A dose of aversion therapy

Can media exposure to trivia about the thoughts and habits of the rich and famous bring on an attack of celebrity aversion syndrome (CAS), or is it just all in the mind?

SBHD: Can media exposure to trivia about the thoughts and habits of the rich and famous bring on an attack of celebrity aversion syndrome (CAS), or is it just all in the mind?

The Norwegians are a fine and civilised people, so it is not surprising that theirs should be the first country to open a hospital for hypochondriacs.

The clinic, in Bergen, will be accessible to all, provided they are in excellent physical condition. There will, therefore, be no need for conventional bed-lined wards, saline drips, theatre trolleys and all the rest of the paraphernalia one normally associates with a hospital.

I imagine that patients will come together in congenial surroundings and exchange details of phantom symptoms and ersatz illnesses. As a form of aversion therapy it might just work. For the last thing a hypochondriac wants to hear are stories of other people’s bogus ailments.

“They may only imagine they are ill, but they really do suffer,” says Dr Ingvard Wilhelmsen, the brain behind the project. “When one doctor cannot find anything wrong with them they go to another doctor, usually assuming the worst possible ailment. When they have a headache they are convinced they have a brain tumour.”

A GP and a psychiatrist, Wilhelmsen plans to help hypo-chondriacs to understand the psychological roots of their problems.

It is a high-risk strategy. To supplant an imagined illness with an awareness of a genuine psychological condition could invite still greater anxiety.

We must assume Wilhelmsen knows what he’s doing, and, in any case, there is reason to assume that his patients will be few.

The Norwegians have demonstrated not once, but twice, that they are the most sane and well-adjusted people in western Europe. In a referendum in 1972, they rejected membership of what was then the Common Market. And, just a few weeks ago, and 22 years on, they demonstrated that they have lost none of their mental stability by turning down membership of what is now the European Union.

Kristen Nygaard, the 68-year-old professor who led the triumphant No campaign, pointed out that in 1972, Euro-enthusiasts forecast that Norway’s economy would collapse if it stayed out. In fact, thanks to fish and oil, Norway today has one of the strongest economies in Europe. It has the second highest per capita GNP, a successful social security system and low unemployment, debt and inflation.

We who have to endure the meddlesome attentions of Brussels and are losing our sovereignty and citizenship can only envy the independent and free-spirited Norwegians.

And some of us, including myself, would welcome a spell in Wilhelmsen’s clinic. I don’t know if irrational fear and loathing are a form of hypochondria, but I find I am increasingly afflicted by distressing symptoms, triggered off almost at random.

Only last week, for example, I picked up a copy of the Daily Mail and found its entire centre spread devoted to the issue: “Why with every year that Gloria Hunniford gains, do her skirts lose an inch?” How can I explain the teeth-grinding rage that wells within me whenever a television personality invades my consciousness? Is the blood-boiling temperature genuine? Do my temples really throb like a steam turbine? Is my struggle for breath and loss of speech purely psychosomatic? And are my homicidal fantasies as disturbing as they seem? Wilhelmsen would know.

Two days later it happened again. Julia Carling, wife of the England rugby captain and now a presenter on the Big Breakfast, told the Mail: “My bottom half will change dramatically. One day my bottom looks half okay and the next it’s `Oh my God, it’s a long jumper day today!'”

I am told that chewing a carpet can help overcome the worse effects of celebrity aversion syndrome (CAS). But is it a real illness or just hypochondria? It’s all very well to say that one should avoid reading silly articles in newspapers, just as we are often advised that we have only ourselves to blame for watching rubbish on television. There’s always the off switch. But these hysteria-inducing assaults on the senses spring at us from the screen or off the page. Once they strike, they leave a lingering, often disturbing impression.

Try though I might, I could not erase from my mind the images conjured up by the thought of Gloria Hunniford exposing, year-by-year, an increasing expanse of ageing thigh, until, inevitably, she exposes its wrinkled entirety. Nor could I expunge from my imaginings the curious phenomenon of Mrs Carling’s protean buttocks – one day more or less acceptable, the next a cause of heaven- ly imprecation and woollen encasement.

There are more important things to think about, such as the Church of England. And yet, here again, the red mist descends. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s criticism of the National Lottery produced in me a fit so severe that I came close to booking a flight to Oslo.

The possibility of immense personal gain has become a frenzied preoccupation, he said. “It also gives a special boost to covetousness and escapism.”

But has not escapism been the stock in trade of the Church for centuries? Was it not the prospect of eternal life in Paradise that persuaded the toiling, downtrodden masses to meekly accept their lot and endure hell on Earth?

There is nothing wrong with escapism. Without relief from reality life would be unendurable. If I could not occasionally dwell in an imaginary world where there was no Gloria Hunniford, Noel Edmonds, John Major, Tony Blair or European Union I would feel quite unwell.

The 14 million-to-one pros-pect of becoming a multimillionaire overnight and running away with Teresa Gorman to a tropical paradise beyond the reach of Whitehall or Brussels is what keeps me going.

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