Body paranoia

Ghostly heart attacks, cancers and other assorted ills have plagued me for the last 31 years. Could the cause be my beloved job?

By David Alford

Published November 12, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

What diseases have I had during the last 31 years? Brain cancer, heart
attacks, liver disorder, kidney dysfunction, blindness, tumors in the
throat and stomach, melanomas, hypertension, boils, cysts, athlete's foot,
incontinence, loss of sexual desire and temporary insanity. Dr. Waldman
never kids me about my latest suspicions of cancer or heart attack,
realizing that I am seriously convinced I'm dying again. He
dutifully puts the wooden stick in my mouth and peeks in my ears with the
same solemn demeanor as always, sometimes ordering an MRI, a chest
X-ray or a blood test. The answer is always the same: nothing. He has
become an expert on nothingness.

Last week it was a lingering constriction of the throat that left me
gasping for breath in the middle of the night and forced me to my desk to
write another will. I was convinced it was cancer of the esophagus. As
usual, I left everything to my two sons and my younger sister. There are so
many wills lying around that when I ever do die, it will be like a treasure
hunt to find the latest one. Waldman ordered a barium swallow, prescribed
a strong antacid pill and discussed backpacking with me. I walked out of
his office feeling stupid, though he reassured me that "it's important to
check these things out." I asked him when I had started seeing him, and he
finally said, "1885, no, 1985," after leafing through the thick folder.

Can't I get through a year without thinking I'm dying of something? Being
a health freak, I exercise regularly, drink herbal St. John's Wort and
meditate. Friends say I should stop living alone, get a dog, spend more
money on myself, drink more champagne, gain weight, go to more foreign
movies and have more sex. It is good advice, I suppose, and all except
not living alone would be easy to accomplish. But what the hell, I think,
this is who I am.

Nobody has solved the problem of the relationship between the mind and the
body, of course. From Descartes up to the present, philosophers
have argued about the mind and body: Were they
one physical entity, two different kinds of physical entities or two completely distinct entities working according to different laws?
The debates have generated much more heat than light. Who cares? My head is
connected to my body. I know that much from looking in the mirror. And I
swear, every time I'm dying both my head and my body feel bad.

This week bolts of current are passing through my chest like I'm being
roasted in the electric chair. I pop up from near-sleep in stark panic,
clutching at my chest with both hands, and then rise up to pace rhythmically
and read New Yorkers for hours. Even the cartoons don't help.

I decided to tough this one out, not drag my failing body to Dr. Waldman.
I just couldn't face him again. Instead, I fixed a cup of tea and petted
my cat. Seriously ill people, like my sister, who is waiting for a liver
transplant, treat me with great tact and understanding, as if my neuroses
were preparatory to the real thing. If the self-fulfilling prophecy thing is
true, I'm in trouble, laying the groundwork for the most dramatic death of
all time.

One of the things I inherited from my father was an infinite capacity for
worrying. I remember once when we were having some logging done on the
ranch, Dad's mantra was, "Now we've got to make sure they don't drop a tree
on the water line." He repeated it endlessly throughout the preparations
for cutting down the trees. Then the logger almost immediately dropped a
tree on the water line, as if he were the agent of a dark force
specifically sent to torment my father. Dad never admitted the inner price
he was paying for his anxious temperament, though. He didn't troop
regularly to the doctor in search of reassurance, at least as far as I
knew. In those days men like my father only went to the doctor if they were
carried there on a stretcher.

It doesn't help matters much that I worry so much about my students.
Sometimes I think I've chosen a career that mandates a continual
maintenance of debilitating anxiety. While my students probably walk out of
my classroom thinking about what they are going to have for dinner or what
the guy in the next row meant when he said, "lookin' good," I am stewing
about whether my explanation of Jung's concept of the collective
unconscious penetrated their consciousness. And there are always enough of
them who hang around to ask, "What did you mean by that?" to make me wonder
if I made any sense at all, and whether my teaching really touches their

Three of my closest friends are teachers. One almost died on the operating
table, another is battling recurring cancer and the other can barely speak
sometimes from the pressure cooker of her job. One of
the students in my evening philosophy class is an elementary school teacher
who shows up with enormous stacks of papers she grades during the discussions. "Regular
feedback, they need regular feedback," she said once, justifying the
self-torture she puts herself through in assigning so much homework.
One of my colleagues actually asks students who are not doing their work if
he can stop worrying about them. He says many of them act surprised, as if
the thought never occurred to them that a teacher might spend a second worrying about them. Most of the time we don't talk about our stress; we just walk around
wearing strange masks that we all recognize as badges of commitment.

All the "helping professions" involve a similar kind of
self-sacrifice, no doubt, but I don't think there is anything particularly
noble about such career-induced suicide. We may even be hurting the people we are trying to
help by burning ourselves up and then disappearing into our own self-involved stress, thinking somehow that we are paying the logical price for human compassion. And what kind of a role
model is the person who seems to suffer so much from the act of service?
Everybody would be better served if we simply relaxed and had more fun. Easier said than done. In the meantime, I do wish I could get this lump out of my throat. It seems
to have been stuck there forever.

David Alford

David Alford lives and works on a ranch in the Sierras, near the town of Avery, CA.

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