Dear Diary: Sympton addict

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

Hello, my name is Simon and I’m a hyperchondriac. I used to be a simple hypochondriac but that was before COVID-19 came along and threw a slew of new worries into the mix.

I remember the early days, around February time, when I was one of the ignorant naysayers declaring ‘It’s just the flu’ as I went about my business as usual, doing a bit of extra hand-washing just in case.

Then BAM! it was early March and even though I was still out and about in busy bars and crowded theatres, I’d never had such clean palms, handshakes had morphed into elbow bumps and if someone coughed I’d have to stop myself yelling ‘Cover your mouth!’

And if someone sneezed I was on the brink of ‘Hello! Use a tissue!’ despite sneezing not being listed as one of the symptoms.

In fact, I’d sneeze myself and wonder if I’d be the exception to all the rules. I’d cough, not repeatedly and not dryly, and think ‘Hey, it’s early days so how can they possibly know what mutations this thing can take?’

I’m in no way making light of this terrible virus, just my hyped-up reaction to it - which really set in after we went into national lockdown on March 23rd. That’s when, in spite of mounting medical evidence that the warning signs were a high temperature and a new continuous cough, every little facial tick, aching bone or random itch got me worrying.

I’d find myself waking up hot and sweaty, which I often do when I drink cheap wine (and I was drinking a lot of cheap wine) but it still set alarm bells ringing. I’d cough the same catarrh-y cough I often get from too much cheese and, even though it was neither new or continuous, said cough sent the alarm bells into a clanging overdrive that even the Hunchback of Notre Dame would have found disturbing.

There were many things about early lockdown that I enjoyed. Take food shopping, for instance. All that orderly queuing appealed to the OCD in me and it was a pleasure to wait in line at the tills rather than fast-tracking through self-checkout because it meant there was someone to say ‘Thanks for working’ to.

Stuck home alone, I’d find myself making frequent visits just to get a cheery wave from a security guard or to let the person queuing behind me go first. And oh what joy to learn the time of day when the local Tesco Express took delivery of fresh fruit and veg. If you were nice to the shelf-stockers they’d ask what you needed then rummage through the new arrivals to find it for you.

Then there was that most euphoric of moments when the guy behind the till grinned, said ‘Look what I’ve got!’ and produced an eight-pack of Andrex.

I enjoyed the spooky silence of almost-empty roads and how people on the same side of the pavement would step to the left or right to let you pass, not out of revulsion but ‘We’re all in this together’ consideration.

And just as everyone was forced indoors, the sun came out and hung around, no doubt basking in the glory of airplane-free skies. I’d never been so grateful for the shaded fresh air haven of my little balcony or the sun-soaked communal roof terrace, where I got to stock up on immunity-boosting vitamin D and meet (from a distance of course) lovely neighbours I never knew I had.

Quarantinis over Zoom and dance parties over FaceTime all helped keep loneliness at bay and if there wasn’t much work to do there were still cupboards to be deep-cleaned, LEGO to be demolished and reassembled, books to be rearranged and Blu-rays to be alphabetised.

But oh the hyperchondria! On (admittedly rare) evenings when not anaesthetised by alcohol, I’d get up off the sofa feeling woozy and think ‘Here it comes’, even though wooziness wasn’t a proven symptom and had more to do with the fact I’d been sat on the sofa for hours and hours in a crap-telly haze.

My arm would ache, which was clearly the virus working its way into my bloodstream. My head would ache, not from a hangover or dehydration but because coronavirus had gotten lost and was heading for my brain. Itchy feet? A rogue side effect. Dry skin? Ditto. Hair growing out of my nose and ears? OK, so that was down to laziness, but you get the picture.

I’ve always been a worrier when it comes to matters of health and I’m almost forensically cautious in the kitchen. If the packaging on Philadelphia Light says ‘Keep refrigerated - once opened use within three days’ I don’t just make a mental note, I diarise the date I first opened the tub with a three-days-later reminder to bin it.

Best-before dates aren’t advice, they’re cut-off points, and a digital meat thermometer is one of my prized possessions. If a potato has begun to sprout it’s a death trap as far as I’m concerned, as is leaving food out at room temperature to thaw. That’s not like asking Death if he’d like to pop round sometime, it’s like giving him his own key.

I’m probably three-parts Pinot Grigio and one-part mature cheddar by now, but occasional blood tests (occasioned by the fact diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease run in various strands of the family) have always left me with a clean bill of health and a licence to carry on regardless. Besides, wine comes from grapes so it all goes towards to the five-a-day fruit and veg quota, right? And cheese… Hey, you need the calcium to keep those bones strong.

I can live with the Pinot paunch above my waist and the cheddar gorge under my chin, but living without wine and cheese? Forget about it.

And as I say, wine dulls the worry. I’m not advocating a bottle seven nights a week, but the minimum two booze-free nights a week rule was tough during lockdown 1.0.

On abstinence nights I’d find my throat tightening up like the snake Kaa coiling around Mowgli in The Jungle Book. It got so worrisome that, as pressure on the NHS eventually began to ease up, I secured a phone consultation with my doctor.

After a chat about my symptoms (tight throat, difficulty dry-swallowing) she assured me this globus sensation, as it’s medically called, was a manifestation of the low-level anxiety I’ve suffered with for most of my adult life. She advised me on how to stop focussing on it and quite rightly said: ‘Don’t keep swallowing when there’s nothing there to swallow.’ Sound advice which I’ve mostly managed to stick to since.

She also advised that it could be down to acid reflux, a known side-effect of wine consumption, but I chose to ignore that, although I have cut down to try and stop the Pinot paunch ballooning into a Vouvray vat.

I’ve also calmed down about the virus and getting in on the Office For National Statistics’ ‘COVID-19 Infection Survey’ has been a godsend. It means you get tested on a regular basis, although when I did the first self-test under the guidance of a study worker he couldn’t find anywhere to park. Cue me stood at the side of a busy road sticking a cotton bud down my throat and up my nose in a howling gale.

I’m still concerned about catching COVID, as indeed everyone should be, but we all have a better idea now of the key symptoms to look out for before self-isolating, with loss of smell and taste added to the list back in May.

Last night I had a mild headache, my right arm was a bit achy and I got hot and bothered at one point. That could have been down to the fact I hadn’t drunk enough water, I was using my right arm to prop myself up at the preferred end of the sofa and I was wearing winter PJs on an unusually warm night for this time of year. Or maybe I’d entered the male menopause.

One thing reassured me, though: I could smell the cheese and taste the wine just fine.

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