When I was 10, I went on vacation in Florida with my parents. One day they rented a boat so we could go fishing on the gulf. On the drive to the dock, the radio warned about a massive approaching thunderstorm. Not a huge fan of the outdoors anyway — this Babysitter’s Club book was not going to read itself! — I suggested that we go out another day, or perhaps never. But my keepers took one look at the menacing clouds, and said something like, “Whaddya mean, another day!? Today is the day we go out!”
As soon as our wee skiff, too small to even warrant a name, was far enough out that we could no longer see the shore, the sky went dark and lightning started in earnest, punching into the roiling black water not 20 feet from our boat. This was it: the end of my short, dumb life. I had accomplished exactly none of my goals, one of which was making goals, and was about to leave the world as I had entered it: crying into my mom’s beatific face.
Not at all into hysterics, my mom suddenly grabbed my arms, looked me squarely in the eyes, and said: “Ramona, a coward dies a thousand deaths. A brave man dies but one.”
I’m sure she imagined that hearing a Shakespeare quote at this moment would cause her 10-year-old to instantly dry her tears and face her imminent demise with the courage of a Spartan soldier. But, unfortunately for my mom, I did not want to die. Not even one time! And over the years, this feeling hasn’t really changed.
In February I was diagnosed with “essential hypertension.” I like the inclusion of the word “essential,” which makes it sound like something that would be advertised on one of those weirdly sexual commercials for the kind of liquor that only a man in a midlife crisis would drink. “Essential Hypertension: The only hypertension you’ll ever need.”
But essential (or “primary”) hypertension is not a drink for a midlife crisis. It’s high blood pressure. Specifically, high blood pressure that’s not caused by some other more important issue, like kidney problems or pregnancy; that’s called “secondary hypertension.” Essential hypertension is caused by things like being overweight, not eating right, not exercising, and genetics. It’s the one you can blame people for.
Since I’m not overweight, I exercise regularly, and I eat a relatively healthy diet (please hold your applause), genetics is likely my problem. My dad has high blood pressure. He’s also 67, not 29. But who knows how long he’s had it, since, as someone who didn’t even pay taxes until he was 40, he’s not the kind of person who was getting regular checkups in his twenties.
My doctor put me on a medication called hydrochlorothiazide, which is great because it’s the same one my dad is on, so we can start buying it by the vat. It’s nice to have something we can do as a family.
I’m a lifelong hypochondriac, but high blood pressure was never something I worried about — even though it’s much more common than many of the fears I have had, like getting pregnant when you haven’t had sex, or being eaten by a shark in a lake.
High blood pressure just didn’t seem scary enough. Sure, it’ll kill you, but probably not for a really long time, and via indirect means — maybe as a contributing factor in a heart attack or stroke. It’s hard to get hysterical about something so far in the future. But then I googled “cancers that cause high blood pressure,” and was saddened, but not surprised, when I diagnosed myself with end-stage pancreatic cancer.
As much as I want to scream and cry and feel extremely sorry for myself, high blood pressure is actually pretty manageable. And it’s likely that I won’t die from it anytime soon — and possibly not at any time, ever. The real problem is that I will die, at some point, for sure. And it probably won’t be in a tragic, romantic, or courageous way, but in a normal and boring one. One minute you’re sitting around trying to figure out if the vague ache in your sternum is bone cancer, and the next you have the same chronic disease as dads everywhere.
Hypochondria involves this weird routine of first trying to convince yourself you have a disease and then trying to convince yourself that you do not. It’s a nice activity for late at night when you can’t sleep and would like to find a very serious (preferably deadly) reason for your insomnia. This constant scanning of my body for previously unnoticed symptoms that may indicate imminent death has become much worse as I’ve started to actually learn a few things about my body in nursing school. A year ago I had no idea where my liver was, and now I diagnose myself with liver disease three times a month! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
I took physiology last quarter, and on the first day of class, the professor said, “I don’t know why people act like physiology is so hard, when it’s so simple!” In hindsight this was a very bad sign. The professor, a naturopath, would go on to suggest that Ebola was not caused by a virus, but by a worldwide conspiracy to sell vaccines to Africa. He advocated natural treatments for cancer and claimed to have cured several cases of prostate cancer with vegetables. There was nothing that he felt an infusion of B vitamins could not fix.
This was all infuriating, but the worst thing of all was his underlying belief that if you got sick, it was your fault. If only you had eaten better, exercised more, not taken Tylenol (the devil’s candy), or made an appointment at his “integrative health center,” you wouldn’t have cancer/acid reflux/Alzheimer's/death. In a way he and I are flip sides of the same coin: We both think we know what’s going on. It’s just that he’s convinced he can control it, and I’m convinced I can’t.
The thing about hypochondriacs is that the boy who cried wolf was eventually eaten by a wolf, and so it will be for us. Eventually we will get sick and die. It happens whether you’re afraid of it or not. But as my mom tried to tell me, it happens over and over again to those of us who are afraid.
What scares me about death is the pain, but also the nothingness. When I was in elementary school, I used to spend bus rides trying to wrap my head around the concept of dying. I tried to imagine what it would be like to never wake up. Ever. Like, ever ever. Not in the morning, not in a week, not ever.
At those moments when I felt like I could almost grasp it, an image to mind of the planet far below and universe stretching out in every direction, points of light flying past. But as soon as it was there it was gone, and the image changed to one of waking up in my bed, which I knew even then was not how death worked.
Maybe the forever part, the part where you never wake up, is a gift. At least you don’t know you’re dead. It’s like when you’re lying in bed thinking you should write something down so you won’t forget it, imagining that forgetting it would suck — when the thing that really sucks is worrying about forgetting it. The actual forgetting feels like nothing. Not an absence, just nothing. Like dying.
For a week after receiving the blood pressure news, I tried to act the way I thought a person with a terminal illness would act — if they were being followed around by television cameras. I thought things like, What a small speck you are in this grand cosmos. I smiled wanly at strangers. I looked at the trees swaying in the wind and tried to imbue them with gravitas while hoping someone would notice me imbuing them with gravitas. No one did, and after a while I got tired of looking at things meaningfully and went back to just looking.
Winter quarter ended, and as the days got longer I noticed a change in my hypochondria. It’s still there, but not as strong as it used to be. It seems to have lifted along with my winter depression. It’s funny that when I enjoy being alive the least, I’m the most afraid to die; when I start to feel good again, I don’t think so much about death. Maybe I have other stuff on my mind.