Medical Meltdown: A Memoir

By Lana Gersten

Published August 20, 2008, issue of August 29, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

At the age of 12, Jennifer Traig was convinced she was dying of breast cancer. Certain that she was suffering from her first heart attack, at age 18, Traig had diagnosed herself with countless diseases, including meningitis, lupus and multiple sclerosis, before she had even graduated from college. In her brazen memoir, “Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria” (Riverhead Books), Traig recounts the feigned — and sometimes real — illnesses that have infected her life.

FEELING FINE: Jennifer Traig discusses her battle with hypochondria in her new book.
FEELING FINE: Jennifer Traig discusses her battle with hypochondria in her new book.

“Cancer, genetic defects, rare disorders — hypochondria makes every condition contagious,” Traig quipped. “For me, transmission usually occurs through the television. They mention it on the news, and within a few hours I’m pretty sure I have it.”

Though she never actually suffered from those illnesses, she did endure real conditions, like obsessive compulsive disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, shaky hands and, worst of all, bad hair. Weaving together her maladies with a historical and cultural perspective of hypochondria, Traig’s memoir is a hilarious and painfully self-aware account of her trying times as a hypochondriac. In an interview with the Forward’s Lana Gersten, Traig shared the details of her condition. l Lana Gersten: Is there something inherently Jewish about being a hypochondriac?

Jennifer Traig: Oh, absolutely. There’s absolutely no shame in being sick; there’s some honor in it, so why wouldn’t we think we’re sick all the time?

L.G.: What about the neuroses that go along with it?

J.T.: Yeah, we kind of corner the market on that. You can make yourself safe and you can make yourself financially secure, but health, you know, God decides that one, and that can be scary.

L.G.: In this book, you write about the love you had of jobs in medical clinics. Do you think you’ve struck the perfect professional balance now — that is, writing about your own hypochondria?

J.T.: Yeah, the working title of this book was “Wait, Wait, There Are a Whole Bunch of Things Wrong With Me,” and I do find pathologies endlessly fascinating. I think I’ve kind of run my own into the ground, so now I’m going to have to write about other people’s, but I’m still completely fascinated.

L.G.: Do you think that comes at all from the fact that your parents are both in the medical profession?

J.T.: Oh yeah, definitely. If they’d been accountants, I don’t think I’d have anything to work with. I’m still calling my dad every other day with some issue. For some reason, he pretty much never says it’s all in your head. Sometimes [he does], but usually he’ll make a suggestion that almost always works. I’m sure it’s a placebo, but it does almost always work.

L.G.: Has your hypochondria affected any of your personal relationships?

J.T.: I noticed that when I’m unhappy in a relationship, I get sicker. So instead of saying “You’re not treating me well,” I say “I’m pretty sure I have lupus.”

L.G.: You’re drawn to medical shows, but you write that illnesses can be contracted through the TV. Wouldn’t that exacerbate the situation?

J.T.: It does; it’s this car wreck thing. The other night I watched something on the morbidly obese, and that was just kind of fun ’cause I’m pretty sure I won’t get that, but anything that I could develop I try to avoid.

L.G.: After you were diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, you were treated with Prozac, which miraculously helped to cure your hypochondria.

J.T.: I love Prozac. I should’ve been on it since it came out; it treats everything I have. I don’t know why I ever resisted it. I guess I was afraid of the side effects. As soon as I started taking it, everything was fine. The IBS became so much better, the residual OCD disappeared and the health worries really went away. I love it; I never want to go off it, because it’s the most wonderful invention ever.

L.G.: You’ve talked in the past about how you’re afraid to raise children, because you’d have a thermometer in their mouths every 20 minutes. What are some of your other fears?

J.T.: The kid thing is the main one. Given the genetic grab bag that my husband and I offer, that’s kind of a legitimate fear. It’s almost guaranteed the child will have crippling allergies and bad eyesight. I don’t worry about earthquakes or any other normal things.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.