I was in my early thirties when I first realized I was dying. I couldn’t believe it. I was so young! I had so much left to do! But it turned out that congestive heart failure had other plans for me. It was so sad I could hardly stand it.
“Why in God’s name would you think you have congestive heart failure?” This was my doctor at the time, who I no longer see due to a certain lack of bedside manner. Obviously.
“I looked up my symptoms,” I told him. “On WebMD.”
He sighed, and I know it had nothing to do with me. He was just a frequent sigher, but it was still sort of hard not to take personally. “Do me a favor,” he said. “Stay off the internet. And learn some deep-breathing techniques. You have generalized anxiety disorder.”
“Well no, that can’t be. I don’t have anything to be anxious about, aside from the congestive heart failure.”
“You don’t have congestive heart failure. And we all have things to be anxious about.”
Another sigh. See? “Just quit diagnosing your own illnesses. That’s what I’m here for.”
“So you’re sure I’m not dying?”
“We’re all dying.”
“But I mean, soon.”
“I don’t know that. I do know that if you die of congestive heart failure, it will not be this year.”
So that was a relief, albeit short-lived, because who really stays off the internet? In the 15 or so years between then and now, I have used WebMD to diagnose my own:
- Kidney failure
- Spinal meningitis
- Throat cancer
- Heart attack
- Skin cancer
- Bone cancer
- Brain tumor
- Unspecified critical nervous system malfunction
It’s been a difficult run, it really has, and not because I actually had any of those things. I did not. And while I acknowledge that the reality of any of those issues would be exponentially worse than the imaginary versions, I would argue that the not knowing is still kind of a bitch. One wonders if one’s affairs are in order. One wonders what exactly it means to have one’s affairs in order. One spends agonizing hours dwelling on how one’s children will possibly survive without, er, one. One might occasionally be moved to tears, at the painful futility of it all.
And then one finds out that one is not sick at all, and feels overwhelmingly relieved, as well as vaguely guilty at appropriating the despair that one was never entitled to in the first place. Because my God, there are real people out there suffering from whatever it is you thought you had. It seems so disrespectful, I mean – me and my frivolous little tragedies, when people out there have real ones every day. So melodramatic. So self-centered.
But then, wait. I didn’t know I wasn’t suffering from kidney failure/brain tumor/unspecified critical nervous system malfunction. My fears were not entirely unfounded, or at least, I didn’t think they were at the time. I mean, WebMD said, and what’s so melodramatic and self-centered about that? I had symptoms, I looked them up, I became terrified. Happens all the time.
“Wow,” said my current doctor, who has only recently replaced my last doctor due to chronic lateness. The doctor’s, not mine. Actually I’d have been smart to show up late to my appointments with him and thus avoid his standard 90-minute wait. Incidentally, Dr. Late replaced Dr. Sighs-A-Lot many years prior to this, though come to think of it, Dr. Late was prone to sigh from time to time, too. Now my current doctor, who is perfect if a bit on the fresh-faced side, has replaced Dr. Late. It’s exhausting, it really is. No wonder I have anxiety.
Anyway. “Wow,” Dr. Perfect said to me recently, when I finally decided to get my knee checked out. “That’s . . . no. You do not have knee cancer.”
“Good,” said I. “But tell me how you know that.”
“Well first of all, you’d probably be losing a lot of weight.”
Rude! Really. Perhaps he’s not so perfect after all!
“Also, you’d be in a lot of pain. All the time. You wouldn’t be able to just hop down off that table like you just did.”
“Well I mean, it did hurt, you know. When I allegedly ‘hopped down’ off this table.”
“You don’t have knee cancer. And after your MRI, we’ll be able to know more.”
“But if I did have cancer, you can see it on an MRI?”
“Yes. But you don’t.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Are you still taking your anxiety meds?”
“Yes! I’m not even anxious about this. Honestly. I just want to make sure we can definitely rule it out.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll get to the bottom of it.”
And call me paranoid, but right then, I am pretty sure I detected a sigh. Subtle, because this guy really knows what he’s doing, but still.
You want to know who never sighs? I’ll tell you. WebMD, that’s who.
(This post originally ran on Goodness Madness.)
About the author: Melissa Janisin has been writing since 2nd grade, though her earliest works are lost due to the stubborn unavailability of the internet throughout the 1970’s and 80’s. Find more recent essay-ish material at her blog, Goodness Madness (http://goodnessmadness.com). You can also find her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/goodnessmadness/) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/melissajanisin). Melissa currently lives with her husband and sons, and believes Minecraft should be an elementary school requirement.