In Which I Freak Myself Again

I like to think that I am, on the whole, a reasonably sensible person. The things that really bother me – like the thought of my son or Mister Litlove in extremis – are the sorts of things that would bother anyone. But there are some places where I struggle to be rational. One is the fear that the house would either flood or burn down and I would lose my books; but that one is actually quite manageable. The other is about being ill, and not manageable at all. After all those years of chronic fatigue, I am kind of unwilling to be ill ever again. I sort of feel I’ve done my bit, if you see what I mean. And when I had a breast cancer scare back in 2008 it was one of the worst things I’ve ever been through and has undoubtedly left a mental scar.

So, this year I’ve had a couple of issues with my skin. Over Christmas I came out with a small lump on my back. Determined to try to be better about that I’m-going-to-die reaction, I decided to try to take an intelligent approach. I read up about skin cancers and thought that my symptoms really didn’t check out. In the end, many weeks later, I thought oh to hell with it and rang the local surgery. I just happened to be fortunate, for the doctor who specialises in skin complaints was in that day and I got to see her as an emergency patient. She cast a brief glance, said it was a small cyst and there was nothing to be done about it, and that was the end of the story. Then, earlier in April, I freaked myself a bit by noticing a mole that I thought had changed. Again, I checked it out, and kept an eye on it. I made an appointment to see the same doctor, but because she’s only in once a week, I had to wait a month to see her. So fine, by the time the appointment rolled round and my mole hadn’t changed at all, I was actually pretty sure it was nothing to worry about.

My appointment was on Wednesday. The doctor checked it out, and said it was fine. It was an irritated wart. This was interesting news as for the past five years or so, I’ve been growing new moles – as I thought – all the time, but she gave me a cursory inspection and said they were all warts, and quite harmless. Well, harmless except to my image as a foxy chick, but hey. I can let that go. She gave me a leaflet, I went home, told Mister Litlove I was turning into a little warthog and could he please ask the white witch in his employ to back off, and Mister Litlove thought this was all pretty hilarious. And I was in such a good mood. Things have been so fraught here lately, what with lots more students than I normally see in the run up to the exams, and my son sitting his exams and never being home and Mister Litlove not that happy in work. I’ve been feeling tired and drained. But I had this patch of a few days to just chill out and recover and I was really looking forward to it.

So of course, the next day, getting into the shower, I notice another mole, not so very far away from the one that I’d seen the doctor about the day before. This new mole, though, was a worry; it seemed to tick some of the boxes on the sheet the doctor had given me. And whilst I’d been okay with the other imperfections I’d found, for some reason this one completely freaked me out. I mean, I seriously freaked. I felt such an idiot, having seen the doctor only the day before – could she have noticed this one herself and dismissed it? It’s hard to know what people are looking at when they are behind you. Was it just another irritated wart? I felt terrified; I went hot and I went cold, I felt sick. I started looking dermatologists up in the phone book, wondering if I could wait the week to see the doctor yet again. Well, I was a mess.

That was yesterday and Mister Litlove has been doing a sterling job of trying to talk me down since then. He has looked at it and is not concerned at all. He thinks that this is a product of my being tired and having had far too much to do with skin doctors lately. To be completely reasonable, it is very small, and if you stand close to me and look at it, it doesn’t look like anything to be worried about – you have to really look up close (please don’t tell me about all the people you knew with minuscule blemishes that turned out to be fatal, now is not the moment). I always felt that skin cancer gave you a sporting chance by looking weird or disgusting, and almost 90% are benign. But don’t think for one moment that I will not get myself checked out by the doctor just as soon as I possibly can. I most certainly will.

No the issue here really is my huge and disproportionately fearful response to illness. I mean, someday, something is going to happen to me, one of my fears will come true and what will I do then? Will I just be a puddle on the floor until I finally die? Mister Litlove’s theory here is that I can’t do anything to control or manage illness, hence it gets to me, and there is undoubtedly truth in that. I also hate the state of not knowing (and believe me, you have to really hate the state of not knowing to become an academic). I am very bad at just withstanding and sitting things out; I like to help move them along, you know? I’m bad at distracting myself because once the distraction has finished I feel even worse, as if taking my eye off the monster makes it more likely to come for me. Well, what it boils down to is that I have triggered my fear, and I don’t deal with that very well. How do people manage to quell their fears? What do you do to get a grip again?


40 thoughts on “In Which I Freak Myself Again

  1. This is terrible to be in such a situation when you become so overawed by it. I also hate not knowing and like to think I’m in some sort of control. This is just an illusion though and now I try to accept it. I suggest you think of yourself as if you are one of those lucky students who come to you for advice. Present the case as if it were one of them, then you suggest what to do, a wise course of action. Then follow it yourself. (Take care to avoid spiit personality – statutory warning from Health and Safety Executive and EU).
    Is there no skin clinic in your area you could go to for a quick check? If not, go back to the doctor – whatever it takes to settle you back into your usual self.
    Hope your son’s exams are going well. My daughter is in the middle of that too. Three left, next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. She so loves the timing! Best wishes.

    • Dear Bookboxed – I seriously make these things worse for myself than they need be. But I will definitely see the doctor again (and believe me I checked out Cambridge for a clinic of any kind, but to no avail. Still it will be Monday, or Wednesday at the latest, so not so very long). I will certainly try to imagine myself as a student in my room in the meantime, whilst avoiding a split personality! 😀 I send my very very best wishes and lots of luck to your daughter. My poor son has Wednesday, Thursday, Friday exams and then another one in the following week. Double maths has a lot to answer for. We will all be pleased to see the back of this latest lot!

    • Oh Jackie, bless you. I am so glad it is not just me that does this. I think your idea of planning holidays is very wise. I will write a list of things I need to do and get a move on with it!

  2. I find it helps to think about death on a regular basis. You, and I, and everyone reading this post, will in a fairly short time all be dead.

    Yeah, you can tell I’m the life and soul of the party, can’t you?

    But I find it helps me in managing my fears, from illness to a public performance to a bad review. Mr Litlove knows you far better so I’m sure his diagnosis is correct, but to me it sounds like a fear of mortality, and the best way to stay scared and obsessed with something is to try not to think about it. I find that actively thinking about death and imagining what it will be like helps me to face it, as well as to put my other fears in perspective. But it’s not a great way to make friends…

    Did I thank you for a very thought-provoking post? No, I see it’s all been about me so far. Well, thanks 🙂

    • Andrew, I just love this comment. You’re right, it’s a good reality check to face up to mortality. I believe I have a, oh what’s the term, yes a ‘morbid sensitivity’ to illness which must logically stem in part from some sort of clinging to the idea of immortality. And you are so right that it’s the things we work so hard to avoid that we effectively hold in our heads all the time. Much better to stare straight at it. You can come to my party any time.

  3. It’s always much easier to be calm about someone else’s fears and concerns than it is with our own. I can easily tell someone in my family or a friend not to worry until there is something specific to worry about, but in my own case I’m a mess as well! I tend to ignore and put off, which is not a good thing at all (fear of being sick and not in control…or worse things…), so I think it is wise to be concerned but it’s good not to let the fear or concern to rule your life (easier said than done). It seems best to be aware and informed (easier to solve a problem early on than putting it off too late, right) but to try not to stress overly and think the worst. Hopefully all is well and you’ll get get reassurance soon.

    • Dear Danielle, I am dreadful for thinking the worst, although I would quite probably tick a student off for doing the same thing! I sometimes wonder if I spend my time dealing with my students’ problems because they do feel so much easier than my own, and so I have this delusory sense of mastering difficulties! You are absolutely right that getting things checked out without giving in to loads of stress in the meantime is exactly the right approach. And thank you for the solidarity too – it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one.

  4. Such an apposite post. I’m anxiously waiting for a doctor’s appointment on Monday. I can’t offer any words of wisdom I’m afraid, other than to say I know how you feel.

  5. Oh Karen! I am holding your hand virtually here. I really hope that everything will be fine for you at the doctors. It’s the absolute pits having to worry about one’s health.

    • Thank you litlove for your virtual hand holding. Although health worries are never pleasant, I think it’s no bad thing to contemplate one’s mortality once in a while, if only to make us consider how and with whom we spend our days.

      • Karen, that’s a wonderful way to make something good out of something bad. It’s true that illness takes us back to basics in what can be a useful way.

  6. I don’t have much helpful to say except to add to the chorus of “I get this way too.” I don’t think the internet has helped at all! Google ‘bad head ache” and next thing you know you’re obsessing over the possibilities of tumors when you know perfectly well with your rational self that you’ve probably just been online too long! And then sometimes people undermine your rational self about things you have always been quite fine about. I have a VERY minor heart issue and was very casual about it when my eye doctor asked about it as part of going over my medical history–and he replied “my wife died from that.” How sad and awkward is that! And also, not very helpful, thank you.

    • Rohan, I know this is not usual academic behaviour, but I’m sending you a virtual hug! There is SO much publicity about cancer, everywhere you look, everywhere you go. I’m sure it does a good job, but occasionally I wouldn’t mind if we all stopped talking about it for a while. As for your eye doctor – oh my goodness! I mean, that is funny, and heartbreaking and dreadful all at once. This is where that phrase about resisting the seduction of an analogy seems very apt!

  7. So sorry to hear you’re going through this. I can completely empathize as I have spent most of my life freaking out over minor health issues, convinced I had no time left to live, only to be assured by doctors that I was fine. I’m in one of those “not freaking out over every mole, bump, pain, etc.” moments in life, but I know it could end any day now, just as yours did. Don’t know if this will help, but (because I’m experienced in such things) I’m very, very sure that your doctor saw the mole that’s causing you so much worry right now, and it didn’t concern her. You’d be surprised how much they see when they start looking at you, and if it was nearby, she couldn’t have missed it. Hang in there. I’m sending warm, calming thoughts your way.

    • Emily, bless you that is SUCH a comforting and reassuring thought. And thank you for the solidarity also. It is so hard to stay sensible about these things. I realised a while back that it is that structure of the cloud, no bigger than a man’s fist that dominates my worrying. The small things can seem so potently threatening! Good for you for resisting the menace – long may it last!

  8. Oh dear Litlove, poor you, this is horrible! I can’t help feeling this is perhaps also anxiety displaced from the other things you’ve mentioned – heavy time at work, son’s exams, son moving on in life etc. You can’t imagine (well, probably you can) how many serious diseases I’ve had symptoms of since I left my job. The awful thing is that realising what’s going on doesn’t make it stop. And of course you are entirely right to get it checked out again. Hugs.

    • Displaced anxiety is exactly the term I was searching for but couldn’t find. Thank you! I have had a lot of silly stresses lately, and I do think this is a culmination of them in some ways. I find I do displace anxiety really easily (hence chronic fatigue, of course). I can remember so very vividly the onslaught of health worries I had when chronic fatigue was getting a grip on me and I hadn’t had it diagnosed. For a while I could attribute everything to that, but as it receded, so other alarming options took its place! You are so right that reason does not make it go away. I will get myself checked out, but thank you for your lovely comment which holds much truth!

  9. You know all those theories on what separates humans from other animals? That we have souls or speech or dexterity or manipulate symbols, etc., etc.? I was thinking just this morning of our capacity for seeing impending trouble. I was considering some distant problem and how best to anticipate it, then laughed at myself for planning so far ahead for something as yet unrealized.

    And now I read your post. I’m going to chalk up this anticipatory capacity as a sign of promising brightness.

    • Oh I am the queen of anticipation, and many a bad day it has given me! So you are definitely onto something there, my friend. Thank you for the solidarity – which is hugely appreciated! And for your optimism. Hugs to you.

  10. First of all, Litlove, I am so sorry you are dealing with all this right now. I completely and utterly understand how you are feeling worked up about everything. And I really don’t feel you have a disproportionate response to illness considering all that you have been through. When I feel feat about my health, I voice those fears to people who are more objective so that I can get a better perspective. It is not always easy to hear what they tell me, but I try to really listen and assess whether what I am feeling with my body is legitimate or not. And as my therapist tells me, more often than not these things turn out to be nothing at all–as our bodies do weird things the older we get. That gets me through until I can see the doctor and get a handle in things. But usually it is tremendously hard, and I feel that even giving you this advice is kind of hypocritical because I respond exactly as you are responding. I will be thinking of you and wishing all the best for you.

    • Dear Ali – what a sweetie you are. I knew you would understand completely. When you’ve been through bad health times, all it does it make you dread the next thing that goes wrong! And it is so true that as we get older our bodies do strange things – mine is capable of just about anything, particularly if it can freak me out over it. I will get checked out properly, as that’s always the sensible thing to do, and just try to stay sensible in the meantime! Your support and understanding really helps, thank you.

  11. I have a strange comment for you, Litlove, which may freak you out more, or — who knows? — may be helpful. The comment is this: for those of us who have lived all or most of our lives with “undiagnosable” illnesses, which aren’t always taken seriously by people around us … there’s a tendency to underestimate both the support that’s available for something “real,” and also the level of strength and resistance we have. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what will happen to me when I have something “real” happen to me, after a lifetime of chronic pain. But on the occasions when I have had something “real” — a diagnosed illness, or surgery — it’s surprisingly easy to deal with, possibly because for once, it’s concrete and I don’t have to make excuses for it; or possibly because a lifetime of practice has made me far tougher than I usually understand myself to be.

    Personally, I don’t fear death, but I’m sure I would if I had a child or someone who was dependent on me. It’s other people’s suffering that makes death frightening, I think.

    • David, I hoped you would see this post and comment as I wondered what your thoughts would be. Yes, I must surely be tougher than I think, as there have been weeks and months of chronic fatigue where I felt completely and disgustingly dreadful, often not knowing exactly what was wrong with me either. So I must have more experience and resistence than I give myself credit for. It’s reassuring to know that you found it easier in some ways to have something ‘real’, ie named. There can be huge relief in putting a name to something, that much is for sure! I don’t fear death, but I’m not fond of suffering (although experience suggests that a lot of my suffering is just fear about fear, rather than of the event itself). As for fearing other people’s suffering, oh god, don’t get me started. I’d much rather it was me than my son, for instance. Thank you, dear friend, for your helpful thoughts.

  12. I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I agree with David’s comment, because I was terrified when I thought I had a breast cancer, and when it was diagnosed, yes my first reaction was horror but then it became much easier to deal with. It could have been much worse than it was, of course and I think it must be so frightening to keep on wondering and fearing the worst – so I hope your fears, whatever the doctor tells you, will subside. For me the only way of coping is to know what it is, and what can be done about it.

    • Oh Margaret, I didn’t know you’d had to go through that. How awful for you – I do so hope you are better now. Fear of the unknown is particularly vicious and poignant, I think. So I can see how it is oddly better once one knows what will happen next. And I do hope you are completely on the road to full recovery now.

  13. I’m the girl who had a death wish for more than half of her life, so dying doesn’t sacre me at all but getting old, being ill and helpless, yes, that does.
    I think fear can link itself to anything. In your case it’s skin cancer at the moment but it could be something else. You strike me as an highly unlikely skin cancer candidate, I don’t see you friyng in the sun on a regular basis.
    When I was about 27 I had some mole type thingy and a few little red dots and went to show them. The doctor, a real darling (I’m being sarcastic) told me to get used to it. “Your skin is aging just like you”. All types of changes in the skin are due to aging.
    We are all going to look really freckled one day. I used to be the perfect Snow White, dark hair, white skin, now my skin is a tiny little bit darker than it used to … Now I look like a healthy Snow White. I’m going to end up dark enough for Bay Watch.. Without ever going in the sun…
    Not sure that cheered you up or was of any consolation… Just trying to say, we are all worried about negative changes in our body. You are not alone.

    • Caroline – I really appreciate the solidarity and your thoughts, so thank you so much. I did do quite a lot of sunbathing when I was a teenager and in my twenties, although on the whole I was good about sunscreen. But it doesn’t take much to make me worry! It’s funny how much skin changes as we age, though. Mine is definitely very different indeed to when I was younger (and having a child made a huge difference too). I feel like you, that on the whole I’m not afraid of death, but I would really hate to be really ill again. I’ve had enough of lying about in bed not able to do anything, really I have! But it’s good to know that everyone worries every now and then.

  14. I totally empathize with your anxiety… I too freak myself out over small stuff (mostly at night, and then the next morning I look even worse) and I feel terribly guilty about it when it (of course) proves to be nothing at all. Well, may I offer you a virtual glass of French Bordeaux while waiting for your appointment?

    • Smithereens, oh thank you. Yup, that’s exactly what I do – freak out over the small stuff and it’s so hard to get a grip! I will gladly accept a glass of virtual Bordeaux, thank you so much!

  15. Oh I can relate to fear of flood, fire and disease. I want to give some thought to this–and I’m on my way to rollerblade on the island so will think while rolling (if I’m not panting, way out of shape). Or at least while my kids are in the playground and I’m sitting on the bench.

    • Lilian – that sounds very healthy. I am hopeless on wheels and the couple of times I’ve tried to rollerskate, I have spent almost the entire time on my backside! I hope you have a lovely afternoon, and thank you for the solidarity!

  16. This is a bit like proffering an umbrella for a tsunami but I try to remember Gene Kranz’s words from the film Apollo 13: “Let’s work the problem people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” Lately I’ve taken to using the first half as a mantra for warding off distracting, turbulent emotions.

    On the other hand, so what if you freak out. As you’ve had confirmed, it’s an understandable and natural reaction. You’re doing the right thing now getting it checked promptly. Good luck and all the very best wishes to you.

    • Lokesh, bless you as always for your lovely comment. I really like that quotation and am busily committing it to memory. I am sure it will come in handy in all sorts of situations. You’re right that freaking out is a perfectly natural thing to do, and that we all do it sometimes. I just hate the feeling of it, though – as I am generally keen to keep control over my inner life. I’m sure that’s partly where the problem lies….

  17. Poor Litlove. I’m sure it doesn’t help to point out that since the mole is near where the doctor already looked if it were suspicious she very likely would have noticed it. I take after my whole family when it comes to health-related issues, we figure as long as we are still upright and breathing and not in abnormal pain things can’t be all that bad. We are a rather stoic bunch. Try to distract yourself and know that it is very likely nothing, and if it is, then, well, I am certain you will be able to deal with it just fine.

    • How I wish I were like you! That sounds like a wonderful attitude to have. I keep thinking to myself that surely the doctor must have seen it? Still, I will get it checked out and try and ask about every other mole I possess at the same time!

  18. I’m reading this after your subsequent post, so I know that people have helped you feel calmer about this. I’m going to do a do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do sort of comment, and repeat what other people say about trying to be very rational, and not worrying what the doctor will think of you – that’s what they’re there for, etc.! I recently had a similar issue – symptoms of bowel cancer, and a gap of ten weeks between seeing the doctor and finally getting the all-clear through a super-fun examination. Not knowing is the worst, isn’t it? You’re already a few dozen steps further along the path than I am by your willingness to talk about it – I just bottled it up and drove myself a little crazy.

    • Oh Simon you poor thing! Ten weeks of uncertainty sounds completely dreadful. I am SO glad that you got the all clear at the end of it. And why is it that these situations always come accompanied by the most humiliating and unpleasant tests? I have been through plenty of those myself. I am trying hard to be rational, although I admit I have my wobbles. But I will get it checked out as soon as I can. I’ve given up with dignity on this blog – far too needy for comfort and solid good sense! 🙂

  19. HI Litlove
    I would suggest that maybe you are suffering from what is called somatisation. It happens when you focus your anxieties on your body, it can take many forms but fear of symptoms and impending death is a common one. The reassurance you seek from the doctor in response to the symptoms has a calming effect but it is unfortunately only temporary so further symptoms will be found and the cycle continues.

    I hope this doesn’t seem insulting or belittling. I was overwhelmed by it at one time in my life but did get some help and no longer suffer from it. I have the normal anxiety associated with fears of illness etc but no longer the crippling kind. I rarely go to the doctor these days and just do the normal routine check ups.

    Something, or indeed lots of things, that you are unaware of may be bothering you more than the usual stuff, it might be worth talking to someone.

  20. I’m sorry that you’ve been feeling so bad about this but I’m glad to see that your blogging friends have been reassuring and that you are also feeling better now (since I am a few days late). I also get flashes of anxiety where I’m convinced that a mole (or spot) has changed colour or has grown bigger. L reassures me that it’s normal and I know it’s mainly anxiety but it still bothers me. As I was reading this I was thinking it’s a good thing to get these things checked out but I also know that it also tends to heighten the anxiety. You’ve had a unusually busy term by the sounds of it and it’s no wonder that you need some reassurance and that (apparently) small things will sometimes get the better of you.

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