CN: depression, anxiety, paranoia,
cancer, suicidal rhetoric
My father suffers from chronic hypochondriasis. There, I’ve said it. It has taken me forever to come to terms with this. Like a lot of people who suffer from hypochondriasis, my father has clinical depression too. And it is the most debilitating symptom of his condition.
My father claims that his depression was born the days leading up to when my mother divorced him. I ask my mother whether this is true. My mother rejects this, although she is certain he isn’t blaming the divorce out of any malicious intent, she says he always suffered from depression and that he has simply forgotten. I think it’s a bit of both. His Indian father and English mother divorced when he was just 2 years old. In the months that followed, he was shipped from an all-white, English household with his mother in England to an Indian, non-English speaking household with his relatives in India. Both his parents remained in different parts of London. The trauma must have inflicted severe damage. His mother didn’t want to have anything to do with her children and his father was mentally incapable of taking care of them. His father, my grandfather, suffers from bipolar depression. I think all of this has culminated in my father’s depression, and his divorce from my mother pulled the illness out of the depths he had managed to cast it into during most of his life.
But back to the hypochondriasis. It is a state in which someone believes they’re unwell, and no matter the results of medical tests and doctors’ opinions, the belief will persist. If nothing is found, the worst is assumed: perhaps, an incurable form of cancer or an ailment that has not been discovered by modern science yet. This is accompanied by severe anxiety and paranoia. The person thinks they’re dying, and that they need to find out what’s wrong with them. But nothing is wrong with them, and so the tests return normal, and these results make them more anxious because surely the doctors have missed the diagnosis. No one can save them. This confirms that they’re going to die. It’s a cruel cycle.
‘He’d say his goodbyes, seek forgiveness from anyone he might have hurt and express his last wishes. Then one day, a switch would go off in his head and he’d discharge himself and dive face forward into life’
Around the time of my parents’ divorce, I recall my father sleeping most of the time. He slept day in, day out and cited one ailment or another as a reason for why he was sleeping in. As a 12-year old, it hurt that we were not spending time together, but I believed what he was saying and gave him time to come around, and maybe take us for ice cream. So, when my relatives would roll their eyes and say, ‘oh of course, your father is sick again’, it crushed me. Why did no one believe my father? If I could see the distress in his eyes, why would they all ask jeeringly ‘So, what is your father doing now?’ which inherently meant ‘Why is he so useless? How come he doesn’t work?’ I can still hear their voices in my head. Children never forget.
I remember him being admitted to hospital several times for gastric/cardiac/neural problems that most often did not manifest clinically. He’d say his goodbyes, seek forgiveness from anyone he might have hurt and express his last wishes. Then one day, a switch would go off in his head and he’d discharge himself and dive face forward into life. He’d be okay for some time, scrambling to sort out his finances and work to get back on track. And if he did manage to sort this out, there would be periods of calm. No ailments, no doctor visits, no hospital admissions. He’d become his cheerful, sociable, creative and entertaining self again. He can predict fashion trends years in advance. When I see him this way, it makes my heart melt. I know this is who he is beyond the depression. He is the most empathetic, kind and caring person I know. He has the ability to make anyone feel welcome and wanted. He can be funny too. But then out of nowhere the depression claws him down. And this side stifles and retreats into the darkness. And we’re back to feeling ill and dying all over again.
After my parent’s separation and subsequent divorce, for most of my life, I lived with my mother. But for the last four years, I have been living with my father. So, I have been living with his hypochondriasis too. GP visits, consultant visits, ambulance visits, calls to doctors across the world for a second opinion – and most painful, constant chatter about some recent ailment. Oedema has been the latest. Every day he returns from work and shows me his swollen legs. He has been to the doctor and they’ve stated it is idiopathic, and nothing to worry about. But he thinks it’s something else. He has a measuring tape and he notes down the measurement of his calves. One day he ordered a pulsometer from amazon. I knew something was up. And soon enough his oxygen saturation was becoming an obsession. So, I hid his pulsometer and oedema retained the limelight. While my sister (who is valid in feeling this way) perceives this as utter selfishness, I know he genuinely believes he is ill, and that when he does, everyone else around him become invisible. We cease to exist. He can’t help it.
In recent times it has been the worst. Last month alone he had two ‘heart-attacks’. For the first one he woke me up at 3AM to ask me to ring the ambulance because he had severe chest pain. I foresaw this, he had been quite depressed lately. I knew he was most-likely not having a heart-attack, but I have learnt to be a good actress. I put on my worried face and fumbled with his phone as I rang 999. I cuddled him while we waited, he described his symptoms, and as a medical sciences student I can confirm they’re accurate. My degree has leant me the credibility of offering my own diagnosis based on his symptoms. I do this because I know is always best to offer a diagnosis than to dismiss it all together. So, when he thinks he’s having a cardiac arrest, I say it’s probably acid reflux. And bring him some over the counter medicine that’s safe for him to ingest. I make up diseases, disorders and treatments too. I don’t care what anyone says, I know what makes him feel better. I live this.
‘The results are as expected – he is fine. And then, as these episodes go, the anxiety and paranoia kicked in. During such instances I do not know how to help him’
The ambulance arrived, and they performed an ECG. The results were normal. But because his symptoms were in line of a cardiac attack they whisked him away in the ambulance. I asked him if I should come, but he said he’ll be OK. I pressed him to keep me updated. He agreed, and slightly relieved went to hospital. The results are as expected – he is fine. And then, as these episodes go, the anxiety and paranoia kicked in. During such instances I do not know how to help him. It is extremely frustrating to see him this way. The only thing I can do is pray. The second time this happened he was pacing around the house saying, ‘something is definitely not right’. Yes, I want to reply. It’s your depression. But I don’t. I ask him what I can do to help. On this occasion he even feels faint and nearly passes out. I helped him sit onto the sofa and realised he’s quite heavy, I’ve never carried him before. The thought made me nauseous. He is a healthy and able-bodied man, it shouldn’t be this way. Bloody depression.
It took me a long time to realise that while my reserves of empathy manage to replenish themselves, I am exhausted. Some days when my father returns from work and instead of asking me how my day was, greets me with the width of his calves or result on a pulsometer, I want to bash my head against a wall. In front of him I nod passively or provide a comment, so he believes I am listening, but I cry myself to bed behind closed doors, because some days I need empathy too. It is hard, so very difficult, to manage his conditions, while hiding his illness from irritating relatives who will never understand his depression, while convincing my sister that his selfishness is out of his control, while explaining to his new wife, my step-mother, that he will be ok without making it sound like he is pretending. I want to shoot myself in the head sometimes.
I know this is a cycle, right now we’re at the peak of his depression, and in a few days, it will fall, and he will be fine. And as much as I hope the spell has been broken, I know we’ve just hit reset. When I express my frustration to my mother, her reply is curt: move out. She cares for him enough for him to be alright, but she can’t stand the thought of me struggling. I don’t believe this is the solution. If I do move out, I fear that his wife will never understand his depression and that no one will be able to stage a way out of his panic attacks when they strike, like I can. I want my baby half-brother and my sisters to have a healthy relationship with him. I want him to thrive in his element. I love him and that’s why it hurts. I want to zap his hypochondriasis out of its existence. But I can’t.
Header image by spDuchamp