How do I explain what it feels like to be in the middle of an eczema attack? I mean the kind where I’m itching so badly that I can’t do anything but scratch. My mind is focused on stopping the itching, going on the offensive to get it to go away. Or maybe it’s really a defensive move, since truthfully scratching is the surest sign that I’ve been beaten, despite my mind’s conviction that the opposite is the case.
For the past year, I’ve been struggling with a horrible flare up on my hands. It started first on the right, then appeared on the left, and now it’s crept down my right forearm and is spotting on my left forearm too. There’s a patch on my back that’s been around this whole time, and in late winter and springtime the rash showed up on my face and different parts of my legs. Thankfully those are pretty much gone now. But my hands. They are where I have to fight a battle on a daily basis. In the most terrible moments, I move frantically from one hand to the next. As soon as I quiet the itch in one place I become aware of the sensation in another, and another, then it jumps back to that first place. All over the backs of my hands, my fingers, in between my fingers and now even on my palms. The desire for relief is totally consuming, and everything stops but the clawing. I’m paralyzed. Does that sound horrific? That’s fine, it is.
When I say paralyzed, I mean that literally. In the middle of a conversation, on my way to the shower, chopping vegetables or combing my hair, there is no time or activity that is off limits. The scratching goes beyond my hands too, it affects my entire physiology. My breathing becomes shallow, I feel strange sensations deep inside other, seemingly random parts of my body like my leg or arm, far away from where I’m scratching. My stomach becomes embroiled in the episode too, rolling and tightening. I find myself squeezing my abdominal muscles. I don’t know whether that’s my body trying to help itself or if it makes things worse. Though anytime is an importune time for an attack, I’m most vulnerable at bedtime; I get caught in this silent struggle, this manic feeling behaviour, in darkness, silence and solitude, magnifying the psychological challenges of the episode.
I am so grateful that the worst of my rashes is confined to my hands, and even more so that these flare ups have become rare in my life. They’ve also helped me empathize with people who suffer from addiction; the complete tunnel I feel encased in during an attack must be what it’s like for them when they feel a yearning for a fix. I was listening to a podcast about the connection between prescription drugs and illegal drug addiction, and one interviewee, a heroin addict, described his inability to fight his body’s cry for the needle, despite his best attempts to become clean. Not long after that – possibly even the same day – I had one of the attacks I’ve described, and my understanding of the addict’s position clicked in a way it never had before. I don’t know if you can really get it unless you feel it in some form yourself – how your mind is near-powerless to think its way through the tsunami-like impulses from your body, coming in urgent, insistent waves. My experience with eczema has become another warning to stay away from dangerous substances; I can imagine how hard fighting to free myself from dependence on them would be, how awful it would feel to be trapped in my body’s impulses. It makes me want to comfort those who are striving.
The itching that I feel, it’s a form of pain. When those compulsions from deep inside finally cease, a wave of calm rolls through my body. I relax entirely, and usually am shocked by the degree and extent of the tension I was holding. My breathing evens out, it feels pleasant and even sweet. When my mind clears, it’s like a fog has lifted and a siren is silenced. Not only can I return my focus to whatever I was doing before the paralysis, I can entertain other thoughts as well. What luxury! Even after the cessation of less insistent sensations, I am surprised by how much I was distracted by, and consumed with, fighting the itch. It’s not like having a mosquito or sandfly bite, jellyfish sting, or even the chicken pox. I am hopeful that this flare up I’ve been in will heal completely soon, but the lesson I’ve learned this time around will stick with me forever. I can do more than tolerate addicts or agree that there should be social services to help them overcome their illnesses. I feel compassion for their struggle, as I know what it’s like to fight your own body over self-harming behaviour.