Textbook phobia

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We all have phobias, that’s normal—spiders, confined spaces, heights. The phobia that haunts me, that lingers in the back of my mind all the time, is the terror that some part of my body will be the big, glossy picture in a medical textbook. A lumpy growth on my arm, or face, or worse, that oozes goo.

I suppose it would be equally bad to be the textbook example of syphilis because if a doctor, who has seen loads of syphilis, wants a picture to remember it by, you’ve got something special.

I never want to be the person examined by multiple strangers in lab coats while I stand there shivering in one of those blue over-laundered gowns.

I imagine it would go like this: “Hey Bob, take a look. Have you ever seen anything like this?”
Bob slaps a glove on and gives it a poke. “In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like that Martha. Has Jim seen that thing? Maybe he could lop it off.”
“We thought of that,” Martha says, “but a scan shows tentacles are growing on the inside of her body and wrapping themselves around her liver and kidneys…”

The pictures in medical textbooks are always in colour and close up. First-year med students probably take the book home at Thanksgiving. After the pumpkin pie, they pass it around to gross out their family and see who can keep their turkey down. I don’t want to be part of that ritual.

Then, after midterms, those same medical-school overachievers print out pictures of the worst, scabbiest sores and diseases to make drinking-game cards. And my ailment is worth two drinks. That’s my nightmare.

I don’t know why it scares me so much. Maybe it has something to do with being abnormal, a sensation I’ve had all my life, and have worked hard to hide. Maybe a medical-textbook photo would expose me and confirm my greatest fears about myself, that I’m deficient in some way.

It’s not as if anyone would know who the model was for the lumpy, tentacled thing. I know the pictures aren’t accompanied by a headshot and short bio with phone number and email, but still. It terrifies me.

So when I felt some weird, scaly patch of skin on my back I thought, “What the hell is that!?”

I spun around in front of the mirror and twisted my neck until I got a glimpse of a brown spot. What if it’s a disease on the inside of my body that has broken through the skin? And what if it slowly spreads across my whole body? What if the medical community is stumped? In my most rational moments I prepared for a skin cancer diagnosis.

While I waited for my doctor to come into the exam room and poke and prod, I took a look at the graduating-class photo on his wall just to make sure he’s actually in there. He looked really young then. And I wondered if he played  drinking games.

He came in carrying my file and said, “You’re concerned about a mark on your skin. Lets take a look.”

A moment later he announced it’s ugly but harmless. “It’s just part of getting older,” he said.

It could be removed if it makes me really unhappy, he noted, but it’s not really worth it. “Who’s going to see it anyway? You don’t wear backless clothing, do you?”

Nope. Got me there.

I never did wear backless tops much, but now I feel like I’ve missed out on something. Like something has passed me by and I can’t have it back.
Instead of having my brown spot removed, it will remain part of my life, a reminder that I’m getting older.

It could be worse. My doctor could have taken a camera out of his desk drawer and asked if I was ready for my close-up.



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  1. Larke Turnbull

    Hi Laura,
    Your column on your phobia of being in a medical textbook reminded me of something I saw on the TV sitcom Superstore last night. If you’ve never seen it, check it out on Global’s website. The episode, the most recent, had me almost rolling on the floor laughing. I won’t say more, no spoiler alert, just take a look.

    • Laura

      I have never seen that show. I swear. How many lawyers do you think they have? I will take a look though. Thanks!

  2. Kate Reilly

    I’m glad that your results turned into funny, blog material, ensuring that your pending fame has nothing to do with serving the medical profession.
    And to provide you some company in the phobia confessional booth, mine involves the fear of having a sharp branch from a tree or bush, momentarily becoming invisible in my peripheral vision as I walk past it, until it suddenly pokes me in the eye!
    What would you call that?

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