Wednesday morning, in the exam room of my new gynecologist’s office, Michael moved restlessly around, now studying the framed print of the Hippocratic oath, now washing his hands thoroughly at the little sink in the corner, now picking up random magazines and staring at them. “Sit down,” I hissed at him, “you’re making me nervous.”
He sat, but it didn’t really help. It wasn’t his fault I was edgy. In fact, I would have been even more so without him there. We talked about the mice in his new office, and tried to figure out if the exam table is heated (it’s plugged into the wall!) and calmed each other with our laughter. Not wholly, though – I was still shaking, still decidedly unsettled, through the whole consultation. Hours later, the dregs of my nervousness still dragged my stomach toward the floor.
My mother, who has been fighting an anxiety disorder for years, is an accomplished hypochondriac. A few weeks ago my fourteen year-old sister, who is in perfect health, was complaining that her arm hurt, and Mom asked her which arm it was before sighing in relief, “Good, you’re not having a heart attack.” (Yes, she was completely serious, and no, I don’t remember which arm it was. Whichever arm doesn’t signify a heart attack.) When I was sixteen Mom went through the deepest valley of her anxiety and hypochondria, and I remember hoping that I would never be plagued by something so paralyzing. With typical teenage arrogance, I was convinced that I never would be – after all, I wasn’t afraid of dying.
It turns out that my fearlessness was just an accident of my circumstances. As soon as something health-threatening came on the scene, the fear came too. A little over a year ago my blood pressure was elevated when I went in for my yearly pap smear, and since then my blood pressure has been a little worry niggling away at me whenever it crossed my mind. I should have just gone ahead and made an appointment with an internist like the doctor suggested, of course, but I couldn’t. The mere experience of a health problem had paralyzed me.
This past summer, my hypochondria hit a peak. During the day, any random information I saw about high blood pressure would make my chest tighten and my pulse soar, so I would have to distract myself just to get back to normal. I became a wreck after dark, when I had nothing to distract me. I would lie in bed at night and worry for hours, trying relaxation exercises to bring my shallow breathing back to normal. In the darkest of those hours I was really convinced that I was going to die, that the reason we weren’t conceiving a child was that I would never live to raise him.
For me, just as for my mother, the struggle was a spiritual as well as an emotional one. Even as I tossed and turned, I knew that. I struggled to have faith in the face of the truths I realized plainly: that I will eventually die, that fear is useless, and that God’s will, whatever it may be, is always the best plan. This struggle went on for weeks until one day on the way home from work, when I decided to stop by our parish’s Perpetual Adoration chapel. In the hour I spent there, I finally received the gift I had been seeking, a gift of grace that helped me to shake off my paralyzing hypochondria and sleep easily again.
I must not give the impression that hypochondria is something I have conquered forever. My episode this summer taught me that, in defiance of my sixteen-year-old self, I am more like my mother than I had hoped to be. (In terms of hypochondria, that is. In other ways, I wish to be much more like her than I am.) The tendency toward anxiety is in me, and I fight against it every day, stretching my jaw when I realize I am clenching it and breathing deeply when my heart starts racing. I am still afraid, only in this particular battle I have conquered the fear for now – it is wounded and I am conditionally victorious.
Life never goes smoothly for long, though, and only a few weeks after my hypochondria fell on the battlefield, I was stopped short by the fear of infertility, which is in many ways even harder to bear. I don’t need to tell you more; I have written of it extensively here. It was that fear that stopped me from making any kind of doctor’s appointment through all the months of autumn and early winter. Rationally I know that I could have gotten the high blood pressure investigated without having to face the physical reality of infertility, but irrationally all my fears merge into one. Somehow, it is all connected for me: the fear of dying, the fear of being childless, lab coats, stethoscopes, blood pressure cuffs, and the cold metal corners of exam tables. Those months of anxiety have turned me into someone who hyperventilates in waiting rooms, where time moves so surreally that I hardly recognize my own name when the nurse calls it.
That is why I was so nervous on Wednesday morning. Sure, we were getting the results of my Day 21 blood test, but I knew that my estradiol and progesterone levels would either be good or they wouldn’t, and we would move ahead either way. I wasn’t concerned about that. My anxiety was the symptom of a much bigger problem. I am fundamentally anxious, fundamentally just plain scared. I have a nagging conviction that things do not go right for more than twenty-one years, and that my relatively wonderful life up to this point means that I am now fated to face not only infertility but also terminal (or at least chronic) illness. It’s all downhill from here.
But I know that is wrong. And I pray every day for the strength to fight my tendency toward those thoughts. Meanwhile, we made it painlessly through Wednesday’s appointment. I am seeing an internist next week to get the high blood pressure checked out, and the next few months will bring the expected barrage of infertility tests. Most likely, anyway – more about that when I have time. Holding my breath and jumping in, conquering the causes of my fear as I continue to struggle also against the fear itself, is the only way I will conquer this. I can feel it happening, slowly, and I hope that in a year I will be able to walk into a doctor’s office without feeling nervous at all.
By the way, I am so mean for making you read this whole thing for the news. The clever among you probably just scrolled down. My hormone levels were fine. The doctor actually called them “beautiful” and said that she is almost completely sure that our infertility is not caused by ovulatory problems. I guess that’s good news.