As someone who’s lived with health anxiety since the age of seven, I can’t imagine not being hyper-aware of every bodily sensation; immediately assuming a slight twinge must be a symptom of terminal disease.
I’ve read extensively on what causes anxiety. Much of the literature suggests it often stems from a traumatic life event – and seeing as mine began as a young child, I can understand why the various therapists I’ve seen have probed my early years, hoping for an ‘aha!’ moment they can attribute to my irrational fear of serious illness.
My childhood was happy, and as far as major events go, unremarkable. Yes, my parents divorced when I was four, but they did so amicably. They both remarried and today I consider myself super-lucky that I have four wonderful parents. My Mum and Dad still get along well – they even send each other Christmas cards, for goodness sake! So whilst I agree that our childhood experiences shape who we are today, I don’t feel my parents’ divorce was the catalyst for any future mental health problems.
With a lack of obvious childhood trauma to explore, the therapists I’ve seen have followed with ‘so what’s your earliest memory of worrying about your health?’ (subtext: when did you first became a nutcase?)
I answer by telling a story about a friend’s ice skating birthday party. I was six. I have a vague memory of a friend remarking “that lady just laughed at the way you’re skating” and pointing to some random member of the public. I don’t recall ‘that lady’ laughing, nor do I remember this upsetting me. Instead, some strange part of my mind decided ‘that lady’ was an evil kidnapper, intent on poisoning me.
In the following weeks I became obsessed with being posioned. I refused to eat anything that my mum hadn’t tasted first. There was nothing rational in my mind that said ‘hey – that’s not very nice – are you trying to posion your mother?’ Instead, mum was my safety shield – if she could pre-taste my food and immediately not drop down dead, I’d be ok.
That soon developed into a fear of red foods. I have a vague memory of watching an AIDS benefit on TV and my mum explaining what the money being raised was for. As an intelligent woman and good mother, I imagine she explained this in a way appropriate for a seven year old child. As the mother of a sensitive seven year old, who was prone to irrational thought around getting ill, I imagine she made it clear this wasnt an illness I was likely to contract.
However, something odd in my mind decided ‘if I consume anything red, it’ll be riddled with HIV-infected blood and I will die.’ This sparked an avoidance of anything vaguely red – tomato-based pastas, jam, baked beans, red capsicum, pizza, ketchup, strawberries… For years I was terrified of HIV contamination via a jam donut.
Writing this, I realise this would have been around 1991 – the year the red ribbon became an international symbol of HIV/AIDS awareness. More than twenty years later, I can look back at this and feel both sad that as a young kid I experienced such unnecessary worry, but also laugh at myself and realise what a long way I’ve come.
That’s enough for today. I’m off to pour myself a glass of wine – a nice red. Cheers!