Sisters Before Misters
by ELIZABETH BARBEE
As a child I preferred the nurse’s office to the playground. Tetherball wasn’t my thing, and after an unfortunate spill, I swore off swing sets. To be clear, I wasn’t a wimp. I was sophisticated.
Like many Americans, elementary school teachers view disinterest in contact sports as evidence of a deeper problem. Convincing them to let me skip out on dodge ball was a struggle. Feigning illness seemed like my best bet. I faked sore throats and stomachaches. I became so adept at mimicking the symptoms of sickness that I began to believe I actually was sick. I staggered through the halls almost daily, the back of my hand pressed against my forehead like Greta Garbo. If I had known the expression “woe is me” I would have used it.
When I reached Nurse Hoover’s office I flung myself onto one of several white cots and demanded peppermints. Their mentholated taste made them seem medicinal. “Could it be Lupus?” I asked. “Give it to me straight.” Basically, I was Anna Chlumsky in My Girl only not as cute. I had a jaggedly cut chili bowl that my mom tried to feminize with grosgrain bows larger than my head.
I knew about Lupus because I had recently discovered a series of young adult novels centered around teenagers with incurable diseases. They were authored by a woman named Lurlene McDaniel, who must be a really intense person. Her books are titled things like Too Young To Die and Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, so you look hardcore when you read them in public. I do not think my hypochondria could have reached the heights it did if not for the aegis of these texts. They provided me with great material.
Any time a mysterious bruise appeared on my body I knew the end was near. This inspired many philosophical questions. If I die, who will take care of my Tamagotchi? Should I leave my rock collection to my best friend, Allison, or my crush, Derrick? Derrick works at Cracker Barrel now and is probably not into rocks. Thank God I went with Allison. Sisters before misters!
My parents were fairly supportive of my macabre habit, because I am their only child. If they lose me, they don’t have a spare kid to prove they can keep something alive. The second I complained of a twitch in my left eye or a faint tightness in my chest, they rushed me to the pediatrician.
Dr. Murphy was no Nurse Hoover. For starters he charged. At the end of each appointment he offered my mom the bill and me a lollipop, which was a real blow to my ego. He also had a moderately famous twin brother, Vince, who didn’t do his reputation any favors. Vince owned a local music store notorious for terrible commercials that I was sure Dr. Murphy had a hand in producing. Reflective sunglasses and screeching guitars seemed just his style. Worse still, he was onto me. “You aren’t running a fever and your vitals look normal,” I remember him saying. I wanted to wipe the smile from his face and seek a second opinion.
It was not that I wanted to be sick. It was that I did not want to be crazy. Our culture is more forgiving of poor health than insanity. Cancer gets you pity, but an imagined medical illness just lands you in the looney bin. People do not send flowers to the looney bin. I learned this from watching Girl, Interrupted.
In my experience, hypochondria is not something you overcome so much as it is something you learn to ignore. After taking myself to the emergency room twice in college, I decided it would be better to die quietly in my apartment than suffer the embarrassment of learning I was just having a panic attack. This has greatly influenced my interior decorating. I refuse to go down looking at a mass produced Breakfast At Tiffany’s poster. If you have any hand drawn art at a reasonable price, send it my way.
Elizabeth Barbee is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Texas. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.