Tuesday, June 2, 2009
I'm OK, You're OK
"Instead of your distress becoming all about you, it can become your link with everyone all over the world who is in the same predicament. The stories are different, the causes are different, but the experience is the same. This is our chance to come out of our self-protecting bubble and to realize that we are never alone."--Pema Chodron, from Taking the Leap
I think if we consider this quote as it relates to the Internet, it's a nice counterpoint to another post I wrote about the Loneliness of the Internet User. I've been giving myself a crash course on social media so I can figure out how to use it to get the word out about our books and authors. What I'm finding is that it can be beneficial to be a part of a niche group. People are sharing their stories, ideas, opinions, in ways that can reach more people, thereby helping them with whatever their problem is--whether it's what kind of skin cream to avoid or how to treat an eye infection. Sure there are plenty of critics and exhibitionists and liars--but there are also friendly, generous, helpful people on the net. Reading their stories and comments makes me feel less alone.
When I was in my late twenties, I went through a period of severe hypochondriasis. It was triggered by some minor health problems that appeared all at the same time, and then fueled by the free-floating anxiety I felt after 9/11. I remember around that time reading an article in O magazine about Michael J. Fox and how he first discovered he had Parkinson's disease when he noticed his thumb kept twitching. The mind is a powerful machine because soon my thumb was twitching, too! I felt pain in my chest, the moles on my back suddenly looked as big as saucers, and my glands were swollen to capacity. I went to several doctors, agonized over what they would find, and read statistics on cancer in young women to either comfort me or to confirm my worst fears, depending on the source. It was a very scary experience at age 28 to think you're about to drop dead at any moment. A trip to San Francisco with Mike that should have been a blast was dampened by my conviction I had Hodgkin's Lymphoma or ALS or whatever other disease I happened to come across in that month's women's magazine.
What helped me recover from this form of OCD was A. an excellent therapist and B. an online forum for hypochondriacs like me. The therapist wasn't cheap, but the forum was free. And rather than just sitting in a room once a week talking to a paid professional, on the forum I got to "meet" other people who had similar fears as mine. I was also able to talk freely about my problem--something that at the time I didn't feel comfortable doing with friends or family. Let's face it--hypochondriacs are often laughed off or just plain misunderstood. If you're thinking rationally, you know that the chances you have breast cancer at 29 are slim to none. Why get all worked up about a yearly exam? But if you've ever experienced health anxiety, you know it's not funny (well, it's kind of funny to me now, but that's only because I'm no longer afraid to touch my armpits because I might find lumps.) It's actually a pretty isolating condition to be a hypochondriac.
There were all types of fellow sufferers on the forum--those with a mild case of worry and those who posted over and over, frantically trying to convince the other users that their case was the fatal one. I was somewhere in between, but I remember those extreme cases helping me to put my own situation into perspective ("Sweetie," I wanted to type to one woman, "you're in the middle of adopting a child and you're probably really stressed about that and its manifesting itself in weird ways. I doubt that your headache is a sign of a brain tumor.") Reading how these people could not be reassured that they were OK made me realize that I wasn't alone in dismissing Mike's soothing talk that there was NOTHING physically wrong with me. And I also made a few friends, who commiserated with me when I talked about my protective rituals ("I just mailed a check to the Susan G. Komen fund. I have a sonogram scheduled tomorrow and you know, I need the good karma.")
I even met one of the women from the forum, an artist in her 40's, married with a daughter. She was exhibiting one of her paintings at a gallery in New York and invited me to come to the opening. Although we didn't have much in common besides our health anxiety and an appreciation for art, it was good to see that this healthy, vibrant, attractive woman struggled with the same irrational fears that I did. Shortly after our meeting, I gradually started feeling better, and I visited the forum less and less until I no longer needed it at all.
The Internet can be a place where false information spreads, annoymous posters incite flame wars, and shy people avoid the real world. But it can also be a refuge for people who are struggling with something they can't or don't want to talk about with anyone else but their online friends. Used the right way, the web can be a place of healing.