The Hypochondriac
Or, Job's Comforters

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851


Alas! I am cursed with a nervous temperament, and, as a consequence, am ever and always distressed with nervous fears of some direful calamity or painful affliction. I am a simpleton for this, I know; but then, how can I help it? I try to be a woman of sense, but my nerves are too delicately strung. Reason is not sufficient to subdue the fears of impending evil that too often haunt me.

It would not be so bad with me, if I did not find so many good souls ready to add fuel to the flames of my fears. One of my most horrible apprehensions, since I have been old enough to think about it, has been of that dreadful disease, cancer. I am sure I shall die of it or, if not, some time in life have to endure a frightful operation for its removal.

I have had a dull, and sometimes an acute pain in one of my breasts, for some years. I am sure it is a cancer forming, though my husband always ridicules my fears. A few days ago a lady called in to see me. The pain had been troubling me, and I felt nervous and depressed.

"You don't look well," said my visitor.

"I am not very well," I replied.

"Nothing serious, I hope?"

"I am afraid there is, Mrs. Andrews" I looked gloomy, I suppose, for I felt so.

"You really alarm me. What can be the matter?"

"I don't know that I have ever mentioned it to you, but I have, for a long time, had a pain in my left breast, where I once had a cyst, and in which hard lumps have ever since remained. These have increased in size, of late, and I am now confirmed in my fears that a cancer is forming!"

"Oh me!" And my visitor lifted both hands and eyes. "What kind of a pain is it?"

"A dull, aching pain, with occasional stitches running out from one spot, as if roots were forming."

"Just the very kind of pain that Mrs. Newman had for some months before the doctors pronounced it cancer. Do you know Mrs. Newman?"

"Not personally. I have heard of her."

"You know she had one of her breasts taken off?"

"Had she?" I asked, in a husky voice. I had horrible feelings.

"Oh, yes!" My visitor spoke with animation.

"She had an operation performed about six months ago. It was dreadful! Poor soul!"

My blood fairly curdled; but my visitor did not notice the effect of her words.

"How long did the operation last?" I ventured to inquire.

"Half an hour."

"Half an hour! So long?"

"Yes; it was a full half hour from the time the first incision was made until the last little artery was closed up."

"Horrible! horrible!" I ejaculated, closing my eyes, and shuddering.

"If so horrible to think of, what must it be in reality?" said my thoughtless visitor. "If it were my case, I would prefer death! But Mrs. Newman is not an ordinary woman. She possesses unusual fortitude, and would brave anything for the sake of her husband and children. It took even her, however, a long time to make up her mind to have the operation performed; and it was only when she was satisfied that further delay would endanger her life, that she consented to have it done. I saw her just the day before; she looked exceedingly pale, and said but little. A very intimate friend was with her, whom I was surprised to hear talk to her in the liveliest manner, upon subjects of the most ordinary interest. She was relating a very amusing story which she had read; when I entered, and was laughing at the incidents. Even Mrs. Newman smiled. It seemed to me very much out of place, and really a mockery to the poor creature; it was downright cruel. How any one could do so, I cannot imagine.

'My dear madam,' I said as soon as I could get a chance to speak to her, 'how do you feel? I am grieved to death at the dreadful operation you will have to go through. But you must bear it bravely; it will soon be over.' She thanked me with tears in her eyes for my kind sympathies, and said that she hoped she would be sustained through the severe trial. Before I could get a chance to reply, her friend broke in with some nonsensical stuff that made poor Mrs. Newman laugh in spite of herself, even though the tears were glistening on her eyelashes. I felt really shocked. And then she ran on in the wildest strain you ever heard, turning even the most serious remark I could make, into fun. And, would you believe it? she treated with levity the operation itself, whenever I alluded to it, and said that it was nothing to fear a little smarting and a little pain, but not so bad as a bad toothache, she would wager a dollar.

"'That is all very well for you to say,' I replied, my feelings of indignation almost boiling over, 'but if you had the operation to bear, you would find it a good deal worse than a bad toothache, or the severest pain you ever suffered in your life.'

"Even this was turned into sport. I never saw such a woman. I believe she would have laughed in a cholera hospital. I left, assuring Mrs. Newman of my deepest sympathies, and urged her to nerve herself for the sad trial to which she was so soon to be subjected. I was not present when the operation was performed, but one who attended all through the fearful scene, gave me a minute description of everything that occurred."

The thought of hearing the details of a dreadful operation, made me sick at heart, and yet I felt a morbid desire to know all about it. I could not ask my visitor to pause; and yet I dreaded to hear her utter another sentence. Such was the strange disorder of my feelings! But it mattered not what process of thought was going on in my mind, or what was the state of my feelings; my visitor went steadily on with her story, while every fifth word added a beat to my pulse.

The effect of this detail was to increase all the cancerous symptoms in my breast, or to cause me to imagine that they were increased. When my husband came home, I was in a sad state of nervous excitement. He anxiously inquired the cause.

"My breast feels much worse than it has felt for a long time," said I. "I am sure a cancer is forming. I have all the symptoms."

"Do you know the symptoms?" he asked.

"Mrs. Newman had a cancer in her breast, and my symptoms all resemble hers."

"How do you know?"

"Mrs. Andrews has been here, and she is quite intimate with Mrs. Newman. All my symptoms, she says, are precisely like hers."

"I wish Mrs. Andrews was in the deserts of Arabia!" said my husband, in a passion. "Even if what she said were true what business had she to say it? Harm, not good, could come of it. But I don't believe you have any more cancer in your breast, than I have. There is an obstruction and hardening of the glands, and that is about all."

"But Mrs. Newman's breast was just like mine, for Mrs. Andrews says so. She described the feeling Mrs. Newman had, and mine is precisely like it."

"Mrs. Andrews neither felt the peculiar sensation in Mrs. Newman's breast nor in yours; and, therefore, cannot know that they are alike. She is an idle, croaking gossip and I wish she would never cross our threshold! She always does harm."

I felt that she had done me harm, but I wouldn't say so. I was a good deal vexed at the way my husband treated the matter, and accused him of indifference as to whether I had a cancer or not. He bore the accusation very patiently, as, indeed, he always does any of my sudden ebullitions of feeling. He knows my weakness.

"If I thought there were danger," he mildly said, "I would be as much troubled as you are."

"As to danger, that is imminent enough!" I returned, fretfully.

"On the contrary, I am satisfied that there is none. One of your symptoms makes this perfectly clear."

"Indeed! What symptom?" I eagerly asked.

"Your terrible fears of a cancer are an almost certain sign that you will never have one. The evil we most fear, rarely, if ever, falls upon us."

"That is a very strange way to talk," I replied.

"But a true way, nevertheless," said my husband.

"I can see no reason in it. Why should we be troubled to death, about a thing that is never going to happen?"

"The trouble is bad enough, without the reality, I suppose. We are all doomed to have a certain amount of anxiety and trouble here, whether real or imaginary. Some have the reality and others the imagination. Either is bad enough; I don't know which is worse."

"I shall certainly be content to have the imaginary part!" I replied.

"That part you certainly have, and your full share of it. I believe you have, at some period or other, suffered every malady which flesh is heir to. As for me, I would rather have a good hearty fit of sickness, a broken leg or arm, or even a cancer, and be done with it than become a living Pandora's box, even in imagination!"

"As you think I am?"

"As I know you are!"

"Then you would really like to see me have a cancer in my breast, and be done with it?" I said this pretty sharply.

"Don't look so fiercely at me," returned my husband, smiling. "I didn't say I would rather you would have a cancer; I said I would rather have one, and be done with it than suffer as you do from the fear of it, and a hundred other evils."

"I must say you are quite complimentary to your wife," I returned, in a little better humor than I had yet spoken. The fact was, my mind took hold of what my husband said about real and imaginary evils, and was somewhat braced up. Of imaginary maladies, I had certainly had enough to entitle me to a whole lifetime exemption from real ones.

From the time Mrs. Andrews left me until my husband came in, the pain in my breast had steadily increased, accompanied by a burning and stinging sensation. In imagination, I could clearly feel the entire cancerous nucleus, and perceive the roots eating their way in all directions around it. This feeling, when I now directed my thoughts to my breast, was gone very little pain remained.

After tea, my husband went out and returned in about an hour. He said he had been around to consult with our physician, who assured him that he had seen hundreds of cases like mine, not one of which terminated in cancer; that such glandular obstructions were common, and might, under certain circumstances, unless great care were used, cause inflammation and suppuration; but were no more productive of cancer, a very rare disease, and consequent upon hereditary tendencies, than were any of the glandular obstructions or gatherings in other parts of the body.

"But the breast is so tender a place," I said.

"And yet," returned my husband, "the annals of surgery show ten cancers in other parts of the body to one in the breast."

In this way my husband dissipated my fears, and restored my mind to a comparatively healthy state. This, however, did not long remain; I was attacked on the next day with a dull, deeply-seated pain in one of my teeth. At first, I did not regard it much, but its longer continuance than usual began to excite my fears, especially as the tooth was, to all appearance, sound.

While suffering from this attack, I had a visit from another friend of the same class with Mrs. Andrews. She was a kind, good-natured soul, and would watch by your sick-bed untiringly, night after night, and do it with real pleasure. But she had, like Mrs. Andrews, a very thoughtless habit of relating the many direful afflictions and scenes of human suffering which it had been her lot to witness and hear of, unconscious that she often did great harm thereby.

"You are not well," she said, when she came in and saw the expression of pain in my face.

"What is the matter?"

"Nothing more than a very troublesome tooth-ache," I replied.

"Use a little kreosote," said she.

"I would; but the tooth is sound."

"A sound tooth, is it?" My visitor's tone and look made my heart beat quicker.

"Yes, it is perfectly sound."

"I am always afraid of an aching tooth that is perfectly sound, since poor Mrs. Putnam had such a time with her jaw."

"What was that?" I asked, feeling instantly alarmed.

"Which tooth is it that aches?" my friend asked.

I pointed it out.

"The very same one that troubled Mrs. Putnam for several months, night and day."

"Was the pain low and throbbing?" I eagerly asked.

"Yes; that was exactly the kind of pain she had."

"And did it continue so long as several months?"

"Oh, yes. But that wasn't the worst! the aching was caused by the formation of an abscess."

"A what?" A cold chill passed over me.

"An abscess!"

"At the root of her tooth?"

"Yes. But that wasn't so bad as its consequences; the abscess caused the bone to decay, and produced what the doctors called a disease of the jaw, which extended until the bone was eaten clear through, so that the abscess discharged itself by the nostrils!"

"Oh, horrible!" I exclaimed, feeling as sick as death, while the pain in my tooth was increased fourfold. "How long did you say this abscess was in forming?"

"Some months."

"Did she have an operation performed?" I have a terrible fear of operations.

"Oh, yes. It was the only thing that saved her life. They scraped all the flesh away on one cheek and then cut a hole through the bone. This was after the tooth had been pulled out, in doing which the jaw-bone was broken dreadfully. It was months before it healed, or before she could eat with anything but a spoon."

This completely unmanned, or, rather, unwomanned me. I asked no more questions, although my visitor continued to give me a good deal of minute information on the subject of abscesses, and the dreadful consequences that too frequently attended them.

After she left another friend called, to whom I mentioned the fact of having a very bad tooth-ache, and asked her if she had ever known any one to have an abscess at the root of a sound tooth.

She replied that tooth-ache from an abscess was frequent, and that, sometimes, very bad consequences resulted from it. She advised me, by all means, to have the tooth extracted.

"I can't bear the thought of that," I replied. "I never had but one tooth pulled, and when I think of having another extracted, I grow cold all over!"

"Still, that is much better than having rotting of the jaw, which has been known to attend an abscess at the root of a tooth."

"But this does not always follow."

"No. It is of rare occurrence, I believe. Though no one knows when such a disease exists, nor where it is going to terminate. Even apart from caries of the jaw, the thing is painful enough. Mrs. Thompson, an intimate friend of mine, suffered for nearly a month, night and day, and finally had to have the tooth extracted, when her mouth was so much inflamed, and so tender, that the slightest touch caused the most exquisite pain. A tumor was found at the root of the tooth as large as a pigeon's egg!"

This completed the entire overthrow of my nerves. I begged my friend, in mercy to spare me any further stories of this kind. She seemed half offended, and I had to explain the state of mind which had been produced by what a former visitor had said. She, evidently, thought me a very weak woman. No doubt I am.

"In the dumps again, Kate?" said my husband, when he returned home in the evening. "What is the matter now?"

"Enough to put you or anyone else in the dumps," I replied fretfully. "This tooth-ache grows worse, instead of better."

"Does it, indeed? I am really very sorry. Can't anything be done to relieve you?"

"Nothing, I am persuaded. The tooth is sound, and there must be an abscess forming at the root, to occasion so much pain."

"Who, in the name of common sense, has put this foolish idea into your head?"

My husband was worried.

"Has Mrs. Andrews been here again?"

"No," was my simple response.

"Then what has conjured up this bugbear to frighten you out of your senses?"

I didn't like this language at all. My husband seemed reproachful and unreasonable. Dear soul! I supposed he had cause; for they say a nervous woman is enough to worry a man's life out of him; and everyone knows that I am nervous enough! But I had only my fears before me then. Now I saw that my husband did not sympathize with me in the least. I merely replied

"It may be very well for you to speak to your wife in this way, after she has suffered for nearly three days with a wretched tooth-ache. If the tooth were at all decayed, or there were any apparent cause for the pain, I could bear it well enough, and wouldn't trouble you about it. But it is so clear to my mind now, that nothing but a tumor forming at the root could produce such a steady, deep-seated, throbbing pain that I am with reason alarmed. And instead of sympathy from my husband I am met with something very much like ridicule!"

"My dear Kate," said my husband, tenderly, and in a serious voice, "pardon my apparent harshness and indifference. If you are really so serious about the matter, it may be as well to consult a dentist, and get his advice. He may be able to relieve very greatly your fears, if not the pain in your jaw."

"He will order the tooth to be extracted, I have not the least doubt."

"If there should be a tumor at the root it will be much safer to have it out than let it remain."

A visit to the dentist at once was so strenuously urged by my husband, that I couldn't refuse to go. I got myself ready, and we went around before tea. I did not leave the house, however, before making my husband promise he would not insist upon my having the tooth taken out on the first visit. This he did readily.

The dentist, after examining very carefully the tooth pointed out to him, said that he didn't believe that tooth ached at all.

"Not ache, doctor?" said I, a little indignantly.

"If you had it in your head you would think that it ached."

"Pardon me, madam," he returned, with a polite bow. "I did not mean to say that you were not in pain. I only mean to say that I think that you are mistaken in its exact locality."

"I don't see how I can be. I have had it long enough, I would think, to determine its locality with some certainty."

"Let me examine your mouth again, madam," said the dentist.

This time he examined the right jaw the pain was on the left side.

"I think I have found out the enemy," said he, as he took the instrument from my mouth with which he had been sounding my teeth. "The corresponding tooth on the other side has commenced decaying, and the nerve is already slightly exposed."

"But what has that to do with this side?" I put my hand where the pain was, as I spoke.

"It may have a good deal to do with it. We shall soon see." And he went to his case of instruments.

"You are not going to extract it, doctor!" I rose from the dentist's chair in alarm.

"Oh no, no, madam! I am only going to put something into it, to destroy the sensibility of the nerve, previous to preparing it for being filled. The tooth can still be preserved. We will know in a minute or two, whether all the difficulty lies here."

A preparation, in which I could perceive the taste and odor of creosote, was inserted in the cavity of the decayed tooth. In less than five seconds I was free from pain.

"I thought that was it," said the dentist, smiling. "A sound tooth is not very apt to ache of itself. It is sometimes difficult to tell which is the troublesome tooth. But we have discovered the offending one this time, and will put an end to the disturbance he has been creating."

I could say not a word. My husband looked at me with a humorous expression in his eye. After we were in the street, he remarked, pleasantly

"No abscess yet, my dear. Were it not for physicians, who understand their business, I am afraid your Job's comforters would soon have you imagine yourself dying, and keep up the illusion, until you actually died."

"I really am ashamed of myself," I replied; "but you know how shattered my nerves are, and how little a thing it takes to unsettle me. I do wish my Job's comforters, as you call them, would have more discretion than to talk to me as they do."

"Let them talk; you know it is all talk."

"No not all talk. They relate real cases of disease and suffering, and I immediately imagine that I have all the symptoms that ultimately lead to the same sad results."

"Be a woman, Kate! be a woman!" responded my husband.

This was all very well, and all easily said. I believe, however, I am a woman, but a woman of the nineteenth century, with nerves far too delicately strung. Ah me! if some of my kind friends would only be a little more thoughtful, they would save me many a wretched day. I hope this will meet the eyes of some of them, and that they will read it to a little profit. It may save others, if it does not save me from a repetition of such things as I have described.