Hysteria and hilarity mix well in hypochondria memoir

“You should have that checked out.”

How often have you, a self-diagnosed hypochondriac, heard this suggestion from your relatives, a group of self-professed worrywarts themselves? Worrying, especially about the potential failings of the human body, seems as Jewish as matzah ball soup.

But are you really a hypochondriac? Your co-worker who overheard a conversation you had with your mother about contracting hepatitis B from the water cooler thinks you are. Jennifer Traig probably thinks you’re not.

In her excellent, laugh-out-loud memoir “Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria,” Traig sets us straight: There’s a difference between worrying about being sick, and obsessing over it.

A hypochondriac turns a minor symptom into a life-threatening illness. For Traig it works like this: A numbness in her arm sent her crying “heart attack” to the college clinic. A sugar rush after too many candy bars was a sure sign of pancreatitis. A bump on her chest she discovered right before her bat mitzvah was, no doubt, breast cancer (it was just a budding breast).

It isn’t just the relentless self-diagnosis and doctor visits that put Traig in a different league than the rest of us uneasy Jews. It’s also her irrational preoccupation with studying diseases most of us have never heard of, such as Guinea fire worm, which, by the way, eats your flesh from the inside out.

Traig does have legitimate reasons to fret about her health. She has what she calls “nuisance diseases.” Hypochondria is one of them. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (the subject of her book “Devil in the Details”), anorexia, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema and very large breasts are some others. And then there are all the other illnesses that she doesn’t have but cause her distress, such as parasites, Parkinson’s and pibloktoq, a psychological condition afflicting Eskimos.

Traig considers her body an uncomfortable place — and it’s hard to refute the thought. Who wants to live in a place seemingly caked with eczema on the outside and verging on a fatal aneurism on the inside?

The book’s entertaining personal narrative is adequately supported by a brief history of hypochondria. Traig traces the attempts at curing the condition — from enemas, bloodletting, chocolate, prayer, and the good ol’ “I’ll-give-you-something-to-cry-about” threat to what is currently working for her: Prozac and cable TV. She discusses at length how hypochondria made itself at home in the Jewish community.

“Interestingly, the Talmud never mentions hypochondria. It’s like the old saw about Chinese food just being food in China. In Judaism, hypochondria is just being practical,” writes Traig.

She points out at that the Internet has awakened the dozing hypochondriac in many of us. (When I looked up “hypochondria” on WebMD, I became distracted by a story link about salmonella. I felt queasy. Was it a bad tomato on my sandwich?) There’s even a name for the condition: cyberchondriac.

Traig writes, “To qualify as a cyberchondriac, you have to visit a health site six times a month, a number I can hit easily during the commercial break of ‘Trauma: Life in the E.R.'”

Hypochondriacs, she explains, are leeches on an already burdened medical system. They cost health care providers billions of dollars each year.

“Most doctors would rather see a patient with weeping genitals than a hypochondriac, and with good reason. Hypochondriacs are difficult, doubting, backseat doctors who continually second-guess their physicians,” she argues. “They are the patients who are angry when the path report comes back benign.”

Too often, Traig strays from the core theme of “Well Enough Alone” in order to tell the nonmedical story of coming into her own in her 20s and 30s in the Bay Area (she recently moved away).

Still, it was a time of personal upheaval. She struggled with some very real ailments — such as the aforementioned large breasts, which she eventually had reduced — and she learned to cope with her OCD, a disease often linked with hypochondria.

But it hardly matters when Traig veers off subject because she has such a sharp wit. (She calls her breasts the “microbe farm” and says she “would not have been surprised if [on the underside] they hosted a colony of truffles.”)

Surely not all hypochondriacs are as funny and upbeat as Traig. But after reading “Well Enough Alone,” I felt sympathy for people who suffer from the condition.

The memoir is also a reality check: Occasionally worrying about, say, a mysterious patch of dry skin doesn’t make you or me a hypochondriac — though it might make us good Jews.

“Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria” by Jennifer Traig (272 pages, Riverhead, $23.95)