The Need of Dread

R. G. G. PRICE has contributed a great variety of light writing and criticism to Punchin recent years.

by R. G. G. PRICE

I AM a keen hypochondriac and for many years I have been pottering happily along in the horse-and-buggy stage, dreading the diseases I have met in old novels. Now things have become more difficult.. Medicine advances with a ruthless disregard for the comfort of hypochondriacs, though we are the advance guard of civilization. All great men worry about their health, but the doctors don’t care. They loused things up considerably by striking many diseases out of our repertoire with the antibiotics, and now they are undermining the usefulness of the ones that are left with Psychosomatic Medicine.

I lie awake for hours these nights, not discovering symptoms of arsenical poisoning or glandular imbalance, but wrestling with problems of logic. The trouble is this. If, as the psychosomatic boys urge us to believe, sickness in the body starts from worry in the mind, and if hypochondria is a flight from worry in the mind to imagined sickness in the body, then the hypochondriac is liable to get the diseases that he imagines ho has, so t hat his anxiety about get t ing them is justified and this means he is not a hypochondriac at all. I do not own one of those hard, precise minds that can play chess without a board and identify the fallacy in an argument at the first hearing. In bed I am more at case picturing a silver-haired physician sticking a hypodermic into me with a courtly air than I am testing syllogisms for logical flaws.

As far as I understand it, if I get a cramp in my left leg, it is no use imagining that I have picked up a rare tropical fever from an explorer home on leave. I am barred from wondering whether (ho cramp will develop into convulsions as a prelude to symptoms that will turn my physician’s hair from silver to dead white. I cannot look forward to being saved by things done against time in laboratories. There will be no daredevil ambulances for me. My cramp is probably caused by a buried resentment; and after the kind of ailment I am used to, buried resentments are tame. They do not provide the perverted pleasures of fear. They are not even of conversational value. You cannot lead a satisfactory fantasy-life as a man whose analyst wants him to accept his kid brother’s success in life without rancor.

If the fear of physical disease is closed as an outlet to mental anguish because the diseases tend to become real, nervous strain will find some other kind of expression — possibly anxiety over becoming a delinquent. Night after night T shall shiver with the fear of falling into crime. Where once surgeons lurked in the shadows of the bedroom, poised with saws that needed sharpening, partially sterilized needles, and blanks in their anatomical knowledge, there will be the dim forms of jurors, men of bovine incredulity to whom innocence is a challenge. I shall imagine that perfectly legitimate transactions might have been converted by some trivial error or omission into frauds of gigantic complexity, the kind of frauds that lead to a public outcry for a higher maximum penalty. In acute bouts, corresponding to my outmoded panics over perforating ulcers, I shall see myself committing unprovoked assaults upon the police.

Luckily fashions in medicine change fairly fast and I can reasonably hope that Psychosomatic Medicine will be out before long. T am afraid it will leave behind it a hypochondria that is stunted and confused and will need gentle nursing back until it is lit to perform its function as a safety valve again. Then what a relief it will be to get back to diseases that are not my own fault and have nothing to do with my shortcomings as adult, citizen, and family man.