I recently became convinced that one side of my face was going to collapse.
In the long, dark hours of the winter just past I became pre-occupied with this fantasy, imagining scenes of deformation in fast-forward—sci-fi scenes, of impressive proportions. In a lost week last year I spent a significant chunk of time lying on my front, face full of carpet, entirely unable (or so it felt to me) to breathe. Three summers ago I waited, horizontally, for dark patches I had read about in an online forum to appear all over my body. Hiding from the sun, I slowly grew pale and unconvinced in the glare of my ‘devices.’ I am, as you may have already taken in, something of a hypochondriac.
My self-diagnoses gather speed and confidence with alarming pace. And in each of these quickening mental journeys from the land of the free to the doctor’s office, my faithful traveling companion has, of course, been that democratic voice of reason: Google.
I do not think contemporary anxiety is caused by the internet. I am, however, increasingly aware of the latent provocative power a search engine can have, and how some of the characteristics of online existence itself can emulate those of anxiety. In its hyperlinked, schizophrenic structure of experience, the internet often offers us a strangely similar approach to the world to that of a person suffering from mental illness or neurosis—fragmenting, disconnecting and short-circuiting information.
I have always thought that hypochondria – an excessive preoccupation with/anxiety about the physical – has particularly interesting shadows tangled up in it when thinking about anxiety and the internet. Yes, the connection has already been made, yes, ‘cyberchondria’ has already been irritatingly coined—and the universal doctor’s eye rolls daily at the quickening epidemic. But I think that Google fuels this particular neurosis in more subtle ways than the reams of readily available search results confirming your imminent demise. These are, for the most part, born out of the internet’s chronic bent to disembody its users.
It is easy and commonplace to shadow the physicality behind any act on the internet. As Ruby Thomas elucidates, ‘as the list progresses, the face behind the act becomes more blurred: we can obscure the appearance, then the voice, then the handwriting, then the phone number and email address until we become no more than a codified ‘username’ and an empty box for a profile picture.’
When you enter the land of the internet, you leave behind your 3D, corporeal self, and don the flat, unsexy mask of the profile picture—or, if you’re feeling really shy, you hang in the air. This disembodying bit of the internet we are aware of, it’s part of the ritual: you leave your physicality at the door. But even the very nature of the act of compulsive Googling slowly undermines your fleshliness. Sat there at a desk, trapped with just your eyes and your fingertips in a world where you and others figure solely as words and avatars, you can leave the room and the body you are in with ease.
With these thoughts in mind, hypochondriac Googling takes on a more interesting dimension than scholars of ‘cyberchondria’ have suggested thus far. It’s almost as if the very nature of the disembodying internet experience triggers a kind of automatic, displaced hyper-awareness of the body—only one that is so warped and disconnected to physical reality that it can be supremely disturbing.
Apparently, in states of heightened anxiety, contemporary hypochondriacs can actually begin to hallucinate pictures they have seen on their computer screens when looking at their own bodies. In a moment of panic, the terrible, horrifying symptom they are waiting to discover suddenly – finally – flashes up in their mirror, and their worst fears are confirmed.
Of course, body dysmorphia in relation to depression and anxiety is not a new idea – Hannah Höch’s Der Melancholiker comes to mind, the sad self with her giant eye and shrinking body – but something more complicated seems to be happening when we introduce the connected computer. The thought holds particular significance with respect to our consideration of ‘cyberchondria’ and disembodiment. Here, it is as if the lost body has been replaced with a kind of grotesque body-vision, or ghost body. The deficit has been filled with an attempted version of what has been displaced, and the result is truly horrific.
As neurologist Oliver Sacks observed in his extraordinary text, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, in the case of a neurological deficit ‘there is always a reaction, on the part of the affected organism or individual, to restore, to replace, to compensate for and to preserve its identity however strange the means may be.’ The body-visions of the ‘cyberchondriac’ can be understood in just such a way. Surely this is what we are seeing, when we look at the disembodied being engaged only with their computer screen, obsessing, through the eternal scroll of the search results page, about their own physical well-being. Imagining, in the most grotesque depths of Google images, that it is their body they are being confronted with—if not a present version, then one from the imminent future. It is (to borrow a term, as Sacks does, from Ivy McKenzie) a sad, misguided case of an individual ‘striving to preserve its identity in adverse circumstances.’
A brief extract from the short introductory history of hypochondria in Brian Dillon’s Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives:
You were well one minute ago, and this minute you are unwell. Your symptoms came on, and with them your fear, in a stray moment of solitude. Perhaps you and your body were alone in the bathroom, with leisure to examine your naked flesh, time enough for your fingers to find a lump where no lump should be, for the unsteamed mirror to reveal a rash or for your hand to pause as you reached for the soap, an obscure twinge dragging at your innards.
What is immediately critical here is both the explicit physicality and sense of loneliness. The clearing steam, the considered movement, the fingers and the flesh all contribute to an environment of overt sensuality and heightened corporeality. The trigger environment Dillon chooses to describe – the poignant conditions understood to best foster the seeds of hypochondria – is one of being utterly, candidly, ‘alone with your own body.’
But on the internet, you have no body, and you are never alone. You are a brain, surrounded by other brains, offering their unsubstantiated opinions in a barrage of hard, persuasive text. The hypochondria we experience here, (or, more precisely, the hypochondria that is born here) the New Hypochondria—is sort of a reverse-hypochondria. It is not found with wandering hands, or in the reddening of ‘naked flesh,’ but by a displaced hyperawareness triggered from a sense of the loss of physical self.
An awareness of these connections does not offer me the diagnosis > remedy response I am so fond of. It does not buy me back time spent worrying. It does, however, allow me the crucial reminder that I have a body, and that I do not need to go searching for one. Strangely, in my experience of ‘cyberchondria,’ Dillon’s situation is the tonic. Doctors often suggest exercise. But just being alone with your body is vitally important. In a world that is becoming increasingly decorporealised, the need to engage physically has become urgent. And the leisure to be naked, to be aware of your hand, reaching for the soap—this is sometimes powerful enough to call it a cure.