Tuesday, June 27th, 2006
Laura Barcella is a writer currently living in San Francisco.
When I turned 19, my skin turned on me.
It started so simply-some dumb, cheap fake-silver ring I used to wear. I was finishing my tumultuous first year at a tiny, expensive hippie college in western Massachusetts. I still remember that May day in my dorm room when I noticed a small, itchy red patch on my ring finger. Little did I know that said patch would spread and mutate, ooze and bleed, eventually morphing from a mild irritant to one of my life’s most persistent problems.
When the patch spread to other fingers and the itching grew unbearable, I consulted a dermatologist. “Eczema,” he proclaimed immediately, almost proudly, eyes cast down at his Rx pad. He said the non-serious condition usually affected babies, and was often genetic. It was incurable, though treatable.
“Have you been under any particular stress recently?” he asked. I didn’t know how to answer. How could I explain to this very normal-looking man that I wasn’t any more stressed than usual-that I was, in fact, always worried and anxious, always half there, half in some undefined but terrifying future scenario?
I couldn’t. So instead I presented an acceptable version of the truth: “Um… I’ve had lots of final papers due lately. And I’m about to move home with my parents for the summer.” The doctor helpfully recommended that I take up knitting or crochet, some calming hobby that would keep my hands busy.
I did not take up knitting or crochet that summer. I went home to my parents in D.C., where I didn’t take up much beyond smoking pot in the backyard while Mom and Dad slept.
Over the next few years, my eczema worsened, and then worsened some more. My palms were in a perpetual state of turmoil-either ridiculously dry and peeling, covered in tiny blisters (which I couldn’t help but pop), or sheathed in scabs from where I had ripped the skin bloody. Sometimes I got angry pink blotches all over my body; their furious itching kept me up at night.
I was embarrassed to shake strangers’ hands, and when I got my change at the Stop N’ Shop checkout, I pulled my sweater sleeves down to cover my palms. Anything to avoid someone eyeing my hands curiously, or with horror-or even worse: touching them.
Still, the severity of my condition was mostly my fault. Colluding with the enemy, I was constantly tugging at my own flesh. If a stray piece of skin wouldn’t come loose-or couldn’t be removed cleanly enough for my liking-I would use my teeth. My horrified friend Elizabeth saw this happen countless times in our sophomore British Lit class: “You would sit there with your pink hair and black sweatpants, and bite at your hands. It was disgusting.”
I knew it was disgusting. My best friend Monica began knocking my right hand away from my left when she’d catch me, from the corner of her eye, stealthily picking away. “Babes!” she would bark before slapping at the offending hand. Later she would glare reproachfully, and warn me: “It will never get better if you don’t stop messing with it.”
Monica was right. And I hated my foul disorder as much as she hated watching me aggravate it. Yet as the years rolled on, it became clear that I was unable to stop messing with my itchy skin.
When I moved to New York after college, everyone I met seemed to have suggestions for ways to make it better. My bikini waxer recommended slathering my hands in honey before bed. My therapist gave me a tube of her thickest, most reliable hand cream. My parents sent homeopathic healing balms they’d bought online.
My boyfriend John was the most proactive about trying to heal what he so kindly dubbed my “leprosy.” He thought if we could get my hands sufficiently sanitized, the eczema would clear itself up. He cut my nails as short as I could stand them (the less bacteria I spread to myself via dirty nails, the better), then he scrubbed my hands raw under scalding water. The heat felt strangely satisfying on my inflamed skin, but it never helped the leprosy go away.
Neither did wearing gloves all day, another practice John encouraged to help prevent my self-mutilation. I would wear the things all day; then, in a state of fevered agitation, I would tear the gloves from my hands and go to town-picking, popping, ripping, and biting. Much to John’s chagrin, this usually occurred someplace public: a West Village restaurant table, or a party. I had no shame.
It all begs the question: “Why would someone keep doing that to herself?” Here’s the thing: my picking was a compulsion-a self-destructive
habit gone awry. And the eczema had become something bigger than a simple skin thing. Once just a mild, stress-fueled annoyance, my condition had gradually become a dumping ground for my most basic fears and neuroses. Like jagged scars across a wrist, or fine slash marks on a cutter’s arm, my hands became a physical manifestation of what was happening inside me. And what was happening wasn’t pretty.
A shy kid who grew into a self-loathing teenager and an introspective adult, I had struggled with depression for most of my life. As an adopted child, my biggest fear had always been abandonment, the loss of love, and I’d been plagued by feeling unworthy to receive love for as long as I could remember. Although I’d been talking it out with therapists since I was 15, those sorts of deeply-etched mega-issues don’t easily subside.
I was wearing my mental health on my hands. What had been a longstanding tendency to pick on myself (eternally focused on the negative, I believed every bad date, bad grade, or stroke of bad luck was my own damn fault) had become a physical drive to pick at myself. I couldn’t seem to leave it alone; I couldn’t let it heal.
Dermatologist after dermatologist prescribed the same smelly creams, gels and ointments. I had cortisone shots injected in my ass, and popped steroid pills when it got really bad. The pills caused my face to bloat like a balloon, and my already small eyes to retreat into my forehead. I tried acupuncture, which helped at first but then stopped working.
All these methods eased my symptoms somewhat, but the evil eczema-and my tireless drive to pick at it-would always return a few weeks later.
It’s been almost 10 years since that cheap ring sparked the skin disorder that wouldn’t die. I wish I could say this story had some neat, tidy ending, but it does not. I’ve learned to manage it better (sort of), but my hands are still my Neurotic Tic Number One: the place where I store my ugliest feelings and frustrations.
My next plan of attack? Hypnosis. I’ve heard it works miracles. I can’t say I’m all that hopeful; I won’t believe it until I see it.