The Anatomy of Fear
Wikipedia describes Hypochondriasis as health anxiety or illness anxiety, a worry about having a serious illness. Some hypochondriacal individuals completely avoid any reminder of illness, including visiting a doctor or medical facility. Additionally, many hypochondriacs experience elevated blood pressure, stress, and anxiety in the presence of doctors or while at a hospital, a condition known as “white coat syndrome“. It is often characterized by constant self-examination, self-diagnosis and fears that minor bodily or mental symptoms may indicate a serious illness. Some victims will never speak about it. Cyberchondriac is a colloquial term for hypochondriacs who research medical conditions on the Internet.
I had all of these symptoms – as a Hypochondriac, could it be possible then that I had also imagined I had Hypochondria? Yes, entirely possible. What an irony!
As a 7 year old, I’d stop breathing when someone coughed or sneezed because I’d heard that millions of germs are released. I’d wash my hands immediately after every handshake, I was terrified of doctors, hospitals and lab tests.
My imagined illnesses were mostly incurable and fatal. Over the years, I’ve lived through rabies at age 7, when my dog accidentally nipped my finger. I anxiously waited for the hydrophobia to set in and it never did.
I had Lung cancer for a while at 8 because I had coughed up a little blood. Brain tumor at 9 because I had a bad headache. AIDS at 12 because I’d had what I thought was unprotected oral sex (kissed on the mouth) – and boy was I guilty!
All this was a result of reading this one book about health and hygiene that my dad had given to me. It had some very illustrative pictures to go along with the dreadful text. Also, watching TV and movies where the protagonist eventually dies of some fatal disease described in great detail didn’t help either.
As an adult though, I’m pretty sure I’m going to die of some form of cancer because I’m inhaling poison and eating pesticides everyday. This I’m not imagining, its real.
Hypochondria or not, I’ve always been acutely aware of my mortality, even as a young child. I knew even back then that the only thing we can all be completely sure of is the fact that we are all going to die. I just couldn’t stop guessing when and how. I’d never share these thoughts with anyone lest they take me to the ‘doctor for an injection’ – that was my mother’s usual ‘threat’. It was either that or ‘how would you like to go to boarding school’.
The biggest source of terror growing up, was of course – my dad.
Getting the report card signed by him after every test was perhaps the closest I would ever come to having a near-death experience. The dread I experienced pre-signing and the calmness post-signing almost seemed like the difference between a biblical hell and heaven.
My dad is a perfectionist – if you didn’t come first or at least among the first three, you are basically doomed to live the life of a factory worker/ daily wage earner. He obviously had absolutely no idea what ‘dignity of labor’ meant.
The trip back home with the report card would be ridden with thoughts about the upcoming encounter. He’d almost always tell me that unless I came in the top three, I will end up tightening nuts and bolts in a factory. He’d insultingly add, ‘Keep your bags packed, because you have to move out soon. I don’t care what you do, I’m only going to fulfill my responsibility to educate you till class 10 and that’s it. You’re on your own after that.’
As you can imagine, I ended up forging his signature a lot – I figured it was easier to do this than go through the unnecessary trauma.
I became quite the talented Ms.Ripley for a while, or so I thought.
In my 9-year-old head, the signatures were perfect, but most times the teacher caught me because they were smudged, overwritten, erased on and the paper was peeling off because of all the erasing. But the worst part was that I had to get it resigned. It was Armageddon all over again.
I’ve even pretended to run away from home rather than go through the signing formalities. I only got as far as the end of the street and have tried faking my own kidnap by hiding on the rooftop all afternoon.
My parents too pretended they were busy and refused to notice my absence or ‘missing’ status, which troubled me no end and even at age 9, I experienced what I’d now refer to as existential angst.
Now, my dad’s factory worker spiel worked magically whenever I heard him say it while I watched TV, fell asleep at 5pm, woke up at 8 am, stayed up past 10 pm, stayed out after 6 pm, fell sick, didn’t study very hard or got non-top-3-in-the-class grades. His words made me pull up my socks and get my act together each time.
There’s one intriguing characteristic about my dad though that I’d notice every time I fell sick or fell down and scraped my knees. Unlike my friends’ parents or the parents I saw on TV, my dad would get angry, shout at me, even hit me sometimes if he knew I had an accident or was feeling ill. This perplexed me and I saw it as a complete lack of empathy. According to him, It was my fault entirely – I could have taken better care of myself or was I faking it to stay home? This would affect my attendance at school and that’s actually what bothered him. Yeah that was it.
As someone who had moved out at the age of 15, worked in the day and attended college in the evening, earning multiple college degrees including his masters, Law, ICSI and finally getting his dream job – as a Company Secretary, he just couldn’t fathom how a child with all the ‘luxuries’ at her disposal couldn’t come first at school all the time or study 24 hours a day.
Needless to say, any form of entertainment or sports was banned. I was living in my own version of a Talibanised Afghanistan.
My dad wouldn’t think twice before breaking my badminton racket in two, selling my bicycle, throwing out my skipping ropes, board games or toys and dolls. Each time I defaulted, one of them had to go. TV was a necessary evil we could all do without according to him – I don’t remember him ever watching TV during those growing up years at least. The only thing he reluctantly permitted was having pets. But not without constantly threatening to get rid of the dog if my grades fell. If not for my mom secretly indulging me, I think I would have had a rather bleak childhood.
As long as he saw me reading or writing – he was fine.
It didn’t really matter to him what I was reading or writing and thank god for that. I read and I read a lot when I was young. It’s the only hobby I even remember having back then. In fact, the reason I’m even writing all this to accompany/justify my drawings is probably because he never just approved of a drawing by itself unless it was for a science project. Otherwise, he’d say they were meaningless and a waste a time. Therefore, art school was simply out of the question.
So anyway, I’ve put all that early dad conditioning to good use.
I use my writing to fuel my creativity. This type of memory jog, free association and mind mapping helps me come up with artistic concepts. I owe this to him.
All these restrictions caused immense pressure and agony no doubt but it seemed to work. I did do well in school, not enough to delight dad but my teachers noticed and I knew it for myself. As parental advice, people are often told to ‘let your child be, don’t compare your child to another, let his/her interests blossom naturally, don’t force your views upon them’ etc etc.
My dad had obviously missed attending that crucial class in parenting.
I loved him dearly back then and I love him now. But he hasn’t changed at all. Even at his age, he’s the most competitive and ambitious person I know. Nothing is impossible to him if you apply yourself. At the age of 67, migrating to start a new business in a foreign country is not an entirely implausible enterprise.
While I’m more of a Conspiracy Keanu, Debbie Downer and doomsday expert at my age, He’s always been more like Lara Croft, the tomb raider. We are different all right.
He ‘s a fighter who always wants to be better than others, he’s constantly comparing himself to the best and draws some interesting analogies when he says ‘look at this person, he lost his limbs in an accident, yet he’s done all of these things. And, God has blessed us with all faculties, yet we choose to waste away our lives doing nothing.’
But for all this objective thinking on my part now, there have been times when I’ve lost it. Especially when I’d had a particularly long and hard day at school – I’d give him a piece of my mind on proper parenting, how it’s supposed to be unconditional love, why he’d even had me if he hated me so much and such other insults that all fathers in general hate to hear.
I’d drool, salivate and tear up watching father daughter movies. In my perfect world, the fathers always adored the daughters, showering them with affection, hugs and kisses. As a child, I wished to have a dad like that and longed to hear him say ‘I love you’. He still hasn’t.
Well, my dad is a steel cut oat, an autistic version of Iron Man. The only time we hugged was when my mom passed away recently.
But I know he loves me and is extremely proud of me – because he says ‘I’m proud of you’. I think it’s the closest he’ll ever come to saying ‘I love you’. I’ll take that.
They say parenting is a process of ‘letting go’ and over the years I pushed really hard for him to let go. But the more I pushed, the tighter he held on and I thank him for that. All our lives, I think most children crave for parental validation and approval more than anyone else’s, to make them feel proud, to see tears of happiness and pride on their faces, to take care of them, travel with them and to let them finally relax and have a good time.
I might jokingly tell my husband – ‘I wish you were my dad instead, because you are so affectionate and indulgent.’ But really, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I am who I am because of you daddy!
Originally posted on 15th July 2016.
Edit 25th May, 2017: My dad passed away suddenly from chest pains/heart attack early on the morning of 24th May, 2017. I hadn’t spoken to him in several weeks but three weeks upto his death I kept having premonitions – seeing dark shadows passing in the periphery of my vision, a lone Raven cawing away outside the house, dreaming a lucid dream where he has died, sleeplessness and feeling a hollow fear inside my chest. I’m very sad, it’s too soon he was physically active, only 68 and in good health otherwise. I miss him but I regret not having spoken to him when I had these premonitions. Maybe he wanted to say something…
What I want to say to you Daddy is this: We’ll always be connected – I’m part of you. I will always love you. Your values will always guide my thoughts and actions. I will always strive to be a better version of myself like you did. I hope you will watch over me – I’m counting on it. I’m hoping to meet you and mummy again. I love you. Rest in peace.