Hyperchondriacal Hysteria

Oh dear readers: today is a bad day. Not bad by a normal person’s standards….indeed, I have a roof over my head, my two week old marriage is thus far intact, I’m in possession of all my limbs, and my family are alive and well. I strongly suggest that if any of the above nightmare scenarios are in fact happening to you at this moment in time, that you stop reading now, because what I am about to describe to you is going to seem unbearably trivial and self indulgent. (Although frankly, what is a blog if not a vehicle for trivia and self indulgence?)

As you know by now, friends and regulars, I am an ex drinker, now sober for four years and eight months….but who’s counting? (Me. That’s who. All my non drinking friends obsessively count their sober days. An alcoholic sobriety birthday is a far bigger deal to us than an actual birthday. Or indeed Christmas. It is such a big deal to me, that I had the date tattooed on my forearm in Roman numerals, in case I forget that I can’t drink like a normal person.)

After a while, not drinking is thank fully no longer a heroic exercise in self restraint. I rarely miss it. If you ever saw me drink you’d know why this is. I do have one MAJOR trigger that in the early days of sobriety, very nearly sent me to the off license on a number of occasions. It may sound strange to non inebriates, but to my ex addict friends and my husband, makes total sense. The one time that I long for oblivion more than any other time is when I’m ill. Not in the stalwart, worthy sense, like ill with something life threatening, or quarantined with measles. Often the symptoms I find the most unbearable are so trifling others wouldn’t even register them.

Today, I awoke, with a cold. “So what?” I hear you cry. A cold is no big deal right?

WRONG. I am ashamed to say, that when assailed with any remotely unpleasant bodily sensation, whether it’s a sore throat, or trapped wind, my first thought is an angry, self destructive one. It usually goes something along the lines of “Well, what seems to be happening here is that I’m experiencing some kind of unpleasant sensation, which is a fucking outrage. This situation calls for hard liquor. Any idiot can see that.” In the old days drinking through illness was when I appreciated the seemingly magical qualities of well timed booze the most. Lots of people ask me why I drank, as if to drink that much HAD to be about escaping some major emotional trauma. It was actually far more useful as an anaesthetic for the niggling discomforts my body seemed riddled with all the time. I used it like medicine. Most people think the hardest thing about being sober is the social aspect, you know, how to explain why you’re not drinking, walking past pubs and off licenses, seeing old friends who drink. (I find writing a tell-all, explanatory blog a useful referral tool in answering all the FAQs.) They are correct in assuming this is hard, but after a couple of years, I have almost stopped thinking about it. I’m not exactly a raver, high on life and dancing to happy hardcore, but I go to pubs with friends, I’ve attended weddings, parties, etc and I’ve not thought about drinking. For me, the hardest part of not drinking is not drinking when you feel like shit, particularly physically.

My response to minor illness/discomfort is has been disproportionately dramatic for as long as I can remember. There is no logical reason for this. My parents were nice when I was ill, and hardcore when they were ill. I did not grow up in one of those posh “pull yourself together” households where illness was frowned upon. (Although my mum was nice to us when we were sick, she herself had no time for illness. If a cold virus was unfortunate enough to invade her system, she’d tell it to fuck off, before stoically sticking a flute on her face and going about her business. [She’s a flautist. That wasn’t a euphemism.] I tried to emulate this for years, before admitting defeat and getting drunk instead.)

Intellectually I know that feeling a bit rough is no big deal. In the overworked, knackered Western world, people everywhere are battling serious illnesses with a lot more grace than I have today, with my poxy cold. I have friends with all sorts of ailments who quietly get on with it, getting on the tube, going to work, probably having conversations by the water cooler not even mentioning how crappy they feel. I on the other hand get a case of the Woody Allens at the mere hint of a sniffle. I get all existential and obsessed with myself. Also there’s something about the beginnings of a cold that just makes me unutterably depressed. I brace myself for feeling like shit for at least three days. In my head, there will be NO JOY WHATSOEVER in living whilst waiting for the symptoms to subside. I will drag myself through, feeling like death, on the brink of insanity, as my relatively few coping skills are stretched to their limits. Another weird thought process starts clamouring, “Yesterday I felt fine. If only I’d appreciated it then……this may well be the beginning of glandular fever, or ME. I’ll probably never be well again……..” until I’m a fully fledged lunatic. I mean no disrespect to sufferers of glandular fever or ME. I am powerless over my own neurosis. My sister had glandular fever at university and it is no laughing matter.

This evening I am due to rehearse with a wee orchestra I play with which is choc a block full of classical bigwigs. Tomorrow I have a recording session at 8.30am (ungodly, surely?) then a rehearsal and a gig. This morning, panicked at the prospect of enduring cactus throat through a 3 session day, I went to the chemist and spent a small fortune on Strepsils, olbas oil pastilles, decongestant spray, you name it, I bought it. In a flap, I desperately asked the mild mannered pharmacist, “I need something that numbs my throat. You know, so I don’t feel ANYTHING. Zero pain.” If he was thinking, “This girl is either a sword swallower or a porn star”, he had the good grace not to show it. He reached under the counter for a little green box and said reassuringly, “This spray will numb your throat completely.” I thanked him, paid, and ran out of the shop, into my car, (Polly Peugeot: more about her later) and sprayed the nozzle so far down my throat I almost gagged. I switched on the ignition, started to drive home, and felt a lovely warm sense of relief. The chemicals burned down my oesophagus, my throat was warm, I was radiating with the sensation that all would be well in the world. It felt oddly familiar. “Hang on a cotton picking minute,” I thought, “I know this feeling.” I looked at the list of ingredients. “Ethanol, 89%”, it innocuously said. I’d basically just sprayed a shot of pure alcohol down my throat. No wonder I felt better. For about a millisecond I thought, “Well, this shit sure does work. And it’s for MEDICAL reasons. Best buy 15 more bottles, just in case!” before getting a grip, throwing it away and brewing some good old lemon and honey, which let’s face it, is a monumental waste of everyone’s time once you’ve sprayed ethanol down your pipes. It doesn’t even taste nice. Fellow musos always say, “Got a cold? Hot toddy! That’ll sort you out.” When I decline and say I don’t do alcohol, they have a little think and invariably say, “Night Nurse!” as if they have solved all my problems. Night Nurse, in the circles I move in, is as good as a bottle of Jack Daniels and fifteen mogodon, such is the power of its mood altering qualities. Many a sober person has fallen off the wagon, citing the seemingly benign Night Nurse as the instigator.

I am ashamed of my lack of stoicism. I have always been painfully aware of other people coping quietly, like swans, gliding through, graceful and serene. Yes, beneath the surface their feet are going like billy-o, but the chaos is concealed by the water. I however, am from the seagull school of coping, flapping manically for all to see, ducking, diving, squawking loudly. The most shameful thing of all, is that I am one of those irritating pseudo feminists that energetically tut and roll my eyes at men’s ineptitude at dealing with physiological symptoms. While I do fervently wish that all men could experience just one menstrual cycle, complete with cramping, cravings, inexplicable garment purchases and mood swings, I am most definitely one of the worst sufferers of “man-flu” I know. Honestly, that tickle in the back of my nose and throat may as well be signalling the end of the world, such is my internal reaction.

When I started this blog I had no intention of divulging so much about my strange little peccadilloes. When asked, all the friends of mine who write for a living strongly advise, “Write what you know.” Unfortunately for you, all I know this week is my own hypochondriacal ridiculousness. In search for comrades in the battle against hypochondria, I googled “famous hypochondriacs” and to be honest, I’m not in great company. Howard Hughes (obsessive hoarder and recluse), Adolf Hitler (needs no introduction) and Tennessee Williams (major drug addict and alcoholic) made all the lists. (Bizarrely, so did Florence Nightingale, who according to Time Magazine, “always felt as though she was at the brink of death.” Unfortunate then, that she spent her final 57 years bedridden, before she succumbed. 6 decades is a big old brink.) So if there are any fellow sufferers out there, make yourselves known. I’m sure old Howard below would have benefitted from a support group.