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December 1, 1997


Farzana Versey

Illness to Illness

Dominic's Xavier's illustration It had happened once too often. Sumati Prabhakar's name sprang out from almost every page of the doctor's diary. And she was a perfectly healthy woman. Yet, every week, she was there with some ailment -- generally a headache, a fever or a backache. Always imagined ailments. Not that these illnesses were unimaginable, it's just that she was a hypochondriac. And the very noticeable thing was that her imagining herself to be ill occurred most frequently when her husband was in town. As he was employed abroad, she had very little time to be with him. Presumably, this was her way of getting more attention from him.

What are the common complaints of women hypochondriacs one comes across? Most of the time they are vague complaints, like sleeplessness or headaches. When they go to doctor, they don't have a clear-cut idea of their symptoms. They just start crying.

Surprisingly, very few hypochondriac patients have made the first attempt themselves. Making someone else go to the doctor is also a first step in getting their immediate attention.

It cannot always be so simple. At times, there is some incident that has such an effect. One patient had become paranoid when her husband went into partnership with his brother. There was the constant fear and insecurity that, someday, he would take away all the money. In such cases, one can really pinpoint the cause and use whatever psychological ability one has; the husband can be asked to see to it that she is assured nothing will go wrong.

But, quite often, when the case has absolutely no basis to it, the doctor's task is akin to firing a blank shot in the hope that it might hit somewhere. He becomes helpless.

Our social structure makes it a bit difficult, too. That is also one of the reasons they go to general practitioners, their family doctors, because they don't want to get branded. They may insist they have cancer, but it's quite a different matter when it comes to going to a specialist. If I go to a cancer hospital, people will presume that I have cancer; society does exert its influence.

Guilt multiplies the chances of becoming a hypochondriac or leads to psychosomatic disorders. There are other prevalent reasons too. Some boys in their adolescence masturbate quite often. But when they get married, they begin to think they are incapable of having normal sexual relations with their spouse, which results in guilt.

The real fear is that if things go wrong, they know they will have no friends. In any society, if you fall, there are always people who will point fingers at you. Perhaps that is the reason there are more rich hypochondriacs, ordinary and extreme, than poor ones.

Hopping from one doctor to another (a normal process followed by most hypochondriacs), they keep hoping that someone will say they are ill, find something wrong, prescribe medicines and then make them all right. Then, on to another illness.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Farzana Versey