Living in Fear: Christian Science and Hypochondria
This post is by ExCS group contributor Karen C.
In God’s Perfect Child, Caroline Fraser writes a few sentences that carry a lot of weight in my life. In a section about Ex Christian Science authors who have published accounts of their experiences, she calls out
“the hypochondria and narcissism that are characteristic of the Christian Science way of life: when you have no way of knowing what’s wrong with you, particularly when you’re a child, you fear the worst, becoming more obsessed with your body the more you try to repress any thoughts about it. Exaggerated fears can arise from the simplest symptoms, or even from no symptoms at all.” (Fraser, 1999, p. 325)
This was me. I was plagued by fears for my health. Sometimes the fears were fleeting: “What if that’s an ingrown toenail?” The next day, I’d be fine and forget about it. Other times, fears gathered into dread that spanned weeks, months, or years: “Why is my breathing shallow? Do I have a heart condition?” Some fears were not put to rest until I left Christian Science and began medical checkups.
So I’d like to list them. Here are all the health scares I can remember having in my life as a Christian Scientist. There were more, I’m sure, now fortunately forgotten. I’ll start the list with Lyme disease because I distinctly remember, as a girl of 14, lying awake one school night, tossing and turning in fear that I had this disease, because I’d seen news reports about it.
various kinds of infection
an ingrown toenail
a broken toe
Without knowledge of the body, I could think that I had appendicitis because I felt a pain on my left side. Without knowledge of the health care system, I could be overcome with dread at the thought of pink eye: How do I heal it? Fears common to the human experience (“Is something wrong with me? Am I going to die?”) blew up even bigger in my mind because I knew I would have to heal myself alone, with only my thoughts, with no ability to discuss what I was going through.
I’m actually a fairly healthy person, and now I realize that I always have been. The tragedy is that instead of enjoying my health, I spent decades magnifying the smallest symptoms into something disastrous. My physical health was fine; my mental health quivered and quaked and tore itself down over and over again.
Another tragedy, more difficult for me to articulate, lies in the narcissism that Fraser mentions. People in this world actually do experience diabetes, thrombosis, and other serious conditions for which a cure is challenging or nonexistent. And I think that all my crawling fears prevented me from feeling sympathy for those afflicted. It was all about me: If symptoms persisted, I was afraid. If they did not, then I could assure myself that the condition wasn’t real because disease is unreal because God didn’t make it. A person in the real world who accepted the reality of disease might learn about a condition, rally to bring awareness to it, give to a cause to find a cure, become a healthcare professional, or do something else real and practical.
I’ll conclude with a story about my life since leaving CS: Last year, I was the support person for a friend who underwent surgery. I was to take him to and from the hospital and stay with him for a week afterward. The night before surgery, my throat felt sore. Then the thought: “Oh no. What if I’ve caught the flu! What if I pass it along to him!” Thoughts spiraled; panic grew. But I went to bed anyway. As I lay there, trying to sleep, I told myself, “Let’s be realistic: I did get my flu shot two weeks ago. And now, either I have something or I don’t. Time will tell. The best thing for me to do is get plenty of rest.” I slept, and I woke up feeling fine. And the surgery went smoothly.
It’s a vulnerable existence, knowing that an illness or accident could come and knock me over at any time, and even if I did muster an army of “God-like thoughts,” it would make no difference. But unforeseen events are part of life. Frankly, it’s much, much better to accept reality than to live in ignorance and fear.
Fraser, C. (1999). God’s perfect child: Living and dying in the Christian Science church. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books.