This story was originally published on Kathleen Dennehy’s blog, This Old Mom, and graciously shared with ENDPAIN.
While losing my already threadbare patience over Grace’s panicked belief that she would have to have her entire hand amputated due to a hangnail, I can’t help wonder if she somehow caught hypochondria from me.
Around age six, I became convinced something was terribly wrong with me, despite what doctors and everyone else said. Undeterred, armed with stacks of Ladies Home Journal, People and Redbook, it was up to me to find out just what tragic and rare childhood disease my body harbored.
It just so happens I was also a self-loathing-ridden nervous wreck due to growing up in a house of angry alcoholics and anxious enablers, but I’m sure that had nothing to do with constantly believing I had polio.
To be fair, I was born with minor scoliosis and covered in eczema but other than that, I’m fine. (Which is challenging for a hypochondriac to admit.)
However, I’m not just your run of the mill hypochondriac. Sure, there are the looping worries about a lump or ache and chronic late night consultations with Dr. Google, like any self-respecting hypochondriac, but my body hosts a rare strain of masochistic hypochondria in that I know I’m dying but won’t see a doctor. Because anyone who’s ever been traumatized by a “disease-of-the-week TV movie” knows doctors miss stuff all the time.
Now, suddenly with a brand-new daughter, my avian-flu-infested-chickens have all come home to roost. Beatrice is 16 and suffers from dysmenorrhea, or as Dr. Google summarizes- severely painful menstrual cramps.
When Beatrice showed me her birth control implant, crowing about having only one or two periods a year, the herbal essence side of me winced. What havoc could her tampered-with hormones be wreaking on her body, mind and future? I could go on (and on) about how the foster system cheaply slaps quick fixes on the medical, dental, psychiatric, and reproductive needs of at-risk children (Medi-Cal, do NOT further incur my wrath by repeatedly refusing Beatrice a long delayed root canal!) but I digress.
Weeks later Beatrice turned into an unbridled devil. Figuring our ‘foster kid honeymoon phase’ was over, we braced ourselves, until Beatrice revealed she’d been flattened by her first period in over a year. She was irritable and demolished by cramps. At first I was flooded with relief this was why Beatrice had morphed into a wolverine with blue hair, then I suddenly doubled over with cramps.
This Old Mom hasn’t experienced menses in four happy years. No more riding the cotton pony, no more bleeding through three layers of clothing, no more evil thoughts hurled at others merely for existing where I prefer them not to. Actually that’s a lie… I’m in menopause, which has been a four year sweat-streaked (if bloodless) reign of terror.
THE STRANGEST ASPECT OF OUR MOTHER-DAUGHTER BONDING ARE THE SIMILARITIES THAT NEITHER OF US CAN EASILY EXPLAIN.
Her real and my sympathetic cramps lasted two tetchy, husband-hiding weeks. While my cramps aren’t hypochondria, just female hormones sharing real estate-every time I cramp up, I know she is suffering and when she cramps, she knows she is not cramping alone.
The strangest aspect of our mother-daughter bonding are the similarities that neither of us can easily explain.
Worried about her cramps and bleeding, we called Planned Parenthood. A Hispanic Nurse Practitioner answered the helpline. Suddenly, Beatrice was speaking with a decidedly Latina accent. Suddenly I was flooded with long buried memories.
At 16, I went to Spain on a high school Spanish Class trip, with our Spanish teachers Sister Conchetta and Sister Avelina. Our group shared a bus with Hispanic Catholic girls from the Bronx. After hours sharing a hot dusty bus, and visiting every Spanish Catholic church, staring at shriveled saint body parts enshrined in gold, diamonds and rubies, I began bonding with the girls from the Bronx.
By the end of the trip, I had transformed from a freckled, red haired ringer for Dorothy Hamill into a freckled, red haired ringer for Dorothy Hamill who spoke like Rosie Perez in She’s Gotta Have It. My Irish Catholic trip mates Terry and Caroline weren’t nearly as baffled as my Spanish nuns who quizzically side eyed me as I noisily chattered with the Latinas in the back row of the bus.
Seemingly unable to control my voice or contain my identity, I was embarrassed by the porousness of my personality, but I sure was popular. While ashamed that my young grasping identity was so permeable, I secretly loved stepping outside myself and becoming someone else for a change.
Seeing a similar shape-shifting quality in Beatrice has been as fascinating and alarming as Grace’s hypochondria. Beatrice readily admits to this quirk in her personality. A quick late night consultation with Dr. Google proved fruitful.
“According to Kohut’s theories… individuals need a sense of validation and belonging to establish their concepts of self. When parents mirror their infants, they help the child develop a greater sense of self-awareness as they see their emotions within their parent’s faces. Additionally, infants learn and experience new emotions, facial expressions, and gestures by mirroring their parents. Mirroring may help infants promote social communication later in life. Infants also learn to feel secure and valid in their own emotions through mirroring, as the parent’s imitation of their emotions may help the child recognize their own thoughts and feelings.
Mirroring plays a critical role in the development of an infant’s notion of self. The importance of mirroring suggests that infants primarily gather their social skills from their parents, and thus a household that lacks mirroring may inhibit the child’s social development. Without mirroring, it may be difficult for the child to relate their emotions to socially learned expressions and thus have a difficult experience in expressing their own emotions.
Mirroring helps facilitate empathy, as individuals more readily experience other people’s emotions through mimicking posture and gestures. This empathy may help individuals create lasting relationships and thus excel in social situations. The action of mirroring allows individuals to believe they are more similar to another person, and perceived similarity can be the basis for creating a relationship.”
Theorists believe people who mirror unconsciously, do so from a less than fully developed sense of identity or an underdeveloped ego—OR they act unconsciously like the other person in order to win that person over by feeding their behavior back to them.
AS THE MOTHER OF BOTH GIRLS, YET NEITHER GIRL’S BIOLOGICAL MOM, IT’S FASCINATING WATCHING THEM (AT FOUR AND A HALF AND 16) BUILD THEIR IDENTITIES THROUGH TRIAL AND ERROR AND TEST DRIVING OTHER PEOPLE’S PERSONALITIES OR ILLNESSES.
What does mirroring have to do with hypochondria? As the mother of both girls, yet neither girls’ biological mom, it’s fascinating watching them (at four-and-a-half and 16) build their identities through trial and error and test driving other people’s personalities or illnesses.
Based on my own childhood adventures in hypochondria and mirroring others, I wonder if I demonstrated frailty hoping for a gentler mirrored response. But growing up in the 1970s, when “parenting” wasn’t even a word, our weaknesses and imaginings were mercilessly mocked by our parents, our siblings and friends, who were in turn teased and picked on by their parents. The worst part of being made fun of for starring in my own General Hospital was that the more they teased me, the more I doubled down on my plagues, retreating inside myself, furiously wounded and riddled with righteous indignation that no one believed me.
No doctor-philosopher, I can only wonder if mirroring another person’s identity is hypochondria-adjacent. Mirroring a person not only makes them more receptive to you, it also gives you a respite from just being you. And with mirroring, you get more a lot more bang for your buck than fake sympathy for your imaginary illness.
BE NICE TO YOUR KIDS AS THEY FUMBLE TO FIND THEMSELVES.
When we patiently acknowledge Grace’s pains we give her the empathy to help her move past them. Not teasing Beatrice for suddenly becoming Hispanic will hopefully make her less self-conscious about her need to belong wherever she finds herself.
Because it’s not the mimicking or the hypochondria that is ‘bad’, what’s bad is how the child is made to feel for needing to mirror or fake illness.
Be nice to your kids as they fumble to find themselves.
The personality you save may end up being your own.