Despite official recognition in the DSM, those with hypochondriasis are often treated with the respect and seriousness of a Scott Baio film festival. “It’s an obsession, and oftentimes people don’t want to listen to someone’s obsessions,” says Gail Martz-Nelson, a Denver psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders. “‘I’m terrified I have HIV, I’m terrified I have cancer, I’m terrified I have lymphoma.’ People hear that and dismiss it or laugh it off. But being a hypochondriac can be crippling. It’s not a joke.”
Generally speaking, hypochondriacs aren’t merely hypochondriacs. Most struggle with anxiety or depression—or both, says Swanljung. “When someone is anxious about having an illness, the anxiety level goes up, the stress level goes up,” he says. “That can lead to headaches, to stomach and digestive problems. Anxiety definitely can cause pain, and if you’re a hypochondriac you react to that pain in a unique way.”
No amount of reassurance helps.
“The brain is so powerful that it really can convince itself of illness,” says Caroline Goldmacher-Kern, a New York-based psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. “You know something is wrong because you believe what you’re thinking, and what you’re thinking is what you perceive to be feeling. So you can have five people tell you it’s all in your mind and that’s not good enough.”
In a piece for Psychology Today, a man with hypochondria attempts to understand his disorder.
Painting: Court of Death via Wikimedia Commons
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Jessica Gross | Longreads | August 2015 | 17 minutes (4,402 words)
Bella DePaulo, a Harvard-trained social scientist who is now a Project Scientist at UCSB, started her career researching deception. But it was when she delved into singlehood, her personal passion—she describes herself as “single at heart“—that she first felt enormous synchronicity with her research. “The singles work was something entirely different,” DePaulo told me over the phone. “It is really where I live in the literal and the figurative sense.” She has chronicled this work in scholarly papers, blogs for Psychology Today and PsychCentral, and written books including Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It.
In her latest book, DePaulo continues to examine lifestyles that don’t quite fit cultural norms. For How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, she traveled around the United States, looking at alternative—that is, non-nuclear—ways of living. One example of this is co-housing, in which people live in separate dwellings but meet regularly in a shared common house. Another is Golden Girl Homes, an organization that helps “women of a certain age” live together. There’s also CoAbode, a registry for single mothers who want to live with other single-mom families. And there are even multigenerational homes, which function today in very different ways than we might imagine. Throughout, DePaulo stresses the balance between autonomy and community, and how our relative needs for each are so individual. The upshot is that, finally, no matter what our predilections, there is increasing space for us to create lifestyles that suit us.
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You’ve written a lot about being “single at heart” and knowing that you love being and living alone. Why were you drawn to study alternate living arrangements?
Well, part of the interest was other people’s interest: It was a topic that other people just really liked to talk about. There was a blog post I wrote, “Not Going Nuclear, So Many Ways to Live and Love,” that got a genuine response of people wanting to hear each other’s stories. I also noticed that it was a topic that was appearing not just in casual conversations, but in the media, too. It seemed to be something that was resonating.
As for me, I feel so, so committed, and always have, to living by myself. I wasn’t really exploring for myself—although I wonder if, at some level, I was wondering whether, if I ever really couldn’t continue to live by myself, there was some way out there that really would work for me. Read more…
Why people can feel someone staring at them, experience deja vu, and other paranormal experiences:
One of the most common anomalous experiences is the sense of being stared at. When you see someone gazing directly at you, emotions become activated—it can be exciting or comforting or creepy—and this visceral charge can give the impression that gazes transfer energy. Further, if you feel uncomfortable and check to see whether someone is looking at you, your movement may draw attention—confirming your suspicions.
Another common experience is déjà vu, a phenomenon two in three people report. Most of us shrug it off as a mental hiccup. Indeed, researchers propose it’s a sense of familiarity without a recollection of why something is familiar, or perhaps a timing issue in the brain where thoughts are experienced twice because of a slight wiring delay, lending the second occurrence an odd sensation of repetition. But some people believe it’s a glimpse into a past life.
While anomalous experiences may be associated with stressful circumstances, personal pathologies, or cognitive deficits, the experiences themselves may not always be so bad, and may actually be healthy inventions. They’re just our attempts to make sense of a weird situation. After all, there’s nothing the mind likes better than a good story.
A man with hypochondria attempts to understand his disorder:
Eleven years ago, when he was still a medical resident at Columbia University, Fallon was asked to help a man who was convinced, despite medical results to the contrary, that he was saddled with a brain tumor. ‘He tried Prozac, and it made a dramatic change,’ Fallon says. ‘He went from irritable and hostile to grateful and happy that something was helping him. I thought, ‘Wow, this is fascinating.’ Because at that point so little was known.’
The use of Prozac and similar medications is now under formal study. Columbia’s Fallon and Arthur Barsky, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, are conducting the largest trial ever undertaken of the disorder. They are enrolling 264 hypochondriacs in a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial comparing cognitive behavioral therapy, Prozac, and a combination of the two. They suspect that CBT and the drug will be equally effective, but that combination therapy will be even more effective for ‘this major public health disorder.’ ‘I don’t know what to expect,’ says Fallon. ‘But it will be very interesting.’
The story of the Polgar sisters, chess whizzes who were trained by their father from an early age:
When Susan was the age of many of her students, she dominated the New York Open chess competition. At 16 she crushed several adult opponents and landed on the front page of The New York Times. The tournament was abuzz not just with the spectacle of one pretty young powerhouse: Susan’s raven-haired sister Sophia, 11, swept most of the games in her section, too. But the pudgy baby of the family, 9-year-old Judit, drew the most gawkers of all. To onlookers’ delight, Judit took on five players simultaneously and beat them. She played blindfolded.
Photo: Nestor Galina/Flickr
Sabine Heinlein | Longreads | November 2016 | 18 minutes (4,602 words)
She named her avatar DancingDark after a Lars von Trier movie and Björk, a beloved singer. DancingDark isn’t much of a showoff. “Super skinny. Nice, straight teeth,” she tells me. “My mom’s called me a radical, my dad’s called me a conspiracy theorist, none of my friends even know what I’m talking about.” DancingDark and I talk via Skype, but I can’t see her because she has taped-off the camera on her computer. She is pretty damn certain that the American government is spying on her. Whenever she mentions a certain country (which, for obvious reasons, she asked me not to name) her computer crashes. DancingDark is proud of her intellect. “I’m an intelligent being and I want to learn and be intellectual. That’s more of my foreplay than just being dirty online.”
Witty and personable, DancingDark’s frequent giggles easily turn into tears. As a Truther, the 37-year-old is committed to doubting “mainstream narratives.” When 9/11 happened, things just didn’t add up. There were suspicious delays in the media coverage and some dude down at the World Trade Center mumbled, “Bin Laden, Bin Laden…” Is it possible that the American government had staged the attack to legitimize its invasion of Iraq and take all their oil?
DancingDark is wise to other cons, too. When she thinks climate change, she thinks chemtrails. While the “mainstream media” claims that the crisscrossing lines left behind by planes in the sky are nothing more than contrails—streaks of frozen vapor produced during flight—DancingDark knows better. Global warming is fabricated by the government—“geoengineering above our heads.” Why? “Possibly to push carbon taxes.”
The only attractions in the village where DancingDark runs a one-woman aromatherapy cleaning business are the weekend rodeo and the local Tim Hortons. The small Canadian farming town also houses a mental institution. “Half of the people here can’t even read,” DancingDark says. The Fentanyl problem in town has recently been replaced by a meth problem, and when she passes someone in her village she says she can never be sure whether the person is a drug addict, a religious nut, a mental patient or a combination.
DancingDark has been lonely for what seems like an eternity. In pharmacology school, they were trying to teach her how cancer is cured with medication and surgery. “You just spend money on patients and you make them worse, which means more money,” she says. The system is set up for big corporations. “I couldn’t stomach it and just walked out.” It was the year 2000, and she was 20 then. One year later 9/11 happened, and DancingDark knew right away that “something fishy” was going on.
Until last year, DancingDark had at least one person whom she could talk to. “My friend could tell Illuminati symbolism right away and we could joke about it,” she says, referring to the purported secret global elite believed to control the thoughts of the credulous masses. When her friend hanged herself, there was nobody left whom she could trust fully. “I lost a lot of friends,” she tells me amidst tears.
After a period of depression and grief, she put herself out there again. An acquaintance told her about Awake Dating, a new, free dating website for Truthers and other conspiracy theorists, and DancingDark didn’t waste any time joining.
In many ways Awake Dating, which launched last April, is similar to other dating sites. It allows DancingDark to put up her photo, chat with others, and list her interests: 9/11 Truth, Not watching TV, Ancient Alien Theory, Social Conditioning, Megaliths, the New World Order and False Flags; the latter describes covert operations by the government designed to mislead the masses and hide ulterior motives. (Truthers believe that 9/11, the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting and the terrorist attack at an airport in Brussels were staged—false flags.) In her personal statement DancingDark confesses that her “mainstream weakness” is Game of Thrones. “I’ve seen several UFOs 😮 I love to smoke weed but really don’t care for alcohol at all.” Her statement ends, “Oh and this is important!! I don’t want a golden shower!” Read more…
Benjamin Obler | Longreads | August 2016 | 24 minutes (5,908 words)
When we first talked, it was on tenuous terms. That is, both telling implicit lies.
My lie was wearing a leather jacket and smoking cigarettes that night, which cast me as carefree and rebellious. In reality, I was a bookish Senior Editor with an educational publisher, a teacher, and a writer with aspirations. I loved my tennis and workouts—usually kept fit.
Her lie was the exact opposite: she cast herself as more straight-laced and serious than she was, and literary, noting that she was reading a challenging novel in the literary realism vein. But she wasn’t really of a literary disposition. I would learn soon that she was much more visually oriented, a photographer. She liked to go dancing, and to shoot guns at a range just for the thrill.
On the surface, these lies were harmless, but they masked deeper deceptions. She had no idea I was a recovering porn addict. I had no idea she was into taking semi-nude photos of herself and posting them online.
Her name was Franny, and I fell madly in love with her. Read more…
Drive the backroads of South Carolina to the small town of Ridgeville, and you’ll be greeted by a large, handmade sign reading “Your sins killed Jesus” amid the pine forests and small barns. I grew up traveling those roads but only recently noticed the sign, long after I had stopped caring about sin and consequence or what either of those things means.
Because on April 27, 1982, while I was asleep in a room with a couple of wooden bunk beds, blankets on the floor, and too many brothers, Herbert “Moochie” Bailey Jr. was killing a man named James Bunch a few miles away. Moochie was 22 years old at the time. I was only 9. Read more…