I knew something was wrong, so I kept pushing for an answer.
It’s the second day of my very first job, and I’m researching health news for upcoming articles. A new story pops up on ABC’s website: “Do UV Nail Dryers Pose a Skin Cancer Risk?” My just-manicured fingers grip the mouse as I scroll down.
“A 55-year-old with a 15-year history of twice-monthly appointments and a 48-year-old who underwent manicure treatments eight times in one year were found to have cancer on the backs of their fingers…”
How often do I get manicures? When I was 17 I got them once a week; that’s way more than eight times a year. I could easily have basal cell carcinoma. I definitely have a strange bump on the back of my finger that’s been there for weeks, how could I not have noticed it before? Come to think of it, my hands were burning really weirdly at the nail salon the other day; something is definitely up. I need to see a dermatologist right away.
I open a new Google tab and start typing with one hand as I scrutinize the suspicious growth on my left ring finger (what if it gets bigger and my finger gets all deformed and I can never wear an engagement ring?): “Skin-colored mark basal cell --“
“Have you been upstairs?” Another assistant rushes over, eco-friendly BPA-free coffee thermos in hand. “Free skin cancer screenings!”
It seemed like unbelievable timing, but turns of events like these are par for the course in my office, where searching for potential health crises isn’t a sign of a raging anxiety disorder, but a crucial job requirement. Turns out there’s no better place for a not-so-secret hypochondriac like me to indulge her particular brand of crazy than between the pages of a health magazine.
Wikipedia (I swear, it’s really reliable!) professes that 1 to 5 percent of the population suffers from hypochondria, or the belief that physical symptoms are a sign of a more serious illness, even if no medical evidence proves that point. Based on my array of neurotic Jewish and/or neurotic writer friends, I say it’s way more, but I’ll let that one lie. The point is, it’s a real thing, and it means you’re always waiting to be told there’s something very wrong with you.
Lucky for me, it barely registers that my imaginary degenerative illnesses keep disappearing after a week or so of surfing Yahoo! Answers and wringing my hands. With every clean bill of health comes a new pitch memo full of scary health news, and with it, a new host of illnesses to match my latest symptoms -- or a new reason to resurrect old ones. That’s the awesome thing about health-magazine hypochondria: It synchronizes to our editorial schedule.
Take the skin-cancer scare, for instance: after a quick scan, a brusque NYU dermatologist dismissed my back-of-finger growth (and the suspiciously growing freckle on my leg, and the totally irregular mole on my forearm, and that weird red spot next to my eye) as harmless, and I breathed easy for about five seconds. But on my way out, she stopped me: “There’s something you should keep in mind,” she said. “Your hair is thinning on top.”
A panicked check with a hand mirror, and the cycle began again. A week later I was sobbing at the hair salon as my poor stylist tried to convince me it really wasn’t that bad.
“There’s just so much LESS of it!” I cried, intercepting the blow dryer as I ran my fingers through my hair and shrieked at the freshly shorn strands between my fingers.
“You need to try hair vitamins,” Fred the stylist said conspiratorially. “I can walk you to the Vitamin Shoppe if you can’t make it on your own.”
What a fortuitous coincidence that some vitamin reps visited our office just a few short weeks later, with some samples for my personal use! But even though malnourished models swear by the stuff, and even though it’s supposed to take months to work, I’m still tearing my hair out over it -- literally. And taking lots of awkward-to-explain iPhone pics of the top of my head. A trip to the endocrinologist to rule out nutritional deficiencies/hormone imbalances and a clean “comprehensive metabolic profile” test later, I’m still booking second-opinion derm appointments to uncover what must be irreversible alopecia à la Little Edie Bouvier Beale.
It has to be, right? Because how can something ever just be a normal thing that happens and then goes away eventually? But if patterns repeat themselves, my hair should be looking full and shiny again as soon as a new crisis comes along.
While I wait for those test results, I’ve got plenty more stories to write -- and plenty more ailments to dwell on. A piece on dry eye meant I had to stop wearing contacts for a week to alleviate the burning and itching that plagued me incessantly while I wrote. As soon as the issue went to the printer, I ran out to Walgreens and bought some drops -- a miraculous recovery.
The next week, a few hours after a meeting with a skincare brand, my legs broke out in itchy red hives. I ran to the health director’s office, sticking my calf up on her chair. “What could this be?” I said, hyperventilating. “Is it an allergic reaction? Is it anaphylaxis? Does someone have an Epi-pen?”
“It could be a reaction,” she said. “Ask the beauty editor,”
The beauty editor was convinced it was the moisturizer I’d smeared on the back of my hand during my deskside earlier. “It definitely wasn’t fragrance-free,” she tsked, shaking her head.
After two sleepless, Cortisone-covered nights, I sought out the derm for an emergency session. The verdict? “Anthropod reaction.” Read: mosquito bites.
Two days smelling like Off Deep Woods and that crisis faded into the woodwork -- only to make room for the next one, a persistent thumb twitch after reading about a new study on Parkinson’s. I watched my hands as I wrote up the pitch, cramping and shaking simply because my mind told them to. They mysteriously settled down a few days later, but not before a solitary Saturday spent wandering around Manhattan, cradling my spasming thumb between tweets, skipping my overly optimistic “trying new things” acting class to browse at Zara and Sephora and Buffalo Exchange because I couldn’t sit still for 2 hours without getting all anxious and twitchy.
Then there was the day I wrote about circulatory disorders, and my hands suddenly turned blue and white. I was convinced I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to my extremities -- maybe that’s why my hair was falling out? -- until I’d heard they’d been blasting the air conditioning. And let’s not forget about the hairline zit that was surely a pre-brain tumor for five minutes while I waited for the 6 train, or the Alzheimer’s-story day in which I seemed to be forgetting everything.
Yeah, I’m probably a little nuts, but guess what? It only helps me in my job. I have dozens of crazy-girl pitches ready-made for our advice column: “My face gets really red when I run. Could I have a heart disease?” and “Can you really get carpal tunnel from using your iPhone too much?” I’ve read up on all sorts of symptoms of scary diseases, thanks to (TOTALLY SANE) late-night Google searches like “pain in right shoulder early sign of” and “possible enlarged spleen diseases.” I’m way up to date on natural cures for dozens of ailments, since I imagined and treated them all at least once.
In short, just like a shopaholic would make a kickass market editor, my hypochondria means I’m always, always thinking about my health. The fact that I get paid to do what I’d normally obsess over from the comfort of my dad’s couch (I’m 22, give me a break) is kind of a miracle. And the good news is, the more diseases I write about, the less I fear I have. My brain can only take so much Symptom Checker before it gets all Faith Hill in "The Stepford Wives" remake and starts freaking out and shooting dollar bills at everyone at the town barbecue. Or just like, getting bored of thinking I’m sick all the time. So while this job made me super-crazy for a few months, it’s also kind of the best thing that’s ever happened to my hypochondria -- for now, anyway. We’ll have to see what the doctor says about my hair first.