The summer of 2015 was one of the happiest periods of my life.
After a decade of fruitless daydreaming, I managed to muster all of my strength, and finally moved to Germany.
I wanted to live in Berlin ever since I visited a friend who lived there a couple of years before, but always ran out of courage to actually follow through. A big part of the reason was my relationship status at the time — I just wasn’t prepared to leave my girlfriend behind.
But through a stroke of coincidental luck that struck in May, my fiance managed to land a job in Berlin, and I managed to jump on her bandwagon. We packed our stuff and drove North.
Our plan was to stay in Germany for 6 months, come back, and then finally start living together. Plans however, as well intentioned as they may be, tend to fall apart under the weight of reality. Katya started resenting her job, as well as the stress of a big city, while I, on the other hand, thrived in my newfound freedom. She moved back home and I decided to stay behind.
Blinded by mutual denial, and in spite of the difficult new circumstances, we agreed to stay together and try to make it work.
After a year of confused, mutually piss-poor attempts at a long distance relationship, we finally threw in the towel and called it quits. Even though we were both aware of the fact that we’ve been nearing the end of the rope for a while, the breakup itself was an unexpected, sad event. We’ve been together for 7 years…
I still remember crying in my little cubicle at work — big, salty tears were rolling down my cheeks and dropping on the keyboard. I was trying hard (and failing) to wipe them away with the sleeve of my overstretched green sweater, but the onslaught was just too overwhelming.
I was devastated.
A month after the breakup I went out with a couple of buddies. On my way back, I picked up some take away from a local fast food joint.
A couple of hours later, an excruciating pain radiating from my stomach tore me from sleep. I ran to the bathroom just in time to reach the toilet.
The food poisoning was bad, but what was worse was that even after I recovered, my digestion stayed completely fucked up.
Everything I ate caused pain. I felt constantly dehydrated, no matter how much water I gulped down. My bowels became viciously binary: I was either constipated or had diarrhea. My GP ran a bunch of tests, but everything seemed in perfect order.
Already feeling low and suddenly armed with a host of extremely uncomfortable, persistent symptoms, I began to withdraw from daily life. Convinced that I just needed a short break, I stopped answering messages from friends, and called in sick at work. But instead of getting better, being cooped up in my flat just made it easier to fall to the old call of the sirens… against better judgement, I started googling illnesses again.
The omnipresent search bar quickly spoon-fed a familiar fear of pancreatic cancer, which rose like a vampire from the crypt, elbowing itself to the forefront of my consciousness.
Those of you who’ve experienced a severe bout of health anxiety before know what such a “devastating” self-diagnosis does to the receptive psyche. The best way to describe it is to imagine your whole existence being flattened down to a single, circular lane which you can’t exit anymore. Every thought that enters your mind becomes instantly bound to the “illness”. It’s like turning on a switch for a recurring nightmare.
I deteriorated fast.
Since I had real, palpable symptoms, I was convinced my cancer was in later stages already, which of course meant that I am, in fact, dying. I fished for stories on cancer forums, stories that seemingly matched my own, stories that served one function only — making me sink deeper and deeper….
The pit of terror opened up before me like a shark’s mouth.
I stopped going to work altogether, shutting myself to the bedroom indefinitely. I didn’t talk to anyone about what I’m going through, because as a “dying man” I couldn’t relate to anybody anymore. People around me were alive, while I was as good as dead.
So I cut everybody off.
I began sleeping in short, restless spasms of just two to three hours in total. The computer was always turned on. I would wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in fear, quickly search for another horror cancer testimony to remind myself of what I’m going through, and then fall asleep again.
I still remember how, on a particularly torturous night, I researched a famous euthanasia clinic in Switzerland, going as far as filling out the necessary paperwork I’m going to need to apply. It didn’t matter whether it’s night or day — time stretched into an endless void.
One of the most devastating aspects of this period was the conviction that this miserable state of suffering was actually all that I’ve ever really known. It became impossible to imagine a different kind of a life, one that was outside of this never-ending, searing pain. Darkness covered not only my present, but my past as well.
My digestion kept getting worse. Feeding became a struggle. I lost 7 kilograms in a single month, which managed to force me back to the doctors office for a second round of testing. In my mind, the weight loss only confirmed what I knew already. It was clear to me that I’m never going to get better again. The only question was how long I had left.
I had more blood work done. An internist checked my urine and my stool. She performed another ultrasound. The results came back negative, one after the other. None of that changed anything for me. Quite the opposite — from all the terminal disease stories I’ve absorbed, I knew this is exactly how it’s supposed to go. You get turned away, again and again, until it’s finally too late. Besides, I felt like I understood my body best… or at least well enough to realise it’s collapsing.
Even though nobody else wanted to acknowledge “the truth”, that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. The death sentence I was living through was more real than any doctor’s opinion.
3 months passed in the exact same way. There seemed to be no way out.
Most of the time I was just waiting for death.
On a late July evening, I was suddenly shook by a violent panic attack. Then another one, which was even stronger than the first. And another one after that…
By that point I was so excruciatingly exhausted and so frail mentally, that I had no strength left to fight. For months, I have been driven purely by adrenaline.
The barrage of panic attacks lasted all night. In the morning I was convinced that my heart is seconds away from failing.
For the first time in my life I called an ambulance. I left my apartment with the last ounce of stamina and sat on the pavement in front of the building, so that the paramedics would have a better chance of saving me…
I spent the next three days in the hospital, alone, without my friends or family knowing where I was. My chest was covered with electrodes and I had an IV stuck in my arm. The doctors checked my heart multiple times, put me on observation, then tended to more pressing matters. I was surrounded by screaming teenagers who overdosed on drugs, young mothers with cancer and dying men with HIV.
Strapped on a bed with my eyes wide open, I experienced a prolonged three day panic attack, an uninterrupted fall to the blackest corners of my consciousness. I saw myself dying a million times in a million different ways, constantly expecting brutal waves of adrenaline to finally finish the job. Everything I ever lived through disappeared through the hole of agony, being replaced by visions of imminent death. Pain covered my body, like a tight wetsuit made out of burning needles. My mind was being taken from me piece by piece, until there was nothing left but a manifestation of pure panic…
I reached the bottom of the pit.
It was a crisp, early morning when they released me. It had been raining all night.
I stepped out of the hospital just as the day started to break. I felt numb in an unrecognizable new way, like a soldier that’s just survived a massacre he shouldn’t have. Walking home, I observed the sky that, just a day before, I was so sure I’m never going to see again. It was clear that something inside of me broke forever.
I got home and headed straight to the bedroom.
I languished in the same deadened state for a couple of more weeks, still believing I was dying, still barely recognising my aching body, still googling myself to oblivion.
But somehow I didn’t get worse.
I decided on a last medical stand.
Since all of the tests I’ve had up until that point came back negative, I maxed out my overdraft, found a private clinic and asked for a CT scan. It was the only examination I haven’t subjected myself to yet.
A lonesome, but unexpectedly forceful current of logic sustained this desire; considering the fact that I’ve been besieged by symptoms (i.e. “dying”) for over half a year, a tumor would have to appear on a CT image, if it was indeed there. Even I knew that.
The scanning itself was quick and painless. I got dressed and escorted to the reception where I waited for what seemed like the longest fifteen minutes of my life. My clothes were soaked in cold sweat. I couldn’t stop pacing up and down the corridor.
A door of a small office suddenly opened, and a female doctor called me in. Before I could even sit down properly, she turned the screen of her computer towards me. I just silently stared at the abstract image — everything I saw looked like an enormous lump. My heart sank. The moment of truth had arrived.
The doctor gently circled an area of my body with her pen, and said: “Your pancreas is completely fine. As is everything else.”
The shock of what I just heard paralyzed me for a moment. With trembling lips I asked if there’s any chance of a misread. She smiled politely, and shook her head.“There’s just nothing there.”
I forced myself back on my legs, and left the clinic, still in utter disbelief.
Fifteen minutes later I was standing on the platform, waiting for my train. The doctor’s words were ringing in my head, causing mayhem to the terror that dominated me for the last six months. A warm breeze passed through my shirt. I was so wrapped up in my own dread all the time that I failed to notice it was summer again. Everywhere I looked, Berlin was teeming with life.
I walked to the nearest bench, sat down and broke into tears.
I cried for a while, letting myself feel the relief pouring out of my eyes. The coldness that gripped my heart started to thaw…
Sitting on that metal bench, sobbing uncontrollably, I finally began accepting the fact that the real sickness wasn’t ravaging my body but my mind.
Two weeks after my scan, I knocked on the door of a psychotherapist who replied to my email. He shook my hand and invited me to sit. I gathered my thoughts and took a deep breath.
Then I told him everything.
Originally published at https://thatanxiousdude.com on May 14, 2020.