Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Hypochondriacs on TV

Last night I watched Hypochondriacs - I told you I was ill on Channel 4 and to be honest, it wasn't all that great. I felt there was a lot of potential to be explored, not least with the woman confined to a wheelchair, apparently unable to walk, but whom doctors could find no physical thing wrong with her legs. The programme, however, barely scratched the surface with the most interesting cases and rushed their psychological treatment over a long weekend, baked and garnished it for a one hour show. There was no insight into the issue that probably affects thousands of people, and no doubt, the doctors who have to spend their time reassuring them that no, they don't have cancer. No, you cannot catch HIV from shaking a homosexual's hand or sitting on a toilet seat. Calm down, the headache is a migraine brought on by your anxiety about the tumor you don't have.
The thing is hypochondriacs interest me because I think I have a slight tendency to be one and have been known, on occasion, to feel a bit short of breath and reach for the google search box. This, as Laura on the show discovers, often holds little in the way of solace. In fact, it actually makes you panic more. Typing in a symptom such as 'Shortness of breath' throws up a website diagnosing the happy sounding 'Chronic obstructive lung disease' or its variant 'occupational lung disease' or more worryingly, 'congestive heart failure'. Bloody hell, this isn't asthma...according to family doctor.com, I am due to collapse any second. Shit, phone the doctor. Whatever you do, don't type in 'headache'. It's easy to convince yourself you have something awful when the symptoms are there, flow chart style, on the screen in front of you.

Now I'm not condemning these sorts of websites, there's obviously a demand for them. But to what extent do they help? I admit they have their uses, I for one have consulted them for many a foot problem or for a question about the pill. But there are thousands of these websites all offering a self-diagnosis; a market catering for the anxiety ridden, the paranoid and the worriers.

I fall into the last category. I worry. Yesterday I went to the doctor because one of my glands had swelled in my neck; giving me an unsightly double chin (on one side only) which I am keen to rid myself of. Following a trip to the doctor where I left none the wiser about its cause (Diagnosis? "You have a swollen gland. You are a student? Ahh I can see it in your face!") but clutching a prescription for a course of antibiotics, I trotted off home and embarked on my alcohol, sex, pancake and laser quest free week. Then today it hit me while watching This Morning. What if it's something more serious? What if it's fighting an infection somewhere else and I'm going to die of it? Why have I slept all afternoon? What if it doesn't clear up in a week and I have to have a blood test for something awful? What if I'm condemned to a life of having half a fat face and watching Fern and Phillip on TV everyday and entering their competitions? What if I start caring about whether the contestants on Bargain Hunt make a profit or not at auction? I can see myself on The Jeremy Kyle Show ten years from now: 'My half-fat face has made me a daytime TV addict'...there's one for the doctor.com's. I sent out an order for chocolate and grapes, and they were delivered this afternoon. My boyfriend left with a soggy tshirt from my worried crying and several pictures of my half-fat-face on his phone, no doubt for the amusement of his housemates. Huumph.
So even though the Channel 4 insight into the world of hypochondria wasn't, in my view, all that insightful and was basically a treatment of panic attacks, I can see how easy it is to succumb to the fear of 'somethings wrong'. And don't worry, I haven't typed my symptoms into google this time...I'm not that desperate for more information on half-fat-face syndrome. Not until I've finished this bar of Dairy Milk anyway.



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