I haven’t always been a terrified, shaking, pathetic shell of a man. I used to be able to cope with the prospect of illness quite well, shrugging it off in the knowledge that even the puny strength of my mis-shaped body would generally prevail over invading germs, and that I’d emerge fighting fit a few days later, gaily leaping over traffic cones and throwing small children high into the air. And catching them. It seems hard to believe that there used to be a time when I wasn’t immobilsed by fear when confronted with an unusual blemish or strange pain, but I remember in 1992 I suffered an almighty bout of tonsilitis, which I casually chose to treat by myself, at home, with a few sachets of blackcurrant Lemsip. I don’t think I even knew that there were such things as antibiotics at the time. I just assumed that my enlarged tonsils would subside, and even after a couple of the most feverish nights of hallucination I’ve ever experienced, with the voice of Clive Bull on LBC metamorphasizing into some Almighty voice from the heavens, I still got up the next day and assumed that a hot drink would deal with it perfectly well. How foolish I was. But not as foolish as I am now.
If there is any event I’m looking forward to, ranging from a week’s holiday in Portugal right down to a long night spent in the pub listing all the drawbacks of the comeback of Duran Duran, I’ll become incredibly sensitive to every ache, pain, sneeze, shiver, shake, involuntary muscular spasm, hot flush, every feeling of tiredness, weariness and lethargy, which in turn triggers an extended sequence of panic symptoms, which generally manifest themselves as aches, pains, sneezes, shivers, shakes, etc etc. It’s a vicious circle that can only be broken by having my mind taken off it by more important things, which is rare, as there’s nothing anywhere near as important as me not getting ill. In recent times, potential illnesses have been successfully vanquished by a) becoming a victim of credit card fraud; b) having some serious plumbing issues in my flat which threatened my already rocky relationship with my downstairs neighbour, and c) any number of impending work deadlines. If I stop thinking about being ill, I don’t get ill. The solution to my non-existent health problems: stop thinking. As long as I don’t ponder too deeply, I’ll be fine. I’d make a terrible philosopher.
By far the worst period of my hypochondria was around 1996, when I suffered from palpitations, inability to sleep, stress and tears before bedtime. I’d recently turned 25, and one of my birthday presents had been a presentation pack of assorted Twinings teas. Up until this point I’d always spurned tea and coffee as vile brown liquids that could never ever compete with the restorative qualities of a glass of Robinson’s Orange Barley Water. But now I’d started to enjoy tea, and my new hobby was encouraged by this gift of Lapsang Souchong, Assam, Earl Grey, Darjeeling, breakfast and afternoon blends. I got stuck in, heartily. I took tips from popular early evening soap operas, and when I was feeling dreadful, I’d make myself a “nice cup of tea”. In fact, 3 or 4 cups. The worse I felt, the more tea I would drink. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, and have a large mug of Ceylon, while scouring the internet to find out what could possibly be wrong with me, thus being pushed to even greater states of anxiety as gout, beri beri, scarlet fever, bowel cancer and appendicitis all competed vigorously to get in the frame and end up as the successful disease that could delight in ravaging my body. It was only after 3 months that I realised that it was the caffeine in the tea that was making my heart race, triggering all the associated symptoms I was experiencing. I wasn’t suffering from cancer at all. I was suffering from tea.
The thing is, I’ve never really been properly ill. I’m a bit overweight, I indulge in various ways, but none of them excessive, and I’m basically a healthy chap. I know full well that the chances of me contracting pleurisy are slim, but if I cough more than two or three times an hour, I feel for my mobile phone in case I need to call an ambulance. “But what will happen when you’re really ill?” my mother asks me. And she has a point. Will I suddenly become a brave, crusading hospital patient, mounting a courageous battle against high blood pressure? It’s more likely that I’d never get to hospital at all, ignored by all and sundry as my ingrowing toenail is blamed on a laboured piece of fantasy on my part. I suppose that’s my destiny. To be The Boy Who Cried “Ouch.”