Elevate Difference

The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives

Almost everyone knows someone they would describe as a hypochondriac—a friend or relative who is obsessed with ambiguous symptoms, or who hears about a disease and immediately fears they have contracted it. In contemporary pop culture, “hypochondriac” is frequently a pejorative term, and one who suffers from “health phobia” is commonly an object of mockery. The condition is sometimes confused in media portrayals with malingering or deliberate “faking.”

But hypochondria has not always been thought of as a mental problem. To the ancient Greeks, the hypochondrium was the region of the abdomen below the ribs. Ulcers and abdominal problems were once considered part of the “hypochondriac syndrome.” As the actual causes of such disorders were discovered, physical complaints without a clear cause continued to be labeled “hypochondriasis.”

The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives documents nine well-known “hypochondriacs” throughout history, and creates a narrative about how the diagnosis has evolved. A wide variety of medically recognized physical and mental issues have at one time been labeled hypochondria. What was labeled hypochondria in Daniel Paul Schreber might today be described as Cotard’s syndrome, or schizophrenia. The symptoms Andy Warhol experienced might now be called body dysmorphic disorder, a fascination with perceived flaws in one’s appearance.

Some of the nine individuals are more well-known than others. Most readers will probably be familiar with Charlotte Bronte, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Alice James, Marcel Proust, and Andy Warhol. But I had to Google James Boswell to learn that he is credited with reinventing the biography genre. Daniel Paul Schreber was a German jurist whose memoir of his mental illness became well-known after being analyzed by Sigmund Freud. Glenn Gould was a celebrated classical pianist, conductor, and broadcaster. Each individual viewed their “disease” differently, in accordance or in defiance of contemporary thinking.

Hypochondria was at one time considered the male counterpart to “female hysteria” (madness caused by the uterus). This may explain why hypochondria is frequently stereotyped as a problem affecting females. (In modern medicine, however, an equal number of men and woman are diagnosed with this condition.) The story of Charlotte Bronte implies that her troubling symptoms, and her resulting anxiety, may be connected to her frustration with the confinements of contemporary gender roles. Bronte was repeatedly discouraged from developing literary ambitions because of her sex, and this caused her considerable anguish. It is easy to see a parallel between hypochondria—symptoms with no clear cause—the “problem with no name” that Betty Friedan described in The Feminine Mystique.

The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives is best suited for readers who have personal experience with hypochondria. In the introduction, the author mentions that he has experienced some degree of hypochondria in his own life, but this is never elaborated upon. His fascination with the condition is apparent, and the diagnosis is explored in detail. The book is analytical, but does not advocate a particular approach to the disease or its treatment.

Written by: Kellie Powell, December 16th 2009