“With Edna, illness is a hobby.”Murder She Wrote, “Harbinger of Death”
This is a trope that is likely familiar to most readers and TV viewers. It is one where anyone’s symptoms of illness or disability are rejected as hypochondriasis or a general attitude of “chronic complaining.” This trope constructs the disabled person as someone who constantly fakes an illness in order to get attention from others. Frequently, this person is described as sabotaging themselves and sympathy-seeking.
For those who haven’t encountered the term hypochondriasis, it is a psychological condition where someone has a persistent belief that they have a medical illness but whom doctors are unable to see a physical cause. Yet, hypochondriasis has become a convenient label for doctors (and others) to dismiss medical concerns by patients with disabilities. Doctors are especially inclined toward suggesting that women are hypochondriacs, and many would argue that the term has become one that replaces the use of the term “hysteria” for women as a means of dismissing medical concerns and placing the blame for a condition on a woman’s psychological state instead of believing her experiential narrative. For those who are unaware, “hysteria” was originally an ancient Greek word meaning “wandering uterus” and was put in place as a suggestion that women experience emotional outbursts. It is often connected to things like volatile emotions and overdramatic or attention-seeking behaviour. It is a construction of patriarchy and a way of dismissing women and their experiences, trying to suggest that women are more prone to emotional outbursts and lack of logic. Both hypochondriasis and hysteria have been used historically to dismiss women’s perspectives on health, suggesting that their experiences are only attention-seeking behaviour and that they have no real base.
The diagnosis of “hypochondriac” has often been used toward people who have “invisible disabilities” (i.e., disabilities that cannot be readily seen through a cursory glance), and especially for disabilities which have not been labeled. Up until recently, for example, chronic fatigue (encephalomyelitis) and fibromyalgia have been largely dismissed as the hypochondriasis of patients. Hypochondriasis operates as a means of discounting people’s experiences of their bodies, placing blame on the person experiencing disability for their symptoms instead of examining physiological evidence, or taking the person’s word that they are suffering or in pain.
In much of our popular culture, the Chronic Complainer or Hypochondriac trope serves as a fascinating backstory for a character, and this has been a popular feature of medical mystery shows and medical dramas. However, it also appears in other genres to portray a character as complex or problematic (and often as a burden for other characters). The example I began this discussion with is from Murder She Wrote, an older, but classic television mystery series, and it illustrates the way that narratives use hypochondriasis as a way of giving characters a burden that they need to attend to, which also structures the person who is helping the “hypochondriac” as a hero for having compassion.
Following that trend of hypochondriac characters as burdens who highlight the heroism of others is Reginald Barclay from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Barclay constantly believes he is experiencing medical conditions, and therefore is universally disliked and mocked by his colleagues (who see him as a burden and use language like “what is it now, Barclay” to him). Ironically, generally his concerns are founded on truth, and it takes the crew of the Enterprise most of an episode to finally believe him. The characters who show compassion to him are constructed as heroically sympathetic, breaking with others who view him as a frustrating problem.
These cultural images, like most tropes of disability, serve to reinforce the dismissal of medical conditions. Cultural images shape our initial perceptions of a situation because they become the background that we draw on when shaping first impressions. In the case of the chronic complainer and hypochondriac, this shapes the perception that people with invisible disabilities or undiagnosed disabilities are only presenting themselves as disabled because they are seeking attention or are addicted to sympathy. Of course, this is obviously not the case, and most people who experience invisible disabilities are dismissed for their experiences and are treated as though they are problems and frustrations. Not only do they not experience sympathy, which this trope generally suggests is their objective, they frequently face social rejection because they are perceived to be a burden.
Derek Newman-Stille is the eight-time Prix Aurora Award winning creator of Speculating Canada. They are completing their PhD at Trent University, researching representations of disability in Canadian speculative fiction. Derek is the editor of the upcoming anthologies: Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From the Margins and We Shall Be Monsters: Frankenstein Two Centuries On. Derek has published in fora like Quill & Quire, The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Misfit Children: An Inquiry into Childhood Belongings, The Playground of Lost Toys, and Accessing the Future.
Another issue about diagnosing people as hypochondriacs is that it indicates that the medical personnel who have been contact by the individual may be either uninformed or weren’t thorough in their evaluation. For friends and family, if you can’t find a diagnosis, and therefore a cure, it’s easier to believe that your loved one is really okay. But in my experience as a mental health professional, people rarely pretend to feel pain or have a disease and, if they do, it is because they have experienced some sort of trauma and this is the only way they can express or deal with it.