Surrounded by Fear
Updated: Jul 2, 2020
| This is the 281st story of Our Life Logs |
My health anxiety, the irrational fear of being or becoming ill, leads me to manifest symptoms of sicknesses I’m afraid of catching. A freckle that would otherwise be perceived as insignificant is a potential threat to me. I think, could this be cancer? It’s probably a tumor. A headache that’s stronger than usual or a stomach bug could grow into deadly prospects. I don’t have long.
It’s easy for most people to ignore the natural workings of their bodies and direct their focus to other important aspects of their existence—family, work, love. For a long time, I couldn’t do that, and to this day I still find it hard.
This is the story about my health anxiety, how it ruined me, but most importantly, how it helped me grow.
I was born in 1998, in the city of Londrina, also known as “Little London,” in Paraná, Brazil. My father’s job as a public prosecutor required constant transferring, so my family and I bounced around states for a few years before settling in Andirá. My mother was in the picture, but her crippling depression made it hard for her to be with me most of the time. She spent her days in her bedroom while Dad kept her disorder a secret. I didn’t know anything other than my mom was “tired.” Due to my mother’s inability to take care of me, I had a young nanny. She practically lived with us throughout my entire childhood. To me, she was there because she loved us so much.
I was pretty much raised in a bubble, and rightfully so. Because of his job, Dad would get menacing, late-night calls from drug dealers whose court cases he was prosecuting. They threatened to take me away if he didn’t transfer their requested amounts of money. I couldn’t play in the streets for too long, and if I did, someone kept their eyes on me. They didn’t want to risk anything. This constant protection implanted a lasting belief in my mind: danger is always around the corner. I must be protected, otherwise, I’ll die.
Time flew by. The threats vanished. My nanny got a better job and I grew up. My mother visited a psychiatrist and started taking antidepressants which brought her back into my life. Even so, the trauma was still there.
My grandma lived near us, so we often dropped by. We would arrive at her house during trivial conversations between my grandmother and her idle friends at their afternoon coffee. The subject of choice always seemed to be who in town had recently died of cruel diseases they couldn’t even pronounce—and I would constantly eavesdrop. Like a crime scene, I couldn’t look away, as much as I wanted to.
On top of that, her TV was always on the most brutal news channels anyone could lay their eyes on. From floods to homicides, to barbaric virus epidemics, nothing covered was positive. As I grew older, the certainty that the world was an unsafe place grew with me. We could all die at any moment, either from an unexpected illness or with a bullet shot from miles away. Even our own bodies could turn against us. Each day, the TV said the same thing: none of us were safe from sickness and death.
And so, it began.
When I was 14, I was convinced that I had stomach cancer. My excruciating aches, accompanied by dizziness, vomiting, and tremors only confirmed my dreaded speculations. This was the end for me. I searched the medical pages on the Internet for more confirmation, and my symptoms matched. I didn’t want to go to the doctors. I knew what they were going to tell me. I cried myself to sleep as if to say goodbye and braced myself for the worst news I could possibly get. It was one of the most depressing periods of my life.
My dear mother did everything to try and calm me down. She told me that she had anxious thoughts while in her depressed state, and everything horrible she used to picture in her head never came to pass. She told me stories about herself when she was my age, and I found a mirror within her descriptions. But how could my feelings be wrong? I was terrified, but eventually agreed to go to the doctor.
A few days later, I had an endoscopy to check whether I had anything fatal inside of me. The doctor told me there was nothing in my stomach, and I was absolutely fine. I didn’t understand. I felt it. Where did the pain come from then? Had I created it myself? No, it was real. But the doctors told me it was all in my head—my anxious thoughts made me stressed, and somehow, that attacked my stomach lining. There is a whole technical explanation for it, which I don’t remember.
After that occurrence, you’d think I’d try to get my life back on track and forget about health issues. No, that was just the beginning. Over time, I doubled my attention to my body. Should anything malignant start to develop, I would be able to stop it in its tracks before it got serious.
I gradually stopped going out of the house, especially during winter—I was too scared to get the flu which could potentially advance to pneumonia. I avoided all kinds of sports I enjoyed so that nothing could hit me or leave me deformed. I no longer ate certain foods because I had read about their disease-causing properties somewhere, long ago.
Essentially, I stopped doing things that made me happy and living my life to its fullest. Trust me, I tried to convince myself that these sensations were but a product of my distorted thoughts, but they were diligent and powerful. They sat on my chest and refused to leave, making me a stranger to my own self.
Around 2013, I started getting sick twice as much during wintertime. Unexplained symptoms would arise, such as yellowed eyes, unfounded pains, fainting spells, among other manifestations that made life brutal. I had countless doctor visits, blood tests, x-rays, and a CT scan—all of which confirmed my health was as good as it gets. But I didn’t believe it. Something had to be wrong!
For a long time, I felt utterly helpless and lonely. My family was always there for me, but they got tired of my paranoid thoughts. I needed someone to talk to who would understand. I began to accept the reality I’d created for myself: I would die soon. I got to the sad point where nothing could switch my perspective. I didn’t realize it then, but I was the one slowly but surely killing myself. My weight dropped to 83 pounds, but I refused to eat since my burning stomach would not accept anything that touched it.
My father tried to drag me to church despite my skepticism while my mother insisted I go to another doctor so I could calm down and eat again. I refused at first, too stubborn and too frail to function. But in July of 2013, on the verge of needing serious medical treatment, I took my mother’s advice and went to a general practitioner.
I went in thinking it would be yet another fruitless visit where I’m told I’m crazy. Instead, it turned out to be a life-saving visit. The doctor was young and quirky in a natural way. He treated me like family from the moment I stepped into his well-appointed office. He didn’t only ask what was wrong with me—he wanted to know about my life, my family, my inner struggles. We talked for a whole hour. I remember bursting into tears while telling him everything that troubled me.
“I’m a spiritualist,” he said. “I believe all people are here for a reason. You are too, but you won’t give yourself a chance. What do you want to do with your life?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, tearful.
I realized I didn’t have a purpose in life. Every morning I went to school, saw my friends, and went back home at the end of the day. But what would I do after that? Where would I be and with whom? I didn’t know any of this, but I would never know if I didn’t live to see it. I wanted to see it.
The doctor told me I would get married and have kids, have my own house and see my dreams come true…but only if I focused on them. For the first time in years, I let that sink in.
From then on, I could either choose to ignore what I was told and dwell in my sorrows, or I could find a way out of it—through it, maybe.
On our way back home, my mother and I went to a bakery so I could have my first decent meal in days: a butter croissant and a steaming cup of coffee. I still needed some time to get used to eating normally again, but the nourishing feeling made me question why I would ever deprive myself of anything quite that satisfying.
After that doctor visit, I decided to put myself out there and found the love of my life, and eventually, my purpose: writing. I began writing as a way of clearing my head and documenting my thoughts in a journal. Through it, I realized that my dreams would never come true if I didn’t put myself out there and took pride in what I did. Writing is what helps me wake up with determination and what shields my mind from negativity. My bad thoughts are still here, but not nearly as strong.
I’m not free from health anxiety if that’s what you want to know. Fear is still my lifelong partner—but I’ve learned to make it my friend.
This is the story of Laila Resende
Laila is a 20-year-old Brazilian writer, triplet, cat lover, and college student. With a prosecutor father and a grandma who often spoke of death and illness, Laila developed a fear of death and illness that turned into health anxiety. It wasn’t until she spoke to an understanding doctor that she realized she was wasting her life worrying when she should be enjoying her life while she’s still here. Laila fell in love with the English language during her childhood and never stopped learning and writing ever since. She shares her thoughts and stories online, as a way of easing a crippling anxiety disorder and helping people feel like they belong in this wicked, yet wonderful world we live in. She’s currently in college pursuing English while writing and publishing her stories as a freelance writer. If she could give any advice to health anxiety sufferers, that would be to find a purpose. Something or someone to live for. Your friends, family, your job…they nourish your soul. Stick to what makes you happy, and you will get better.
This story first touched our hearts on March 1, 2019.
| Writer: Laila Resende | Editor: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker |
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