Author James Gorman Prescribes An Uproarious Rx for the Worried Sick

updated 03/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

"The symptoms of laryngitis," says James Gorman, 33, "are delighted smiles on the faces of all your family members." Gorman ought to know. Not only does he love to complain about his health, he's the author of First Aid for Hypochondriacs (Workman, $4.95)—a skittish look at the medical fears we all share. Now in its second printing, for a total of 87,000 copies, the book has undeniably hit a painful nerve. After graduating from Princeton with a B.A. in English literature (and a "minor in infirmary"), Gorman worked on newspapers in Maine and Connecticut. In 1974 he became a writer for The Sciences, the magazine published by the New York Academy of Sciences. From there he went on to write for Natural History and DISCOVER. Apparently his exposure to scientists and medical specialists only aggravated his sick sense of humor. Gorman and his wife, Kate, live in a sunny, two bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. It was there, from his bed of pain, that he generously shared his incurable anxieties with PEOPLE'S Cable Neuhaus.

What exactly is a hypochondriac?

A hypochondriac is a realist. It's the people who think that they are going to stay healthy who are kidding themselves. Hypochondriacs know that they are going to be sick and just wonder, "What is it that I've got today?" You know the old joke about the hypochondriac's tombstone? It says "I told you I was sick." We're always right in the end. I say you should think negative and be prepared for the worst.

Who are the "health chauvinists" you rail against?

They are people who say, "I've never been sick a day in my life." They think that it is a character weakness to get a cold. They are the sort of people who come to work when they're deathly ill and cough and sneeze all over you. If everybody would do what hypochondriacs do—stay home—there would be no flu epidemics. It's all the health chauvinists' fault.

What are the general rules of first aid for the hypochondriac?

Number one, if anything goes wrong, you should always panic. Some firstaid books tell you that panic is not necessary, but I think that's silly. It helps fight off harmful bacteria. The second principle is the domino theory: You get a sore throat, that may lead to a strep throat, you could get pneumonia. Before you know it you're in the intensive care unit. The third principle is that you're not supposed to see blood. It's supposed to stay inside the body. If it's outside splashing around, this is a tip-off that something is really wrong.

What are the warning signs of a heart attack?

Pain is a sign. You feel as though a doctor's golf bag has been dropped on your chest. Another good sign is fear. A lot of people think that pain is the most important thing, but the amount of fear you experience is just as important. If you've got small pain and big fear, that could be a heart attack.

How can you be sure?

Take the longest flight of stairs you can find and run up as fast as you can. If you get to the top, you're not having a heart attack. If you don't get to the top...sometimes it's a good idea to put a phone about halfway up so you can then call the ambulance.

What is the hidden danger in exercise?

Everyone knows that running a marathon protects you from dying of a heart attack. But what hypochondriacs remember is that you can just as easily die of a heart attack during the marathon. The question is: Should you jog and keep your heart healthy and at the same time wreck your knees, neck, back and ankles, or should you stay at home and protect your joints and let your heart and lungs go to pot? It is never clear. Hypochondriacs are always caught right in the middle. Usually what happens is that you jog a little bit, injure something and then stop and worry about your heart.

How can you tell if you're having an appendicitis attack?

You have a pain in your side—but you can't remember which side your appendix is supposed to be on. That's the main symptom of appendicitis. The worst thing is if the pain stops, because either nothing was seriously wrong with you—it was gas pains—or your appendix has burst. In which case, you're about to die. So you have to decide whether to go to the emergency room and say, "I had a pain, but it's gone, and I think I might be going to die." Doctors don't always take kindly to that sort of comment.

Do you find that personnel in emergency rooms lack a sense of humor?

Yes. I never met an emergency room person who had a sense of humor. Basically, a sense of insurance is what they have.

What causes cancer?

Everything is a cause of cancer. The sun, sadness, bacon, too many sweets, too few sweets, coffee, tea, too little sex, too much sex, the wrong kind of sex; peanut butter is bad, snuff, color television, X-rays, nuclear power, nuclear war and the nuclear family, and anything with initials such as PCB, PBB, DBCP, BVD, LSD and STP.

Can you illustrate your theory that shock can be caused by emotional upset?

Let's say that, in the midst of a heated argument with your girlfriend, you tell her, "It's important for me to share my feelings with you," and she replies, "What feelings? All you ever feel is sick." That can be very depressing and send you into shock. Or you walk into work and overhear your boss asking, "Who is that guy?" Another shock.

Can shock ever be precipitated by good things?

Sure. The girl of your dreams who bears a strong resemblance to Bo Derek suddenly invites you to her apartment for some Harveys Bristol Cream. That can be pretty shocking.

What are the latest frightening developments in the field of venereal disease?

Well, they've tried to give it new initials. They're calling it STD, sexually transmitted disease. The trouble is, the patients keep confusing it with motor oil. Doctors are getting tired of answering patients who ask, "So why do they call it the racer's edge?" Venereal disease is a real scary thing for a hypochondriac. We believe the old story that you can get VD from toilet seats. Door knobs, too—they all could be potential carriers. And recently someone found that a herpes virus, one of the scariest venereal diseases of them all, can survive for something like 72 hours outside the body. It just proves what hypochrondriacs have always known: You don't have to have sex to have VD.

Why is travel so worrisome to hypochondriacs?

Not only can you get exotic diseases that occur in exotic places, but there is always the problem of getting sick away from home. Rumor has it if you have a heart attack in Paris and you don't speak French with a good accent, many Parisian hospitals won't admit you. As one alternative mode of travel, hospitals might offer special tours. A good one would be a trip on something like the old medical ship HOPE.

Is food poisoning a fairly common fear among hypochondriacs?

Very common indeed. It's usually called fear of mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is one of the most dangerous substances in the world. You put it out in the sun, and it becomes an immediate killer. Ptomaine bacteria swarm all over it. You could die. I think that tuna fish sandwiches should only be eaten in cool, dimly lit places, preferably inside a refrigerator.

What sort of personal style should the hypochondriac try to project?

A combination of overstatement and understatement. When you have a paper cut, for instance, you want to have a large, impressive bandage. No one ever notices one of those little tiny Band-Aids. So take a lot of adhesive tape and a lot of gauze, and you get a very big bandage. Then people will ask you the questions that hypochondriacs like to hear: "What is it?" "What's wrong?" At that point, you can try understatement. Say, "Oh, nothing." And they think you are very brave. Another area where understatement is important is noises. If you go around moaning loudly and grossly, people can be really put off. Very soft sighs and whimpers will get a better reaction.

Do hypochondriacs gather in groups? Is there some kind of a national association for people of your persuasion?

I hope not. No hypochondriac wants to listen to another hypochondriac complain about his symptoms. You want to find somebody with a sympathetic ear who will listen to your problem.

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