Review

Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria

by Jennifer Traig

Jennifer Traig was pretty sure she had cancer. Also, lupus,
tuberculosis and kidney failure. And herpes, rickets and Lyme
disease. Plus, she might have had a heart attack somewhere along
the way. As a hypochondriac, Traig is constantly convincing herself
that she has been stricken with all kinds of illnesses; the
symptoms are real, but the results are always negative. Or, almost
always. She does have obsessive compulsive disorder and irritable
bowel syndrome. She suffered from an actual eating disorder and,
she will tell you, has frizzy hair.

While hypochondriacs exist only as the butt of bad jokes for
most of us, Traig's latest memoir, WELL ENOUGH ALONE, explores the
disorder in a personal and compelling way. Traig is often the butt
of her own jokes, but this book makes it clear that hypochondria is
no laughing matter.

Traig explains that hypochondria doesn't generally manifest
until adulthood, yet she had signs of it as a child. In second
grade she was worried about brain aneurysms, not to mention
contaminated school lunches and injury from risky playground
equipment. Her family seemed to be full of hypochondriacs, some of
them genuinely sick, and her parents’ medical professions
also gave her fuel for the fire. She soon figured out that doctors
worked hard and fussed over the sick, who got to rest and be
pampered. Being sick, she reasoned, was the better deal. As she got
older, the worry turned into real hypochondria, and she often found
herself in the doctor’s office with lists of pains and
symptoms, rashes and spots.

Her teenage years were consumed with OCD and her eating
disorder, and this seemed to keep the hypochondria at bay. But it
resurfaced in college, and she began to self-medicate. She also
started working in medical offices that, instead of worsening her
hypochondria, actually soothed it; she found that having some
control in a medical environment, even if it was just organizing
patient files, helped her feel more in control over her symptoms.
Still, her college years (and they are many, as she earned a PhD in
literature) were ones of poor nutrition, alcohol and non-prescribed
prescription drugs as well as angst at literary theories like
deconstructionism. None of this sounds quite funny, but truly,
Traig has a way of making it so.

Because the market has been flooded with horrible childhood
memoirs, Traig's is refreshing. She doesn't lay blame (except with
her genetic pool), and her tone is good-natured and self-mocking.
She is a charming narrator, and her supporting cast --- her raucous
and kind family and strung-out friends --- are interesting as well.
From her unorthodox teaching methods as a grad student to her love
of 1970s drug company marketing practices, Traig expands her story
beyond her body yet is able to tie it all in to make a cohesive
whole. She explains hypochondria clearly but without dull medical
technical details, and is sensitive enough to make sure that the
readers are laughing with her and not at hypochondriacs in
general.

The book also includes some oddly hypnotic and beautifully
graphic Victorian portraits of patients with conditions like Lupus
Erythematosus, Molluscum Fibrosum and Rhinoscleroma. The appendix
is full of gems such as “handy phrases for the hypochondriac
traveler as translated somewhat unreliably on my computer,”
“diseases that would make nice names if they meant something
else” and “hypochondria haiku.”

WELL ENOUGH ALONE is funny and surprisingly sweet. A bit
unfocused at times, it is a good book overall and gets better as it
goes along.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 24, 2011

Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria
by Jennifer Traig

  • Publication Date: July 7, 2009
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Trade
  • ISBN-10: 1594483809
  • ISBN-13: 9781594483806