Several years ago, long before the pandemic, a friend shared with me a story about a woman she knew whose marriage was going through an intense rocky patch. One day, this woman’s 12-year-old son awoke with a mysterious and intense pain in his testicles. The woman took him to a slew of different doctors, trying to find the source of his discomfort. But the doctors were flummoxed. They could find no discernible cause for the boy’s ball pain. One doctor proposed a minor surgery, but the mother, understandably, preferred to avoid such an invasive remedy.
As a last resort, she took him to a homeopathic healer a friend had recommended. The healer asked the boy a few brief questions: Did he ever play in the woods? Did he ever jump off of large rocks, or run through creeks and streams? Being that he was a 12-year-old boy, the answer, unsurprisingly, was yes.
The healer then sent the boy from the room, and informed the mother that the cause of the pain was clear: her son had encountered a witch while playing in the woods. And the witch had, most unfortunately, taken up residence in the child’s testicles.
“Wait…” I stopped my friend. “She said he had… haunted balls?”
“As in… haunted witch balls?”
The mother of the child did not share this diagnosis of witch balls with her son, nor did she for a moment believe the child had a cackling crone living in his ball sack. Instead, she took him back to the doctor who’d proposed the minor surgery. The procedure worked, and the child’s pain immediately went away.
But my friend cocked an eyebrow at this. She wondered if the surgery was actually maybe just a psychosomatic cure, and if the child’s discomfort all along was in some way related to the discord at home? “After all,” she hypothesized. “We carry our anguish in our bodies all the time. Twisted backs. Twisted guts. Why not twisted testes?”
If I ever before doubted the power of the mind-body connection, the pandemic has firmly put an end to that. Over the past two years, I’ve marveled as my lymph nodes have inflated up and down like party balloons, all depending on the scenario. At times, I’ve felt almost creeped out by my body’s ability to respond to mental distress with such real, physical sensations. About to go visit someone elderly? My throat seizes up with a faux cough. Just had dinner with a friend who tested positive? Immediately commence sneezing. But the second that negative test result arrives? My symptoms fly away, as if via broomstick.
I have always struggled with anxiety. And while my anxiety occasionally stretches its legs and gets creative (suspected shards of glass in food/serial killers in closets), generally over the years it’s taken the form of hypochondria. If there’s an opportunity to take a medically unnecessary photo of my innards, I’ve always been down. It makes me sound all bumbling, Woody-Allen-esque neurotic, and not at all like the Catholic-schooled, midwestern-raised Cheeto-eater I actually am. But hypochondria doesn’t really care if you enjoy jazz or Proust or the Manhattan skyline. Hypochondria just wants to convince you you have Lupus.
Over the years, I’ve relied on a variety of tools to manage my anxiety. Therapy, exercise, CBD seltzers (that don’t work), chardonnay (that I pretend works), and a meditation app whose reminders I am very fond of swiping off my phone. (I somehow always seem to have five minutes for Buzzfeed’s 20 Retro Objects That If You Recognize Prove You Should Just Go Walk Off A Cliff, but never time to spare for Sam Harris’s thoughts on the paradox of identity...)
But hypochondria doesn’t really care if you enjoy jazz or Proust or the Manhattan skyline. Hypochondria just wants to convince you you have Lupus.
When the pandemic hit, my husband and I were both waiting to see if I’d bankrupt us with co-pays, or would manage to hold my shit together. Because along with everything else terrible about Covid, it’s also kind of a next level nightmare for hypochondriacs. An illness with a million different symptoms that might kill you… or might be nothing at all? That you can maybe get from touching a door knob? And maybe give to your loves one, thereby maybe killing them?
The only thing that could make it a bigger hit with hypochondriacs is if one of the symptoms was “tingling or numbness.”
I admit that the advent of easily accessible telehealth options has brought with it many temptations. If Covid is a hypochondriac’s nightmare, then Teledoc is our wet dream. The ability to summon a nurse practitioner’s face into your own home, and force her to listen to you explain how your throat is sometimes scratchy… but only when you swallow like this?
Fortunately, my guilt over putting unnecessary strain on the already bent-to-breaking healthcare system kept my telehealth urges somewhat in check. As I knew the shame would feel much worse than one of my imaginary afflictions. Plus, if I’m totally honest, I found seeing the interiors of some of the nurses’ homes a bit too… distracting. I once spoke with a kindly physicians’ assistant who had a display of Pirates of the Caribbean Funko Pop collectibles on a shelf behind him, and somehow, the oversize Jack Sparrow-head just made me — and our entire conversation about the location of the kidneys — feel beyond absurd.
If we had a quarter for every time someone has called Covid a Rorschach test, there would never again be another coin shortage. But truly, gauging others’ reactions against our own has to have been one of the most bonkers aspects of the pandemic. To be with those who only ever see a butterfly in the ink blot, and then others who see a screaming skull with flames shooting out the sockets… well, that’s been disorienting at best. And observing the varied response of the masses certainly brought a whole new layer to my own hypochondria. This wasn’t just me worrying I maybe had a concussion after hitting my head on the change machine in the laundry room. This was the entire world hitting its head on the change machine in the laundry room. And loads of people never once had the words “CAT scan?” ever float through their mind, not even for a second.
My Covid anxiety did finally reach what I believe was its peak this past Christmas Eve, when around midnight, I got my husband out of bed, and made him climb into my mother's fireplace.
To be with those who only ever see a butterfly in the ink blot, and then others who see a screaming skull with flames shooting out the sockets… well, that’s been disorienting at best.
I had been tossing and turning, my mind reeling with texts from Omicron positive friends, and with wondering how to navigate Christmas Day with unvaxxed family. It was a mental routine I was all too familiar with, my cerebral cortex knowing the steps by heart. Though that night, I was aware the dance in my head felt less synchronized. Less urgent two-step, more frenzied mosh pit.
I had finally drifted off, when I was suddenly jerked awake by the clang of my mother’s windchimes. My husband and son and mother were all sleeping soundly in rooms down the hall. Which meant I was alone. Sitting there in the darkness of my mom’s creaky old rambling house, I thus deduced the cause of the clang was either:
a) the wind
b) a clumsy murderer whose Christmas eve rampage had just been foiled by a surprise display of dangling metal pipes.
I crept downstairs, bringing my phone in case the police needed to be summoned. To do what, I wasn’t sure. Arrest the breeze?
I slipped outside, and spying no murderers, climbed the rail of the porch and yanked the offending chimes down. A disturbingly warm December wind blew, and the grass smelled unnervingly like Easter. Heading back in, I wandered down the hall, past my mother’s nativity scene and an arrangement of porcelain terriers wearing Santa hats. And it was then that I spied the flame of the pilot light flickering in her gas fireplace.
Did the flame always burn orange? Wasn’t a pilot light supposed to burn blue?
I stepped closer.
Was it sort of blue? Was it blue-ish orange?
I pulled my phone from my pajama pocket and Googled: What color pilot light fireplace gas leak danger?
Just as I suspected. Orange was bad. Orange meant we were all going to die in our beds.
It is likely obvious at this point that I know very little of gas or fireplaces. But what I do know is This American Life. And I had recently heard a story about how some ghost sightings from olden times are now believed to have been hallucinations brought on by carbon monoxide poisoning. Wasn’t my mother just telling me how the guy who came to fix her wifi thought he saw an old woman in lace at the top of the stairs? Didn’t she also say she sometimes felt a presence at the end of her bed, that she insisted was not merely her 80-pound Goldendoodle shifting in its sleep?
My spiral now in full-on free fall, I shook my husband awake. He blinked at me in the darkness, while I hiss-whispered about blue fire and ghosts. Sighing, he threw off the covers, and trudged downstairs to investigate. My husband is an engineer, and actually does understand gas and fireplaces. But rather than give me a midnight lesson on gaskets and sealed combustion, he simply got down on all fours, climbed inside the fireplace, and turned it off completely.
As I stared at the sight of his brief-clad backside, two 6-foot nutcrackers gaping on either side of him, I realized I was having a bit of a moment. I imagine he was as well. One in which he fantasized about throwing himself fully into the flames, if only to escape my baseless fears and non-sensical demands.
When he emerged, we silently made our way back upstairs. And as I turned to thank him, I suddenly burst into tears. He looked at me with exhausted, but sympathetic eyes. It was clear to us both that the only haunting in the house at that moment was the one going on in my mind. There was no ghost. No gas. No witch flying in from the woods to cast a spell on everyone’s genitals.
I recently shared the witch balls story with a few friends, and as things tend to go in this friend group, it became a sort of catch phrase. So for Christmas, I printed up t-shirts for a faux metal band called (what else?) Witch Balls. The logo is a witch hat balanced atop a pair of green testicles. I even had one made for myself. To be clear, we weren’t laughing at that child’s pain. We would never laugh at anyone’s pain, mental or otherwise. But we would definitely laugh at that healer’s “let’s throw him in the well and see if his balls float” line of thinking.
The other day though, when pulling my tee from the wash, I thought for a moment how pandemic anxiety has kind of felt like a permanent case of witch balls. Like a mini-possession of sorts. The way it’s quietly wound its way into our subconscious and everyday actions. The way I’ll step outside, and feel a quick flash of confused panic, like I’ve forgotten something really important… like my son. Or to put pants on. But then I realize, no: I’m just not wearing a mask.
Or the way I now watch old movies, and mentally grimace at the terrible social distancing when Johnny pulls Baby onto the dance floor, shaking my head at Kellerman’s completely lax KN95 policy.
I thought for a moment how pandemic anxiety has kind of felt like a permanent case of witch balls. Like a mini-possession of sorts.
I suspect the psychosomatic tremors of Covid will likely fizzle through many of us for years to come. I mentioned this to my therapist, and she (to my dismay) actually agreed. But she also said that while the mind does have the power to cause phantom pain, it’s important to remember that it also has the opposite: the power to heal.
I do try to remember this. That we have within us the means to perform our own private exorcisms. To dispel the pretend witches and spooks and fear from our bodies and minds.
And if that fails, well, I suppose there’s always the acceptance that life is ultimately chaos and beyond our control.
And if that fails, well. There’s always WebMD.