Nineteen

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When I was younger cats seemed so boring. Maybe you could play with them when they were kittens but as they got older they just laid around. That plus their reputation for being finicky and headstrong made them seem far less desirable than dogs. Then the summer before my senior year in college, one scary DC night, my roommate got mugged on her way home. We had tossed around the idea of fostering an animal before, but that night, between hugs and tears, we decided it was definitely happening. It was 3am but we looked for an organisation, filled out their form, and our first cat came a few days later.

He was black and very needy, completely turning my idea of what cats were like on its head. He always wanted to hang around whichever one of us was home – and I worked from home a lot so that was usually me – and was always under foot. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember the name of our second foster, Jelly Belly. She was another black cat, but fat and with the opposite temperament: incredibly skittish, running from us when we entered the room, hiding underneath furniture and on top of the fridge. I wondered what trauma might have made her so wary of people. Although I wouldn’t have wanted to live with either Jelly Belly or our first cat for the long term, after that summer I warmed up to the animals in general.

Then came Feliz, my aunt and uncle’s cat, who I lived with when I came home after college. She was sweet, much older and well used to being around people, so somewhere in the middle of the two from DC. I liked her relaxed energy and independence, and the fact that she was indoor/outdoor so we didn’t have to bother with litter. I started to wonder, Hey! Maybe cats are better than dogs! I liked that they could be great companions and also low maintenance.

So when I was moving for grad school and my new roommate asked if he could adopt kittens for our place, I agreed. Remus and Romulus were the cutest grey lion cubs I had ever seen, but they made my life a sneezing, itchy-eyed, swollen-face, sleepless-night mess. After that semester I moved out, my skin slowly cleared, and I resolved to avoid cats for the rest of my lifetime.

Fate had other plans however, and I’m living with a new family cat, Nineteen. We got him when he was a kitten, and he hasn’t caused me nearly as much trouble as Remus and Romulus – probably some combination of the fact that he’s indoor/outdoor and we share a much larger space. We’re almost never in the same room, and he spends a lot of time outside. Today though he came looking to snuggle, right as I was getting ready to write a new post, and I couldn’t resist petting him and letting him lie next to me. I was ok at first. I sighed contentedly and imagined years hence, in my own home, with my own cat. We’d chill sometimes and do our own thing other times, and it would be great. But then my throat started to itch, my nose felt a bit funny, and the spots on my hands and arms with eczema cried for attention. My dream went out the window, and needless to say, I’ve finished writing this in another room. It’s too bad, turns out I’m a cat person after all.

On Feeling Sorry

Remember the piece I wrote about having eczema? How sometimes it’s debilitating? The very next day my sister sent me an article about a woman who is allergic to water. Even her own tears. As you might imagine, the condition dictates every aspect of her life, from once a week showers to being stuck inside when it rains or snows.  I asked my sister whether she’d read my post, because this woman’s illness is certainly far worse than mine (she hadn’t). Then, a few days later, I read a piece in the New Yorker about a woman who is allergic to light. There’s some controversy around her condition because dermatologists are sceptical of her claims and think that her disease is psychosomatic. Regardless of its root cause, the effects kept this woman in shadows for decades, sometimes unable to leave a homemade darkroom in her house, because of the searing pain that light would bring to her skin.

Learning of these women’s suffering underscored how mild my issues are in comparison. I could stop there and use that thought as a salve when I’m experiencing difficulty, but just because their skin isn’t as healthy as mine doesn’t mean that they’d want to trade their life for my own. I’ve been thinking about how easy it is to imagine someone whose circumstance is worse than yours in order to make yourself feel better, about our tendency to do this either as a coping mechanism or to offer others a form of sympathy. It’s a slippery slope from those thoughts to reinforcing harmful stereotypes and belief systems. I mean sure they can give some small comfort, but what about the larger societal ramifications?

Both these women are citizens of a powerful, respected country; I’m not. The interplay of expectation and reality is upended in our case – me, the black woman from a recently decolonised nation, feeling sorry for white women from the nation that caused my own country grief and social problems that we still don’t understand or know how to deal with. As far as our health is concerned, the picture of wealth is reversed; if you were to sketch our desires, the arrows of longing would go in the unexpected direction. And so, the same must be true in countless other scenarios between the ostensibly powerful and weak, rich and poor, secure and insecure. How many times do we hear that well-worn trope in the media, that we should think of the starving children in Africa before throwing away our food? I’m sure you know this, but they’re not all starving. And there are plenty starving in the US and other developed nations too. Yet it’s so easy to jump to images of people in developing or war-torn nations, whose poverty, disease and disenfranchisement are paraded on our television sets for our pity and entertainment. Propping ourselves up with their misery dehumanizes them and assumes that there’s nothing good or redeemable about their existence.

So what there are no paved roads in their town, or their food supply is dwindling or they’ve been displaced from their homes? Maybe they have an incredible relationship with their parents, or they’ve found meaningful work or there is joy in their every day. Their lives are not defined by the hardships or limitations they contain. Everything in this world is relative; money can’t buy you happiness and all that jazz. I’m not saying that we should ignore the problems caused by corruption, greed and imperialism, or abandon the research that seeks to improve public health, social programmes and our stewardship of the environment. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be grateful for the wonderful things in our lives, and reflect on those whenever we’re tempted to self pity. I am however saying that we – I – need to be careful to keep the nuances of humanity in view when we use the readymade images we see and hear in the news to bolster our mood. No-one  wants to be pitied, and we owe it to each other to treat everyone’s life, as troubling and unappealing as it may seem, with the respect and dignity we’d want for our own.

Itching and Addiction

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.