With anthrax in town -- and the Feds seeking smallpox vaccine for the whole country -- it stands to reason that hypochondriacs must be in a state of particularly high alert. But in fact, they're doing just fine. It seems that terrorism has accomplished what years of therapy, mounting doctors' bills, and vigilant self-examination could not: a cure.
"There's a calmness and serenity that I don't think I've felt before," says Allison, a 27-year-old writer who used to be a classic hypochondriac. ("For some reason, I'd zoomed in on meningitis. Every time I had flulike symptoms, I would call my doctor.") "Everyone is freaking out, hoarding antibiotics, not opening their mail," she says, "and I realize that I'm handling this so much better than all the people who used to laugh at me!"
Hypochondriacs tend to worry for nothing; it's their nature. But now that something is clearly very wrong with the world, many of them are finding that they feel much better. Their symptoms have disappeared, and their preoccupation with sickness has lifted.
"People who are neurotic are always waiting for a disaster -- their whole life is a preparation for it," explains Helen Altieri, an Upper East Side psychoanalyst. "Hypochondriacs probably have some feelings of relief. The unimaginable is always more terrifying than reality."
Mixed with the relief may be the realization that this is probably not the best time to consult friends and family about, say, Epstein-Barr virus. "People can get pretty pissed off at hypochondriacs," admits Stephen Josephson, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the condition. But patients, he says, are "using what happened to put things in perspective."
Indeed, it seems almost criminal to worry about that strange ringing in your ears given what's on CNN. "The young soldiers saying good-bye to their wives -- they always have, like, a 3-month-old baby," says Matt, a 41-year-old producer who used to fixate on tumors. "It's almost like a gift, a twisted gift. You know that saying 'There's always someone worse off than you'? Now I really know what it means."
So are hypochondriacs finally done complaining about odd rashes and mysterious insect bites? "Do I think it will constitute a permanent cure? No," says Josephson. "Real hypochondriasis is a chronic disorder."
But some hypos are considerably more optimistic. "I realized the other day that I hadn't called the doctor in over a month," says Allison. "I want to do more with my day-to-day life and focus less on these scary unknowns."
It may be that the unpredictability of recent events has driven home a point some hypochondriacs had long been missing. "People realize what we've been saying to them, which is that you don't really have a lot of control," says Josephson. "Shit does happen."