In his classic piece on Roger Federer, David Foster Wallace writes: “There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It’s your body that dies, after all.” Wallace is, as always, penetratingly correct. Athletes present a platonic ideal of mind-body unity. We non-elite athletes crave this feeling as a result of discomfort with our own bodies; all the ways they fail in response to our mental commands. And there is a fundamental disconnect between our mind and our body; the one thing our eyes can never fully comprehend is our own body, as our eyes are part of that body.
It is a testament to both Wallace’s point and my all-consuming hypochondria that even while appreciating the beautifully rendered treatise on our nearly metaphysical fascination with athletic prowess, the above passage, with its horrifying accumulation of bodily dysfunction, sent me frantically down the rabbit hole of WebMD. I started off checking out the symptoms of pneumonia, and an hour later I, emerging from an intoxicated state of panic, found myself self-administering a test for kidney stones and trying desperately not to visualize the sickening actuality of passing a kidney stone.
For as long as I can remember I have been a hypochondriac. One of my earliest memories is taking in an IMAX movie about the Amazon in the Museum of Natural History, and there being a section about leeches, and suddenly I realize that I am sitting in a dark theater and there could be leeches poised next to my feet right now. I wouldn’t even feel it, they would feel like a part of my sneakers, and why not me? Eventually I forced my father to take me home, crying.
Even today, if you mention a heart attack, and…Jesus, is it hot in here? You know, my left arm kinda hurts, just a little, but that’s how it starts, I read! Oh my, I feel my heart beating on the skin of my chest. Is that normal? That’s not normal! And so on. Watching any movie that involves some sort of biological weapon or pandemic makes me physically uncomfortable. It was only out of the deepest sense of masochism that I went to see Contagion in a theater seemingly packed to the gills with coughers and sneezers.
Hypochondria emerges from both Wallace’s idea of a gulf between our sense of body and its actual capabilities and a certain narcissistic sensibility. It is a natural tendency to attempt to understand an illness by self-application: What would if feel like if I were having heart palpitations? There is a psycho-somatic link between mind and body so, again, it is only natural that an attempt to feel heart palpitations would bring about a mild version of what the mind understands as heart palpitations. Beyond that, it is the narcissist and hypochondriac who jumps from “what would it be like?” to “I feel something! Of course it would happen to me.”
Then, of course, there is the accompanying hypochondriac panic which, if you are not a hypochondriac you cannot understand; this panic does not come from actual fear of the illness (because, c’mon, I know I don’t actually have testicular cancer), but from the distance between mind and body, and the rational knowledge of the far-fetched odds of having such an illness. The way a hypochondriac “feels” symptoms only calls attention to the mind’s inability to fully understand the body. Thus, a hypochondriac realizes in visceral terms “I can have no possible way of knowing what that illness feels like until I actually have it.” Hypochondriac fantasies quickly devolve into fatalistic depression about the limits of the mind, and from that emerges the fanatical belief in having the disease, because if not then the comically tiny limits of the mind are confirmed.
My narcissistic hypochondria lends itself to body paranoia. If the one thing I cannot do is objectively see my entire body, I naturally assume something must be wrong. If somebody looks at me cross-eyed on the street, suddenly my mind is racing; they must be looking at me because something is wrong! There must be a truly monster zit on my face. Snot hanging from my nose. My shoulders could be buried in an inch deep drift of dandruff. Something, anything, weird with my hair. I probably check to see that my fly is up a good ten times a day, because, you know, the gyrations of walking could push it down. What? It’s not impossible! On most days, if I could print out a picture of the mental image of myself, it would look something like Jeff Goldblum when he was just starting to turn into a manfly in The Fly.
Why this inability to be content in my body? Why this perverse fascination with the ways in which the body breaks down? For the same reason that we find reconciliation in elite athletes. If we cannot understand our bodies, we crave the extreme ends of their physicality, as in those states we come closest to full feeling.