Originally published Jan 7th, 2019
THE EMOTIONAL DISORDER CALLED ECZEMA, PART 1
With genuine grimace I quickly scratch, digging my trimmed nails deep into my skin, causing even more inflammation. The scratch feels like an orgasm from hell: pure ecstasy laced with painful self-harm. Breathless, eyes closed, vibrations shaking down my spine, my body begs to be ripped open. With achingly hot lacerations, and guilt and anxiety that never seems to wear off, I’m left bleeding. Your body is doing this to you. Something is wrong with you, my mind tells my body.
Since I was a small child I’ve suffered from eczema (a.k.a. atopic dermatitis). Symptoms include red, dry, and insanely itchy skin caused by things like dogs, dairy, alcohol, anxiety, stress, and inflammation. Every patient is different, and there is no cure. Blame it on eczema or a rocky home life, since I was young, I could be described as worried, anxious, cautious, and concerned.
Three years ago, my skin flared on vacation and then never calmed as it would in the past. I became obsessed with healing it, going to numerous skin specialists, general practitioners, acupuncturists, natural doctors, chinese herbalists, and a reiki master. I was given steroids, antibiotics, chalky pill capsules, probiotics, allergy tests, blue-dyed salves, and a gag-inducing tar cream. I tried elimination diets, meditation, prayer, online self help groups, and read every article on the internet. I even sent $200 over the internet to a doctor in South Africa claiming he could cure me. Every day I thought about my skin. It’s not going away this time, I’d hear my brain tell myself. You’re going to feel miserable forever, my fear repeated to me. I was spiralling into a dark place, and desperately looking for the WHY?!
When home alone I’d avoid all mirrors, knowing that if I saw myself, my anxiety would start to tick. By just looking at my skin too long, or the worst – touching it, I would turn my low-boiling worry into a full panic attack.
It didn’t help how ugly I felt either. My skin was a tie-die of lost-melanin white, burning hot red, slightly healing pink, and small swathes of normal tanned skin. There were scabs from middle-of-the-night scratch attacks, thickened elephant skin enwrapping my joints, and flakey dead skin cells holding tight to my face. When home alone I’d avoid all mirrors, knowing that if I saw myself, my anxiety would start to tick. By just looking at my skin too long, or the worst – touching it, I would turn my low-boiling worry into a full panic attack.
I felt like a monster. I was worried that everyone who looked at me thought I was one too. Going out in public was frightening and exhausting. I covered myself wearing long sleeves and pants, hair down, and little jewelry. I would avoid eye contact thinking if I didn’t look at them, maybe they wouldn’t see me. Do they think I’m contagious? Do they pity me? I was completely consumed with myself.
I felt as if I had no control over my skin, my body, and my mind, so I compulsively feigned control where I could. I obsessed over every piece of food I ate, convinced it was triggering an outbreak. Every drop of drink could give me hives. Maybe the air ducts in our carriage house apartment were full of cat dander and mold! I was irrational.
Being brought face-to-face with serious and paralyzing anxiety, I realized I had prejudice. I was intimidated, scared, and worried that needing help, specially this kind of mental health help, meant something was really wrong with me.
My friends and family started pushing for anxiety medication, something to help me avoid the ever-frequent panicked phone calls and sobs from the bathtubs of bleach. My husband and dad, both licensed clinical social workers, started talking to me about Xanax. Coming from a social-worker-filled family, mental health was normalized and discussed at length regularly. Holiday dinners and weekend mornings drinking coffee were full of clients’ stories and mental health practices. I might’ve never known client names and identifiers, but I knew their stories, their struggles, and their successes. They were patients, but they were also regular people.
I would never be ashamed of my disorder or my anxiety, I thought. But being brought face-to-face with serious and paralyzing anxiety, I realized I had prejudice. I was intimidated, scared, and worried that needing help, specially this kind of mental health help, meant something was really wrong with me. There shouldn’t be a stigma around mental health, and here I was inducing one onto myself. That somehow I was healthier than someone with a mental disorder. I thought, Someone like me didn’t get that kind of sick.
With much hesitation, I agreed to go to the doctor to discuss anxiety medication. With my dad as a trusty sidekick, I explained to the doctor the anxiety I felt because of my skin, and how I knew stress exacerbated the condition. I told him that I wanted to heal myself without medication, that if I could just figure out the perfect combination of food and self-care, I’d be fine.
He asked me why I was so intolerant to take meds.
“I’ve heard every horror story from my dad’s psych ward about opiate addiction. What if I become addicted? Plus, I don’t have a mental illness,” I explained.
“Well,” he said calmly. “But you’re struggling, right? You feel overwhelmed?” the doctor asked.
“Well, yes… I mean, but I’m okay! I just feel, I don’t know…like I don’t have any control,” I finally admitted.
We settled on a one-time prescription of a generic anti-anxiety, perforated so I could break the low dosage in half. “See how you feel, and come back for more if it’s helping. This is an ongoing conversation,” the doctor said.
We drove to the pharmacy, and while handing over the white paper bag the pharmacist asked me if I had any questions.
“Well,” I said. “I’m a little anxious about the medica-” I started to say.
The pharmacist held her hand up, kindly, to stop me. “You’re anxious about your anxiety medication?” she asked in a slightly wry way.
Hearing the irony in my words, I smiled back, said thank you, and walked out to my dad’s truck, holding the medicine with pause but hope.
The pill allowed me the clarity to remind myself that I’m doing everything in my power to heal. That I do indeed have control, because I can control my thoughts by choosing to take a pill to control my anxiety.
I took the first pill when I got home. I broke it in half, as suggested, and laid on my bed awaiting some kind of whole body reaction. As I lay, anxiously awaiting a feeling, I slowly started to feel nothing. I quickly got up and did things around the house. When my husband got home from work and asked if the medication was working, I replied, “I don’t know; I don’t feel anything.” As I said it I realized, feeling nothing actually meant I didn’t feel anxious. Nothing felt normal again.
As the months passed, I started noticing my ticks, the pre-anxiety symptoms of an increasing heart rate, hot skin, and slow crawling itch. I noticed that leaving the house made me especially nervous, and I’d get a red rash on my throat – like a psychosomatic symptom of being nervous to talk to people. I’d take a pill to calm, to prevent panic, and get me out the door. I took the pills less than I should’ve, the anxious person worrying about taking too much anxiety medication, but over time I became good at reminding myself of the relief they would bring. They were there to help me from myself.
After taking a pill, as peace set in and negative thoughts simmered, I would thought switch. I would think of anything but my triggers. I’d try over and over and over again until my thought pattern was positive. That the sky is really blue today. That although my body hurts, the way the air moves over it feels good against my skin. The pill allowed me the clarity to remind myself that I’m doing everything in my power to heal. That I do indeed have control, because I can control my thoughts by choosing to take a pill to control my anxiety.
Just like confronting my skin disorder took time, confronting my anxiety took time too. The more open I became about my anxiety, the more others opened up too. Coworkers confided that they also took medication, and friends revealed they suffered from depression. The stigma I put on myself of needing mental health help finally vanished as a community opened up before my eyes. I’d always known these people, but we’d never felt safe enough to share certain struggles. As the taking of meds became routine, so did sharing the highs and lows. It became normal for coworkers and I to share when we were having tough days. We helped each other more.
Today, I still struggle with eczema and anxiety. I only have three pills left in my medicine cabinet, and since I’ve recently moved, I’ll admit I’m intimidated to ask a new doctor for a prescription. Asking for help is hard, but I know that not asking is much more detrimental to the health of my skin and my mind. It’s daily work to embrace my anxiety and my splotchy itchy skin, and even though I’ll likely always have some form of my ailments, learning to tend to them, to take medication, and to share my struggles is healing me. There may never be a cure, but there is relief.