought to my funeral. Who’ll give the eulogy? Which songs will be sung? What will they eat at my funeral dinner? What clothes will I wear? Do I go with a suit, wanting to leave a favorable last impression, or should I wear blue jeans and a flannel shirt, reminding my family and friends I was a man of the people? Now with the coronavirus and social distancing, no one will likely attend my funeral, and there goes my chance to watch people’s faces when they see me in the casket and realize I really was sick all these years.

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor and author of 22 books, including the Harmony and Hope series featuring Sam Gardner.

This article is featured in the September/October 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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