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"How did Brian Frazer take his neuroses and write a hysterical book, while mine just annoy my family? Seriously, this is one funny book. Damn it."
— Ray Romano
"Hyper-chondriac is my new favorite memoir! It was so funny I laughed out loud, so honest I gasped out loud and so relatable I immediately called my therapist. I love this book!"
— Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, author of Sippy Cups are Not for Chardonnay
"Brian Frazer has written a very touching and hilarious exploration of family, hypochondria, and road rage. It's awesome."
— Greg Behrendt, coauthor of He's Just Not That Into You
"...a riotous romp through a head case's attempts to find inner peace for his own bodily health."
— New York Post
"Hyper-chondriac is an amazing book. It's funny, raw, moving and original. And I'm not just saying that because I'm afraid Brian Frazer will be angry at me if I don't."
— A.J. Jacobs, author of The Know-it All
"...caustically funny yet quietly moving." — USA TODAY
My hands were itching. After scratching my palms furiously for about an hour, they were still itching, so I drove to the pharmacy and spent thirty bucks on creams, lotions and gels. The trip was a quick one since I knew the exact aisle and shelf of every cream, lotion and gel (and capsule and tablet and cough expectorant). An hour later, my cream/lotion/gel-coated hands continued to itch, so I called a friend. Josh had been living in Los Angeles longer than I and seemed privy to every local specialist, whereas my collection of doctors was scattered between Boston, New York and Southern California. He referred me to his dermatologist, Dr. Tamm.
Dr. Tamm was a stern, bespectacled man of about sixty. He also wore what appeared to be a welder's mask over his thick glasses, apparently so he could see so deeply into peoples' pores that he could make eye contact with the gray matter in their brains.
Here's what I expected to happen in that office visit.
"Hi, my hands itch."
"Use some of this, son!" Dr. Tamm would reply while removing a tube of extra-strength, prescription-only cortisone cream from his front pocket and tossing it to me.
"Thank you, sir! I will."
"See Donna on the way out for your billing information."
This is what actually happened.
"Hi, my hands itch."
"You seem pretty tense."
"Actually, I feel pretty relaxed right now."
"Anything stressful happening in your life at the moment? Did you start a new job? Move? Anything?"
"Well, I'm getting married in a month."
"Are you nervous about the wedding?"
"Not at all. I knew ten minutes into our first date I was going to marry her."
"How'd you meet?"
"Writing thought-bubbles on a TV show called Blind Date."
"Never seen it."
"It's like a live comic strip with horny people. I doubt you'd like it."
"So, I don't think your itching has anything to do with the wedding. Or anything else that's going on in your external surroundings."
"You know that already? You've spent like forty-five seconds with me."
"I know, but your energy is overpowering. You're the most uptight, high-strung person I've ever met. The problem isn't in your hands. It's in your head."
Dr. Tamm probably had a point.
On paper I'm the world's healthiest guy. I eat right, exercise regularly, drink in moderation, have all of the good cholesterol and none of the bad, weigh the same as I did in high school, have ideal blood pressure, am caffeine-free, get plenty of sleep, never smoke and have only missed one day of flossing in the last five years. It's essential that I take tip-top care of myself. Because underneath the wholesome habits and exemplary bodily statistics, I'm an unmitigated, non-synergetic mess.
But my body isn't to blame; it's my mind's fault. I've been attempting to regulate this high-maintenance brain of mine since my first baby aspirin. Some kids had guidance counselors. I had hypnotists. Others cried when they got braces. I had anxiety attacks whenever I saw baked beans. Friends collected baseball cards. I collected doctors' cards. Life just didn't feel right unless something was wrong.
For me there's always been a certain calmness in being in the diagnostic chair; then at least there's a reason for why life isn't as satisfying and perfect as I'd like it to be. Although I usually don't know what I've got until the experts tell me, once they do, I'm psyched — as long as there are pills to swallow, creams to rub and warnings to heed. I'm fully capable of generating a new disease every month. Colitis. Prostatitis. Bronchitis (three times, including one stint on antibiotics in England for fifty-seven consecutive days). Hepatitis (the kind that turns you yellow, not the kind that Tommy Lee gave Pamela Anderson). Bigarexia (yes, there is such a thing). And as soon as I've conquered the ailment du jour, I'll just move on to the next disorder. Hastily. But it took a dermatologist to help me realize that I didn't actually have a collection of diseases — I had just one. Hyper-chondria. A word I've made up for my condition.
Now, before I go any further, let me explain the difference between a hypochondriac (not me) and a hyper-chondriac (me). Hypochondria is when you think you're sick but you're really not. The hypochondriac's imaginary symptoms and ailments could theoretically be cured with a variety of placebos — be they Halloween candy, dog kibble or a plastic button from a rugby shirt.
Conversely, placebos don't help hyper-chondriacs because hyper-chondriacs actually are sick. Unlike my hypo brethren, when I go to the doctor, I think I have ailment X and I do. The seed of each disease originates in my hyper brain, which subsequently creates a swirl of inner turmoil and turbulence in my body.
I've always been in a rush to do things: I paced in my crib, I barked at my parents to stir my chocolate milk faster, I ran out my walks in Little League. I would also seek revenge on anyone who impeded my path to getting things done quickly. Seemingly every day of my life I've had to restrain myself from punching people in the face. Before I discovered my hyper-chondria, I couldn't even drive more than a mile without honking at someone. And I don't just mean a little tap that says, "Hey...um...excuse me...but the light just changed." I'm talking about holding down the horn with my forehead while simultaneously giving the other car the finger with both hands. Not only was I rushing through life, I was rushing through life in a combative rage. For the better part of my thirty-eight years, my head felt as if it was inhabited by a pair of destructive heavy-metal bands each occupying a brain hemisphere. And neither of them liked the other.
So when Dr. Tamm had a solution to my itchy palms I was ready for action. He pulled out his free drug company pen with the word "Doxycycline" printed on the side and scribbled something on his pad, then tore the page off and stared at me as I read it aloud.
"I think it'll help."
"Isn't that for depression? Because I'm not depressed. It's one of the few things that doesn't seem to happen to me."
"It can be for depression, but it's also used as an anti-anxiety medication."
He proceeded to tell me that Zoloft was a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor that would help take some of my edge off. Had my friends and family been in the examination room, Dr. Tamm would have undoubtedly been the first dermatologist in history to get a standing ovation.
I needed a wake-up call and it didn't have to be from God or a family intervention or a fellow road-rager teaching me a lesson by shooting me with his assault weapon. Besides, I'd seen those enticing TV commercials for Zoloft where that adorable little circle-creature turns his life around and it looked really appealing. I mean, it totally worked for that little circle-creature.
"Now, there could be side effects such as erection problems, but you let me know if that happens," warned Dr. Tamm.
"And I don't want you to discuss today's treatment with anyone. Don't tell your friends, don't tell your family members, don't even tell your fiancée."
"It's better if you're not self-conscious about people knowing."
Keeping secrets from my soon-to-be spouse didn't seem like a good way to start a life together. But Dr. Tamm had seen through me in under a minute, so I figured why not let him push the boundaries of his skin doctor degree. Besides, I was sure my fiancée wouldn't have minded. It's not like Nancy wasn't aware she was about to wed a ragey, sick guy.
The first time Nancy slept over she awoke to me stuffing baby diaper rash ointment into each nostril with a Q-tip — a treatment resulting from three months of mind-numbing dizziness in 1995. Two surgeons were convinced I had a brain tumor; thankfully, a third diagnosed it as nasal polyps. I still required an operation, but not the kind where they cut your skull in half like a cantaloupe.
Then there was the Thanksgiving I flew back east to meet Nancy's mother for the first time. In the middle of dinner I politely asked, "Could you please pass the cranber — AUGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!" I then dropped my silverware on the floor and my head on the table and began frantically massaging my left eyelid. It felt as if someone was stabbing my cornea with an ice pick.
This was due to an accident in 1992 with a newspaper. As I frenetically turned to the sports section of The Boston Globe, speed-reading each page in a mad rush to check box scores to find out how my fantasy baseball players did, I flipped one of the corners into the center of my left eye. If you think a paper cut on your thumb hurts, try getting one near your optic nerve.
The eye guy in the emergency room said that I'd scratched my cornea. I was given an eye patch and told to rest both eyes for the next seventy-two hours. As I sat in my dark bedroom, I remember being happy thinking that my life was technically getting a little better since every minute — every second, in fact — my eye was allegedly repairing itself. As much as the hyper-chondriac likes to rush, waiting to heal is equally satisfying. During the follow-up visit, the patch was removed and I was given special drops to put into my eye should the shooting pains return. And if I didn't have the drops, I was told to massage my closed lid for twenty minutes — which Nancy's mom was about to witness on our first Thanksgiving together.
Then there were my numerous colon checkups and blood tests, my bouts with vertigo, the time I required oxygen on a flight back from New York, and the Fourth of July my left arm went numb. Point being, Nancy was accustomed to seeing me at less than full strength. She understood my ailments; perhaps because a thirty-two-ounce bottle of Arizona Iced Tea once slipped out of her cart at Trader Joe's and landed on her foot, causing her to faint. And there was the time she had red spots on her ankles and went to the doctor thinking it was Kaposi's sarcoma. It turned out to be flea bites from her friend's cat. Sometimes I think the only reason Nancy married me is to feel normal in comparison.
I waited at the pharmacy for my Zoloft prescription for nearly an hour. How long does it take to throw thirty pills into a bottle with a cotton ball? The place was empty and I was the only customer! This was bullshit. Hurry up! I'm just one serotonin-not-being-blocked away from snapping! After ten minutes of glaring at the pharmacist, I sat down in the waiting area and watched MSNBC on the ancient RCA that's supposed to make not-being-helped entertaining. They were doing a story about a giant tortoise named Harriet who was collected by Charles Darwin in 1835, and was about to celebrate her 172nd birthday. Harriet had lived through the Civil War, Van Gogh shooting himself, the Panama Canal construction, Prohibition, Jackie Robinson's Major League debut, the moon landing and the final episode of Friends. As I watched stock footage of the oldest living animal in the world, I couldn't help noticing that she was moving really, really slowly. Maybe that's why she was the oldest living animal in the world. You don't hear about cheetahs or baboons living even a fraction of that. They're way too hyper. It hit me that all animals who have long life spans have one thing in common: they take their time. I mean, elephants may appear to be grossly overweight, but they don't rush and they can live to be seventy. And camels, cool and composed, can easily live to fifty. On the other hand, kangaroos are bouncing off the walls all day. Average life expectancy: nine. I had to be less like a marsupial and more like Harriet. In a scant forty-five minutes, my Zoloft was ready.
But on the way home, I thought the hell with Harriet and started having doubts about being a Zoloftian. I'd always believed that people who were on prescription medication were taking the easy way out. They wanted a quick fix. They were lazy. Weak. They weren't really interested in digging deeper and solving their ills; they just wanted to throw a drop cloth over them. They wanted magic. On the other hand, since our new insurance graciously charged ten bucks for a month's supply of drugs, if I threw them all away, I'd only be out the equivalent of a large tube of Neosporin.
I sat in my kitchen looking at the bottle. After about five minutes of staring, I summoned up the courage to remove the childproof cap, exposing two and a half dozen little blue pills — each of which actually had the word "Zoloft" embossed on it. Which made me even more paranoid. What if you were at a restaurant and you pulled one of them out and someone asked, "What's that?" And you lied and said, "A vitamin." And then this person asked, "What vitamin is blue?" And you'd answer, "Vitamin B...that's what the B stands for, y'know, 'blue.'" Meanwhile, the guy sitting on the other side of you has been looking over your shoulder with his laser-corrected eyes and has just read the word "Zoloft" on the pill as if it's the lead story in USA Today. Then he immediately mouths the word "Zoloft" to everyone else at the table and pretty soon everyone you know thinks you're depressed or a basket case. Then you have to send out a mass e-mail explaining that you're not depressed, just a piñata filled with angst and panic and an assortment of other things that aren't good for you and that these pills just might help you relax and have better relations with people and they shouldn't judge you and you'd like to peek inside their medicine cabinets and you bet even if they're not taking any meds they at least have NyQuil!
My palms started itching even more than pre-Tamm. And the itching was inching up my forearms, approaching my elbow. I grabbed a container of fresh-squeezed orange juice, popped that little blue pill in my mouth and it slid down my throat like a prepubescent on a waterslide. Then I took a nap.
Miraculously, after a couple of weeks, I began to notice significant changes. For the first time in my life, the world seemed calm and pleasant and I had no urge to rush. I felt truly at peace, as if I had died and was staring at myself from above with a fresh perspective, finally behaving as I should. I looked forward to the minutiae of the wedding plans with Nancy, insisting on helping in every phase — even the flowers, though I still believe blue asters are a big waste of money. Road rage wasn't a passenger when I was driving. Unreturned business calls were shrugged off. Other people didn't bother me as much, if at all. I was actually slowing down my life and savoring it. I was finally healthy — three-dimensionally, not just on paper. That delightful drug sent messages throughout my body that gave me the revelation that perhaps I was the problem in my interpersonal relationships — not necessarily every other human I interacted with, as I had long suspected. I was the bull in a china shop. I was out of control. When Nancy noticed a Zoloftesque difference in my behavior, I attributed it to deep breathing, not something smaller than a Skittle that I kept in a bottle hidden in the back of my sock drawer.
I wanted to put all my money into Pfizer, the maker of Zoloft. I believe had Ron Artest been on Zoloft, he never would have gone into the stands in Detroit and punched those people; I believe had Milosevic been on Zoloft, there would have been no Bosnian conflict; I believe had Jeffrey Dahmer been on Zoloft, his freezer would have been stuffed with Omaha steaks instead of people's heads.
I wish I could have told my secret to everyone on the planet. I'd have done an infomercial with Tony Little. I'd have broadcast the cure for hyper-chondria on satellite TV to uptight, ill people in foreign lands. I could be the poster boy for Zoloft! I would work for them for free in gratitude for their outstanding product. But I had promised Dr. Tamm that I would keep my mouth shut. And he was my new hero.
So things were going pretty great for me and my serotonin-modified brain. I got married, shook my non-itchy hands with people who gave us wedding checks and went on a lovely erectile dysfunction-free honeymoon.
About a month after our wedding, I decided to tell Nancy. I couldn't keep making up reasons for the new and improved me. Besides, it's better to lie to your dermatologist than your wife.
"Nance, I have something to tell you."
"You've cheated already?"
"No. My dermatologist gave me some..."
"No. Zoloft. I've been on it since March."
"Oh. I had no idea skin doctors could give out non-skin stuff."
"Good for you!"
She was verging on jubilant about my newfound chemical reliance. My new spouse already had a commanding lead on me in calm and wouldn't have minded if I caught up a little. "Let me know if I can do anything," her Joyce DeWitt face and petite nonconfrontational frame offered. "I can even pick up your pills when I'm getting my Starbucks."
For eight-twelfths of a year, life in Los Angeles was good. Nancy and I had both left Blind Date and discovered the joys of writing sentences that didn't fit inside thought-bubbles. I broke into magazines and she got her dream job of writing on a sitcom, which came with my dream — better health insurance. Though, ironically, I wasn't getting sick anymore. The only side effect I had from Zoloft was calm.
Then one autumn afternoon, life got a lot less good.
I was driving along some curvy hillside roads when a guy in a Honda Accord coming from the opposite direction drifted into my lane, nearly forcing my car into a telephone pole. He then stopped his car and fervently displayed his middle finger to the apparent delight of the sneering collie in his passenger seat. I should have just returned the gesture and kept driving, but I couldn't. Instantly, it felt as if my Zoloft had lost its power. I was on my own again, in charge of navigating my sea of rage.
I pulled a U-turn and tailgated Honda-man, determined to make sure he was never again able to make one of his fingers very tall. I stayed inches behind his car until it stopped at a dog park, then I got out and chased that fucker across a soccer field while simultaneously telling him I wanted to rip his head off his neck. I was quite the multitasker. With my face two inches away from his face, I could feel the words from my threats bounce off his skin and ricochet back at me as the veins in my neck and forehead popped out like a series of cuckoo clocks. I was bordering on an aneurysm. The scary thing is, it probably wouldn't have mattered who was driving that car with the collie; it could've been Mike Tyson and my reaction would have been the same. Because I hadn't been in a fight since high school (which I lost), I spared the quivering collie owner and his devoted pet. Then I went home and collapsed in bed for the next fourteen hours. Meltdowns are exhausting.
The next morning, my neck hurt, my jaw throbbed and I felt as if I had an ulcer: the first signs of body malfunction since my hands stopped itching. My hyper-chondria was back.
I returned to my Zoloft dealer and Dr. Tamm immediately doubled my prescription. I would now be assigned to the light yellow 100 mg pill. (Which made it much harder for dining companions to read the word "Zoloft.") But the downside: the maximum recommended dose is 200 mg per day, so after a little less than a year, I was already halfway there. I did some quick math and realized that in another couple of years, I'd be immune to this entire selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor family — unless they developed a pill the size of my head. Then what the hell would I do? Switch to another stopgap drug like Paxil or Lexapro? Have kava root injected into my medulla? Maybe my podiatrist would prescribe electroshock therapy?
On my way to the pharmacy to pick up my new and improved prescription, a guy cut me off without signaling and I flipped out again and tailgated him through five traffic lights. Is this how insane I had been for the first thirty-nine years of my life? If so, it was a miracle I was a fully functioning adult with dozens of friends, girlfriends and now a wife. I needed a Zoloft IV on the way to get my Zoloft.
After being bumped up to the 100 mg pills I quickly noticed I wasn't twice as calm as when I was on the 50 mg pills; nor was I a hundred times as calm as in my pre-Zoloft days. Because my body had gotten used to the drugs, the double dose was now merely the equivalent of the single dose — way back when I first started taking it almost a year ago. Although my days on this stuff were numbered, it bought me time to look elsewhere for a more permanent, drug-free solution. The only trouble was, not a lot of time.
Since I finally knew what feeling peaceful and relaxed actually was like — and that it could be achieved within the confines of my body — I wanted to get back to that state. I was going to get to the bottom of this. I had to hurry up and calm down.
Copyright © 2007 by Brian Frazer
Part One: 0 mg
6 (Not) Chewing
Part Two: 100 mg
10 Sitting (Still)
11 Walking & Standing
Posted February 23, 2007