For two years during the Ebola-obsessed 90s, Bo Guthrie woke up thinking that he had the disease and wouldn’t make it past dinner.
When I was in fifth grade my class took a trip the local museum of natural history. The two things I remember from the trip are that they let us smell skunk spray – which I only pretended to smell but still gagged and made a big deal about how horrible it was because that’s what everyone else was doing – and going there caused me to become a full blown hypochondriac.
It started at the moose. It was monstrous stuffed moose with giant antlers and one of the staff people was standing in front of it giving a lecture on something that probably had to do with nature and stuff. We were grouped in front of her sitting on the floor, alternating between checking out the moose and listening to whatever she was saying.
Midway through the presentation, a classmate of mine, a girl named Sara, threw up. The kids surrounding Sara panicked and ran at breakneck speed away from her and as the crowd cleared I saw my classmate projectile vomiting, Linda Blair-style. The image of Sara spewing forth like old faithful in front of a shocked museum staff member and a giant dead moose will forever be burned into my memory. It was hilarious. Unbeknownst to me, however, whatever virus had afflicted Sara had found its into my system.
That night my family and I went to a barbecue joint. In retrospect this was possibly the worst food choice given what was about to come. I started to feel funny on the way home and by bed time I had a full blown fever. Sweating and delusional, my mother laid me in bed. My room started shrinking, the upper right hand corner of my ceiling yelled at me, and I must have Linda Blaired ten times. The next morning I was terrified of disease. There was no gradual ascendance into hypochondria – I simply woke up and was one.
This was during the 90′s and at the time the Ebola virus was totally hot. It got written about in a book and put into a movie. There was an actual outbreak of it in the U.S. and my dad told me – his ten year old neurotic hypochondriac son – all about it. In short, it starts with a stomach ache, then you start vomiting and diarrhea-ing, then it just gets worse till you literally start bleeding out of your mucosal membranes (think eyes, nose, etc.) and the disease kills you within a few days. It’s incredibly rare and when there is an outbreak it usually occurs in Africa. I was convinced I had it. For the next year or two, I woke up every other day certain that I probably had Ebola and wouldn’t make it past dinner.
When I wasn’t certain that I had it, I thought that someone else probably did and would very likely pass it on to me. Whenever I saw someone, the first thing I would do was to ask them if they had a stomachache. I wouldn’t try to slide it naturally into conversation, either. It was, “Hi, do you have a stomachache?” And if the answer was yes I commenced freaking out.
I would get so anxious about Ebola that I would drive myself to obscenely melodramatic panic attacks. My throat would tighten, my heart would race, and I would start dry heaving. I distinctly remember having one such attack. I was in my room playing with my toys when it happened. I felt a twinge in my stomach and then I knew that this time it was for real. I had Ebola. Like a cat with a hairball lodged in its throat, I started dry heaving all over my room. I ran out of my room and down the stairs, pausing to dry heave about halfway down. I bolted through the living room and into the kitchen where my mother was talking on the telephone. I tried to tell her what was the matter, that I fucking had Ebola, but I was so busy dry heaving that I couldn’t get it out. My mother put her hand over the receiver, told me to be quiet and that I didn’t have Ebola, and then went back to her conversation.
She was right. I got over the whole hypochondriac thing, and not long thereafter I went to high school.