In our current age of anxiety, medical-themed TV shows and WebMD, most of us - at one time or another - have inflated a pimple into cancer or a stomachache into appendicitis.
But few of us can match Jennifer Traig's obsession with self-diagnosis. As we learn in "Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria" (Riverhead Books, $23.95), Traig has imagined herself to have every fatal or debilitating disease known to medicine. "The skin cancer turned out to be ballpoint ink; the meningitis, hay fever; the pancreatitis, too many candy bars; the blood poisoning, ill-fitting shoes," Traig writes.
However, the subtitle of Traig's painfully frank and very funny memoir is somewhat misleading. Yes, Traig is a hypochondriac, but she also has plenty of very real problems. Readers of Traig's first memoir, "Devil in the Details: Scenes From an Obsessive Girlhood," know that Traig suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and eating disorders as an adolescent. In her latest book, we learn that she has since contended with tremors, severe eczema and irritable bowel syndrome, among other ailments.
Luckily for Traig, none of the illnesses she details in this book are life-threatening, but nearly all are both unpleasant and mortifying. Traig doesn't spare us the gruesome details of her symptoms or their treatments. (For readers with weak stomachs, this is not a book to pick up before dinner.)
She first guides her readers through a brief history of hypochondria, which flourished among the upper-classes during the Renaissance and then became stigmatized in the 19th century.
She tells her own story in a series of snapshots of different periods of her life, organized loosely around a medical theme or condition. In some cases, the connections she draws between her symptoms and her life feel slightly forced. Also, the somewhat nonlinear structure sometimes leaves the reader wanting more insight into our narrator.
But Traig's brutally honest and wickedly funny voice carries the story. She gives her readers an unflinching look at her physical imperfections without a trace of the self-pity that could have made the book insufferable. Traig is equally frank about her own character flaws, including her clumsy handling of other people's illnesses and death. "Hypochondriacs are great with terminal illness when it's imaginary and happening to them, terrible when it's real and happening to others," Traig writes.
As a bonus to readers, the book's "appendix" features a health horoscope and translations of handy phrases - including "Hello! I think my spleen is infected." - for hypochondriacs traveling abroad. Because, hey, you never know.