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Friday, September 11, 2020

Political Hypochondria–Going Weird And Twisted In An Age Of Fictional Ills

Benny Livermore went through a period of hypochondria as a boy.  He stayed many feet away from any speaker, used a handkerchief to cover his nose and mouth if distance was not possible, opened all doors with his elbow, and wiped down every surface before touching it.  This manic period – probably an inadvertent result of his physician father’s tales of nosocomial infections and viral and bacterial transmission – came and went quickly.

Benny was a creepy little kid during the period, always lurking in corners, bending left, right, over from his desk to avoid others’ breath.  When class bells rang he always held back, waiting for his classmates to crowd the stairs and halls to get to French or Geography.  He was a straggler who looked like a wooden marionette as he walked up the stairs, avoiding the banister, and struggling to keep his balance on the old, cracked wooden stairs and a hold on his books. 

He blinked his eyes frequently to wash them of the motes and viral bits that might have come his way.  Having heard that saliva was a natural anti-microbial he licked his lips constantly to rid them of germs.  He kept his hands in his pockets to avoid touching anything and walked like a zombie.  No one wanted anything do do with him.

Image result for images microbes

Luckily his phobia trickled to an end by the time he reached high school.  Just as eerily and mysteriously as his fear of germs – to be clear, it wasn’t so much a fear of getting sick, but getting infected.  It was the insidious invasion of his body that twisted his wires and made his gears run backward.  Getting sick was as much a part of childhood as wetting your bed or getting your feet wet.  Nothing there to be worried about.  It was this unwanted cloud of germs – this invisible aerosol of phlegm and mucus and miniscule beings – that was frightening.

There was a term for such complex hypochondria – ‘Alien Projective Disorder’ – and although few children had ever been categorized as such, there were many notable exceptions.  Benny was one of the lucky ones who made it out of the category and the penitential hell of hypochondria before adolescence where a new, ratcheted up term for bullying would have to be invented for what high school boys would have done to him.

Many years later after a very predictable, normal career in the law, a more-or-less happy family, and a summer home on the Bay, COVID hit America.  Benny could have gone either way.  If his boyhood hypochondria had not been extirpated completely and that odd bits and pieces of unreasonable fear were still embedded somewhere in his psyche, he could have gone completely off the rails when facing COVID for the first time. 

Lord knows there were many colleagues and friends with no history of phobia, mania, or hypochondria who couldn’t function – who hunkered down in basement rooms, ordered everything online and insisted on home delivery; who refused to visit family and friends; who masked up tighter than a drum on the one or two absolutely necessary forays per month.  He could have been one of them.

Image result for images frightened people in covid masks

Yet the stray bits and pieces of his earlier hypochondria had formed antibodies to any new bodily invasion.  In other words, because he had been so terrified of germs and infection as a boy, nothing could ever be as bad.  In fact, he became the whipping boy for his entire NW Washington progressive neighborhood because of his seemingly cavalier response to the pandemic.  Not only was he risking his own health and the health of others, but he was a moral reprobate.  Not wearing a mask and keeping social distance was tantamount to murder.

Of course Benny never saw things that way.  It was just that if you spent the greater part of three years panicked about nothing, then there was absolutely no reason to get turned around by something else. In other words, his psychosis had gone deeper than he understood.  Not only was the hypochondria still alive and well; and the curious idea of alien invasion of bodily spaces still current; but now irrationality had been added to this sick potpourri.  You could actually get sick from COVID.

For one reason or another, Benny survived and did quite well.  No sickness, no signs, no one he had contacted or touched had dropped dead.  Even more remarkable, his safe and sound emergence from the pandemic had given him a window into a world of  generalized hypochondria.  

Although this new perception was but one more added level of deviated logic to an already badly disordered brain, it ironically made sense.  Everyone, Benny thought, was afraid of something as fictitious as the clouds of fantasy pathogens that had misted his personal air at St. Bartleby’s.

“They’re coming”, said an old friend who had migrated from his own adolescent misery to adult fear and who got a wild, frantic look in his eyes when he began to talk of those who were undermining America from within with viral weapons, insidious, fracturing codes, and legions of underground terrorist warriors who would stop at nothing to see the overthrow of the world’s only moral power.  He would not drink fluoridated water because it had been infected by a neurological agent to dilute will and purpose and make it easier for a bloodless Russian takeover.  High-frequency radio waves were part of a network of brain-infestation network of anarchists who had infiltrated Apple and ATT.  

There were people as paralyzed as Benny had ever been about electronic surveillance, who insulated the walls of their offices with ion-reflective metal, who used only highly-encrypted communication devices; and who wore metallic fiber woven wool.  Everywhere you looked there was someone mortified by the impossible, whacked out of circulation by irrational worry.

Image result for images weird conspiracy theorists

“They’re coming”, said another old, but far more stable friend when he described the progressive juggernaut out to dismantle America’s very democratic, free market system.  “It’s all connected”, he said, getting white around the gills and wild-looking.  “The gender spectrum, taking down historical statues, building firewalls against God, abortion, a give-away, bankrupting economic policy”.  He twitched and looked behind him, fingered his spoon nervously, shakily slurped his coffee, perspired heavily and jiggled his leg.

Of course there were just as many emotionally untethered hysterics who believed that the Devil incarnate was in the White House, and that nothing less than exorcism would rid the country of this consummate, absolute evil.  They too trembled and sweated when they thought of the man and his Satanic doings.  Watching this group of maniac cohorts was like watching a St. Vitus’ dance – a spastic, frenzied, apoplectic spewing of hatred against a fictitious, hypochondriacal vision.

Image result for images st vitus dance

Hypochondria was like mumps, thought Benny.  Better to get it when you’re a kid and not have to worry about adult complications like elephantine testicles.  He had caught it when he was young enough to get over it quickly but to have the emotional antibodies in his system for later.  He now took conspiracy theories with great aplomb – these poor bastards would never recover but it’s a free country – and regarded the political hysteria with amusement.  A Yale classmate of his had spent the greater part of his adult life worried about everything – the plight of women, civil rights, the environment, the climate, and the planet – and ended up a dry old man.

Benny embraced’ his hypochondria, convinced himself beyond all reason that the world of 21st Century America was truly the Age of Armageddon.  Every hot day, every cop pull-over, every unwelcome advance, every devious, manipulative, exploitative, wickedness of the President was a sign that the end was nigh.  It was too bad that poor Bob had burned all his history books in rejection of their white, male, anti-historical, prejudiced, racist view of the world; because if he had read them, he would have seen that while we don’t live in the best of times, they are not the worst of times; and in fact such categorization itself is silly.  History does not play favorites.

Meanwhile Benny, safe and secure behind his boyhood inoculation and growing in amusement at the circus antics of the politically at-risk, sat back and enjoyed the ride.  What better way to spend his retirement than a front-row seat at the best three-ring circus since Barnum & Bailey’s big top.  America never has been a really serious place – not a bad one, mind you, just one not to be taken too seriously – and such reserve was another added advantage of Benny’s adolescent hypochondria. 

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