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.

Lyme disease
pink eye
heart disease
internal bleeding
various kinds of infection
an ingrown toenail
a broken toe
a stroke

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.

Work Cited:
Fraser, C. (1999). God’s perfect child: Living and dying in the Christian Science church. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books.

6 Replies to “Living in Fear: Christian Science and Hypochondria”

  1. Hello Karen:
    I have found this web site to be very informative. I have had a response from someone on it regarding the Santa Claus Article and one directly about my fear and turmoil. I like yours as well. same situations. even worse. I would not wish this on anyone even the most evil person in the world that did terrible things during WW2. enough said. I am stuck, I know the pitfalls, still cannot seem to get away. I lost my mom November 2017 and my heart is broken in half. Only I and God know the relationship we had together. I cared for her 11 years, and my dad for a few. Quite working , am on food stamps and having a very difficult time recovering . I am lost. Nothing is working really. I still have a sense of humor at times; and this is good. I prayed alot when she died, that if I could have turned a switch and die with her in Hospice, I would have without reservations. My mom, little baby as I called her, and love of my life. I cared for her cooked, showered her. never out of my sight 24/7 for 9 of those years. she missed my birthday this February a few days ago. It was the worst without her or Dad. My sister has abandoned me. another story wont get into. I wished I knew how one can get in contact with people like you that have left. I cant.

      1. Thanks, Admin K. Michael, I hope it gets better for you soon. You still have a sense of humor: that’s super important. Humor has certainly gotten me through a lot.

  2. After reading your article the only thing I have to add about the hypochondria and lack of knowledge … I developed a hemorrhoid. I thought I had something wrong with my prostate.

    I’m female…

    To this day, this story causes hysterical laughter that I could have been raised that ignorant.

    1. Wow, Clariece, that’s so funny/frustrating! I’m often embarrassed by how naïve I was. But then I visit this website and realize we all went through this nonsense.

      The last time I thought I had appendicitis (yes, there were SEVERAL times in my CS life when I thought I had it), I finally decided to do what Chris mentions: I looked it up on the internet. What a relief it was to have real knowledge.

  3. When I was a child, we had no books on illness or injury and no access to them. I couldn’t read such books in the library, as I needed my CS parents to take me there and they would have punished me had I ever looked at them. As a child I never wanted to: my parents taught me that knowledge or fear of disease could make it real in your mind and cause symptoms to manifest on your body.

    The world has changed so much since then. Nowadays, if you’re feeling sick, all you have to do is google the symptoms. That’s nowhere near as good as consulting a doctor, but (at least) it can give you some idea of what the problem could be and whether the symptoms will subside on their own or not.

    The Information Age will mean the end of Christian Science. When the internet came along, I googled some of the healings I’d thought I’d had, and realized they hadn’t been healings at all. I’d only thought they were because I’d never learned how bodies work.

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