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‘Recovered hypochondriac’ Marc Maron offers tips on how to manage your fears during a pandemic

Marc Maron.
Comedian, actor, podcaster and “recovering hypochondriac” Marc Maron channels our mothers with advice for avoiding panic in a pandemic: Listen to health officials, get a good night’s rest and “see how things are in the morning.”
(Photo by Lawrence K. Ho; illustration by Ross May / Los Angeles Times)

Marc Maron has a potty mouth, yes, and he’s certainly irreverent (“I’m not a God guy”), but the prolific comedian, actor and “WTF” podcaster who interviewed President Obama in his Highland Park garage is also a 20-year sober “recovering hypochondriac” with solid advice for getting through a pandemic.

“I have learned over time, if you don’t feel well, you should just wait,” Maron said Monday as he paced in his kitchen during a phone interview. “If you’re not coughing up blood or have a horrible fever or some other physically compromised condition, just wait a couple days and see what happens.”

Maron, whose new “End Times Fun” comedy special is streaming on Netflix, has pretty good cred as a hypochondriac, which he defines as “someone who decides they’re sick and commits to it, with limited or no evidence. It’s like, ‘I got dizzy, so I must have MS.’”

There are some provisos, however. “In a time of plague, if you cough and think you have it, that’s not hypochondria, that’s fear, and there are plenty of reasons to be afraid.”

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Maron’s explicit riff about how he was “cured” of hypochondria in his 20s starts with a personal explanation: “My father was a doctor, which means I was a hypochondriac. How else are you going to get their attention?”

The cure? After Maron made multiple visits to a urologist friend of his father’s, insisting he had prostate cancer (as a sophomore in college) and then herpes (though he’d never had sex), the doctor looked up from Maron’s penis and said, “There’s nothing here, Marc. Do you like coming here?”

Maron said he had a clarifying moment — with the urologist’s help — “of realizing it’s ridiculous.”

It’s a whole belief thing, Maron said. “People can believe things they know are probably not true, because it makes them feel better. ... There’s some kind of frightened-child element to it, and the tools you need to fix it are some kind of positive and rational self-parenting. Somebody in your mind has to say, ‘You’re probably OK. If it gets worse, we’ll go to the doctor, but right now, let’s relax, have some tea and a good night’s rest.’”

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It’s surprisingly easy to learn the best techniques that help you get the most out of the simple act of breathing.

So did he turn to hypochondria to get his busy father’s attention?

“Absolutely,” Maron said. “It’s always about attention and reassurance. You can work yourself into a frenzy of panic and terror.... I have gone to the doctor because my hands were tingling, dizziness, inability to breathe, things I saw on my skin, muscular problems, gas that wouldn’t stop. ... and I can tell you, a lot of times whatever you’re experiencing is going to pass.”

The trick is finding the reassurance you need to know that you’re OK, he said, “because if you try hard enough, you can manifest the symptoms of most things by just obsessing.”

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But in times like these, when a deadly virus could be lurking on a grocery shelf, Maron said it’s harder to find that calm.

“I get hung on this idea sometimes, how to weigh reassurance, because there is a point where you’re not going to be OK. That moment happens for everybody. So when people go, ‘You’re going to be all right,’ I always think in the other side of my head, ‘That’s going to run out.’”

Marc Maron
Marc Maron.
(Adam Rose/Netflix)

So how to deal with your legitimate fear during a pandemic?

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Maron said he goes for runs and keeps busy holed up at home, where he records his “WTF” podcasts twice a week. Podcasts have been deemed essential services, he said, but they’ve become more complicated during the lockdown.

Maron said he’s never done a phone interview in his 1,200 podcasts, because “talking in person is better.”

“There’s a quality to a face-to-face conversation that cannot be captured in any mediated fashion,” he added.

But after three uncomfortable face-to-face social-distancing interviews in his studio garage (“We were both afraid; it was kind of intense”), he did his first platform interview last week using Squadcast so he could see his guests and have quality audio as they talked.

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Here is his coping advice for the rest of us:

Listen to health professionals
“Pick a source of information coming from reasonable scientific people, which means you can’t really listen to a particular bunch of political leaders. There’s no leadership from the government; it’s constant chaos. You have to figure out the most scientific, rational way to handle this.

“Don’t become one of those belligerent, conspiracy-hoarding group of citizens saying, ‘You can’t tell us what to do.’ Even if we are overreacting, this is one of those times you err on the side of caution. Don’t get all ... childish because you want to go to Fridays for your happy hour.”

Stretch out and say “om”: Here are some yoga routines and classes to try at home. Plus: Why you should really be doing yoga right now.
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Take a breath
“If you have a 104 fever and can’t breathe, go to the hospital. But if you think you’ve got it because you have a little cough in the morning? You just have to wait it out a little bit.

“If you’re going to worry, worry about overtaxing this healthcare system. Preventative medicine is the best. Get your physical every year, eat properly and maintain a certain amount of fitness. Most people don’t even get their ... annual checkups, but now they have a cough and they need to see a doctor? People sit around and take turmeric and vitamin C, but they won’t go see a doctor once a year for a physical? What are they afraid of?”

Learn the Serenity Prayer
“There’s a lot of immaturity and fear because everybody is trying to have some control over something they don’t have any control over. I’m not a God guy, but the Serenity Prayer is a powerful idea — ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference’ — because what do you really have control over?”

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