Moodswing - In my head

Holidays and hypochondria go hand-in-hand

I can tell the holidays are here, because my hypochondria chromosome has been completely activated. First of all, I’m convinced my liver is the size of a sea elephant, living inside me like an angry unborn twin with teeth and everything. I wish there was a way I could take a look to make sure, I mean other than with an X-ray machine, which would be hard to steal. I could make an appointment at the doctor’s office, I know, but my reputation there is still tainted after my tapeworm panic on Christmas Eve of 1998.

Anyway, I have this pain in my side, see? It’s not my appendix, because that was cut out of me on Christmas 1996, a monumental event proving that sometimes this is not all in my head. I mean, seriously, they wouldn’t open me up and take out an organ (would they?) unless there was something really wrong with it. So this present pain is not my appendix. It must be another organ, and I’m figuring it must be my liver, seeing as how I’ve been drinking like a frat boy at a beer fest lately.

Yes, OK, I admit it, I’ve been partaking in a lot of festive elixirs of late, but these are the holidays. I have to survive them somehow. If you ask me, I’m still trying to make up for the holiday season of 1999, when I went to New Jersey and got to be the knocked-up new-wife exhibit at Chris’ Catholic family jamboree. Jesus God. I couldn’t even drink coffee that year, let alone my traditional trough-load of alcohol, because I was pregnant, got that? Another example proving that sometimes this is not all in my head.

In fact, that’s what makes all this so difficult. How do you separate crazed panic from perfect reality? Like how was I supposed to know that the flesh-eating ass cancer I was freaking about a few Thanksgivings ago was really just the result of sitting all day in my underwear on top of a lost earring? On the other hand, the 1997 incident was easy, because that year I got accidentally stabbed in the head for the holidays. It’s not like I was imagining that. It happened, I tell you, and the co-worker who did it (with the pointy edge of a metal cabinet door that had flown off its hinges) was super sorry and still sends me cards sometimes. I walked around for weeks afterward, with stitches and everything, looking like a Tijuana cocktail waitress. See? Sometimes this is not all in my head!

This all started happening back in grade school when, the day before Thanksgiving, my life sciences teacher showed the class a close-up of a human clogged artery, bisected. “This is what happens when you eat crappy food,” she said in her crone voice, holding the photo aloft. “When this guy died, his arteries were so stiff you could snap them in half like a piece of raw pasta,” she added, thrusting the photo forward, which caused her upper arms to quiver like two turkey wattles. “Raw pasta,” she reiterated, and I swear, it was years before I could eat SpaghettiOs again.

It didn’t help, too — I mean not at all — that my parents dropped me and my sisters off at the cinema-plex that year to watch Scrooge and The Aristocats, but we were being chaperoned by my big brother, who took the tickets and accidentally on purpose walked us into the wrong theater, where we sat through four showings of Faces of Death instead. He kept telling us the cartoon was coming on next, right after this part showing a lady getting her whole arm hacked off by a mad magician for the 20th time. That night I had to invent an earache just so I could sleep in my parents’ bed, and believe me, my parents were not cuddly people.

And their bed was not comfortable, either. For one thing it had ashtrays in it, and books. Tons of books. One in particular was The Exorcist. Jesus God, I wish my mother had hidden that book a little better, because after reading it I had never been so scared of a book in my life. Oh, my God, I remember thinking, how can this happen to a little girl? A pretty, pious sweet little girl who went to church and everything? If that could happen to her, then what about me?

So that’s the year it started. That year I was possessed by the devil for the holidays. I began twitching my shoulders and thrashing my head at odd moments, because I could feel Satan simmering inside me, and I thought if I stayed still too long I’d barf up a big nest of snakes or something, which would be very embarrassing. Finally my mother confronted me one night — I was hard to miss, right there in bed with her, twitching and thrashing — “What is the goddamn matter with you?” she shouted.

So I told her the truth, that I was afraid I was going to hell, that Lucifer’s minions would drag me down through the butthole of oblivion to the heart of all awfulness, where devils will poke at my festering sores with fondue forks for all of eternity. At that my mother eyed me keenly over the top of her book before muttering just one sentence. “Kid,” she said, “hell is all in your head.”

Hollis Gillespie’s commentaries can be heard on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” To hear the latest, go to Moodswing at