Like many of life's problems, this one began in my childhood, roughly between the ages of 6 and 8. I liked to listen in on the conversations of grown-ups. Since I was so young, most of the grown-ups I was exposed to were women. My mother and my aunts and the ladies of the neighborhood discussed parenting, recipes, movies and gossip, but their favorite topic was ill health.
"He was on the operating table for four hours . . ."
". . . they took out a tumor as big as a grapefruit . . ."
"And, you know, he never had a sick day in his life . . ."
"Her legs swelled up just like watermelons."
"Her husband remembers her saying that that fish didn't smell right."
". . . and they took just one look at him and sewed him back up."
The stories they told make the episodes on ER seem as pallid as a first-aid training film. Hardly any of them had happy endings.
Years later, I was in a supermarket, dithering over a wide variety of grapefruit. A clerk asked me what size I wanted. Without thinking, I answered: "Oh, about as big as a tumor."
Overhearing all those stories of sickness at such an impressionable age left me feeling very vulnerable to bacteria, viruses, parasites, malignant cells, invasive fungi and poisons. Naturally, I became a hypochondriac.