Today the hypochondriac is ridiculed and reviled, a figure of fun and an object of scorn. But for centuries, hypochondria was deemed a fashionable, even a desirable disorder. In this series, six writers look at the past and present of hypochondria. Personal, historical and political, these essays ask what we might learn from this troubling condition. Who gets labelled ‘hypochondriac’? What questions do hypochondriacs raise about the bodily nature of our existence, and about the way we separate health and illness? Might hypochondria even be a source not only of suffering, but also insight?
Between sickness and health
In early 2020, the subject Will Rees was studying – imaginary illnesses – took on a new relevance as everyone anxiously scanned themselves for Covid symptoms each day. But this kind of self-scrutiny is nothing new, as he reveals.
Reading descriptions of the way humans become infested by parasitic flatworms, Daisy Lafarge experienced painful physical symptoms. Perhaps the very creature she was studying had invaded her body.
An intense focus on his own bodily sensations led poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to self-medicate with narcotics. But this fascination also put Coleridge ahead of the medical sensibilities of his day.
Writing in remission
Reading the writings of the lifelong hypochondriac Jacques Derrida during lockdown, Brian Dillon realises his own health anxiety has become unusually subdued.
Notes on need
Writing about bodies, and hearing the stories of others’ bodies, Johanna Hedva also heard, over and over, how people blame themselves – and are encouraged to do this – for illness and disability.