By Genevieve Yates
You know Joan. We all know Joan. She’s the one who rings up needing urgent fit-in appointments because she’s “so sick”.
“My nose is running constantly, my ears are about to explode and my throat feels like I’ve swallowed razor blades. My sinuses are killing me, my head’s aching and the cough – don’t get me started on how terrible my cough is! I feel like death warmed up!”
“You have a cold.”
“But this can’t be just a cold. I’m so sick. I’ve been unwell for five whole days!”
Yes, we all know Joan. Just as we all know Alison. Alison always comes in with a list.
“My headaches are worse. I’m getting funny wavy lines in my vision and I feel dizzy when I turn around quickly. I’m getting pains low down in my groin most evenings after dinner. My right shoulder has been giving me curry and I’m getting pins and needles in my right foot. I’m also losing hair and my scalp is itchy. Worst of all I feel so tired – I’ve got no energy at all.”
The Joans and Alisons of this world are challenging to treat in more ways than one, not least in trying to separate their wheat from their chaff. Somatizers, hypochondriacs and garden-variety pain-in-the-butt whingers can all have life-threatening illnesses. Indeed, research suggests that they have serious physical illnesses more often than do the population at large.
I don’t have a simple fool-proof strategy for managing these types of patients but I do have an idea for possible prevention: early childhood scare tactics.
The Aesop’s fable, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, was one of my mother’s favourite moralising tales, and to this day I remember it terrifying the life out of me. When I was about six years old, I overstated symptoms of illness to get out of school early. After picking me up, Mum vividly related “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” story, and by the time we arrived home I was begging her to drive me back to school. She had me convinced that I was going to die of a horrible illness one day because no one would believe me when I said I was sick. She refused to take me back but instead made me sit on the floor all afternoon and consider the potential consequences of my actions. It worked. I never exaggerated symptoms of illness again.
Mind you, Mum often didn’t believe my genuine complaints either. For example, at the age of ten I sustained a significant radius/ulna fracture requiring internal fixation, and my mother yelled at me for being a sook, not knowing the extent of my injury.
Her “I breed ‘em tough” campaign may have gone a bit far at times but she was right about one thing: what didn’t kill me did make me stronger. Perhaps other youngsters might benefit from a diluted dose of my mother’s medicine. I have no evidence that such child-rearing techniques increase resilience and stoicism in adulthood but I’d like to believe they do. I’d like to believe that Mum was indeed doing it for my own good!