Itch

I lived alone back in those days, surrounded by dust and clutter. It suited me fine, but my family’s endless worrying troubled me regardless. They were always in my ear, buzzing like flies. They loved to call me in the mornings and make sure I was out of bed, and to visit me in the evenings to be sure I’d gone to work. They commented on the books which covered my tables and the ornamental houseplants withering in the windows. It’s dark in here, they’d say. There’s too much trash in the floor and too many spider webs on the walls.

All of that, but it’s not like they bothered to help clean up. They would swoop in and comment, as if their wisdom and witticisms would somehow invigorate my sense of order, but no. They were too good to lift a finger and help. Their criticism never manifested in actions, only in words.

And so, nothing was accomplished. After all, the mess didn’t bother me.

What concerned them served as a refuge for me. I enjoyed the tightness of the walls and the stillness of the air.  I kept dark curtains to keep the hot southern sun at bay, and I kept a white noise machine to drown out the droning of cars as they made their way up and down the mountain.

I hated that kind of ambient noise, the kind you can’t escape because it drills into your head from all sides. I woke up to those cars every morning, like strangers shouting at me through thick walls. I hated them.

If anything rivaled them, it was the creatures of the forest. The birds were terrible. They cackled back and forth at each other all day, starting in the earliest hours. People call it ‘singing’, but it was more like screaming, raw-throated and primal. Those cries cut right to my bone. Cicadas were even worse.

That was my world: a pocket of silence in a world of noise and smoke. Not even the mountains kept me away from all the noise, but it was as close as I’d get.  My neighbors, distant thought they were, still had to get to work. The birds and insects had to make their living, too. Sometimes, it seemed as though I was the only creature able to get along quietly.

That’s why I appreciated spiders. They were quiet and elegant. I enjoyed watching them skitter along the walls on their fragile legs. Most were harmless and innocuous, lurking but never interfering. Sometimes their webs would catch on my clothes or brush over my hair, but I imagine they minded more than I did.

Sometimes I found widows under my sink or in corners of my closet. Each time, I got a glass or a shoebox and escorted her outside. They were shy creatures, no more deserving of death than I.

I never saw the lady that actually got me. She wasn’t a widow; she was a recluse. I probably met her while sleeping or when putting on my pants. They liked those kinds of places, small and tucked out of the way, where you’d only happen upon them by chance. If she knew I was likely to get under those blankets or put on those jeans, I’m sure she’d have stayed far away.

The wound started off as just another irritated patch on my skin. It could have been a mosquito bite or an infected cut, just like a dozen other holes in my leg. While my family troubled me over books and houseplants, they’d come to ignore my most enduring mania. Every since my childhood, there had always been holes. Each of us, myself included, had given up trying to stop them.

It started when I was young. A severe, though otherwise routine case of the chicken pox. I was old enough to be fascinated by the bumpy scabs left behind by the disease, but too young to know better than to tear them off. It was satisfying, I found, to dig my nail underneath the edge of that hardened skin and pry it up. I loved to feel it tear along it’s edges, leaving behind a well-defined hole. If it bled, sometimes I would drag my tongue across it. I didn’t even like the taste, I just felt like I should.

The habit followed me beyond the pox, haunting me like a personal demon. During middle school, I would idly slide my hand beneath my desk to pick at the scabs on my calves and shins, often not realizing I’d done it until I’d clawed myself bloody.  As a teenager, I would fight the same battle every morning, desperately trying to convince myself not to tear any newly-healed skin from my face. As an adult, I found myself nursing the same wound for weeks or months, picking it raw every couple of days, only to scold myself as I watched a new trickle of blood creep along my aching skin.

My parents took me to doctors for a while, but it didn’t do much good. The doctors had fancy words for it, and sometimes they tried to give me pills, but I wouldn’t take them. It didn’t seem worthwhile. Those urges, they were part of me. How could a little pill change that? How could it change something that was part of me? It wasn’t that I didn’t trust the doctor. It just seemed pointless, like trying to stop a forest fire with a garden hose.

My family were left shaking their heads. Stop, they’d say. I can’t, I’d reply.

It was true. My fingers found their way whether I willed it or not. I could stare at a wound, warning myself of the instant sickness and regret I would feel if I tore the scab off. But I wanted to so bad. It would live in my head, like an unscratchable itch, begging me for that brief moment of relief.

It would tease me until I gave in. In a flash of weakness, I would drag my claws over it and pull it free. In that split-second when the thick, rough skill pulled away, it was euphoric.

Then, I would realize what I’d done, and I would hate myself.

That is what became of my spider bite. I mistook it for a mundane mosquito, and I treated it like all my other shameful sores. I tried not to scratch, yet I did. I took joy in tearing it open, only to condemn myself in the next breath.

What started as a small, irritated patch of red skin spread to the size of a quarter. I was unconcerned. My sores often grew larger as I falsely prolonged their life with my cycle of scratching.  

After a month, it grew larger still. It flushed bright red and oozed clear fluid, and a significant bit of flesh swelled in the center. I tried to care for it, washing it each day and applying bandages with antibiotic ointment, but it only seemed to worsen. Reluctantly, I decided to visit a doctor.

Doctors’ offices made me uncomfortable. I dislike the clean brightness and the sickly, sallow complexions of the other patients. I always looked at them and felt like they somehow seemed sicker, no matter what ailment brought me there. Even that day, as I sat there with my dripping wound, I felt like a healthy person surrounded by walking decay.

The doctor told me it was an infected spider bite. She had no diagnosis for the particular spider responsible, but believed the infection was more serious than any venom. She prescribed me antibiotics and sent me on my way, back to the mountain, to my pocket of darkness and solitude. I was happy to return, in spite of the spiders.

I decided not to tell my family. It was just a little infection, and the scratching was nothing new. They’d just worry. Maybe, just this once, things could go back to normal.

That was my hope, but I hardly had time to settle back into my nest before the itching started. It began as a mild annoyance, perhaps six hours after I arrived home. I was trying to watch television. I ended up wriggling in my chair, distracted by the irritating sensation dancing over my skin, but more devoted to the dull flickering of the television than to taking action.

It lasted through the night. It became gradually worse, to the point where I couldn’t pinpoint the moment I started scratching. It started idly, as it always did, but this time there were no scabs to rip away. I scratched not out of compulsion, but for relief. It was getting worse. More insistent.

It was starting to burn.

Twelve hours after arriving home, and what began as errant kindling had erupted into a wildfire. The itching spread over me and seemed to sink beyond my skin, down into my blood and bones. I called the doctor. He said it was a side effect of the medication, and that I needed to put some steroid cream on the worst sites and try to leave it alone.

But they’re all the worst sites, I argued.

Don’t scratch, he said.

How could I not?

How could I not?

I trimmed my nails down and and took as many allergy pills as the label recommended. When the fire still burned an hour later, I took more. I ran the air conditioner in hopes that the cold would help, but it nothing against the Alabama heat.

Some strange blend of summer swelter and fermenting fear caused me to sweat. With discomfort added to distress, I began to pace through the house. It was dark now, and so humid that the air seemed to churn like water when I walked. Frogs and cicadas wailed outside. I continued to sweat. My fingers twitched.

I called the doctor again, on the after-hours number. Again, he told me to take over the counter medicine. It’s just a side effect, he said. It wasn’t a big deal. I tried to tell him that it was. It was a big deal. But he wouldn’t listen.

By this point, I could no longer hold still. Every fiber in my body twitched and hissed for relief. The itching had burrowed into me, such that when I broke down and scratched, I felt almost nothing. My skin had become like rubber, and my deeper nerves were like livewires.

I hung up. Desperate, I stripped off my clothes and made my way to the shower. I turned on cold water, the coldest I could, and I stood beneath it trembling. For a few precious seconds, a rejuvenating wave of cold relief washed over me.

Within moments, the fire burned through even that. Even worse, I felt it’s beginnings in the untouched parts of my body: in my gums and the insides of my ears, and finally in the corners of my eyes. I blinked, and they too began to burn.

I screamed. My voice rattled through the hollow spaces of my home, carrying with it all of my panic and agony. Even the cicadas were quiet, as if in reverence, as if they knew the depths of my madness.

I surrendered. I collapsed to the floor of my shower, still drenched in frigid running water, and I scratched. Even blunt fingernails were effective with enough ferocity. I scratched until my knuckles ached, leaving trails of shredded, bloodied skin, and still the itching didn’t subside. The itching was supernatural, beyond any vexation I’d ever known. It was like the very blood in my veins was the source, something I could never grasp in my hands and pierce with my nails.

I could have clawed through my flesh and left marks on my skeleton, and even that would not have been enough. Unsatisfied, I stopped only when I realized the frightful amount of blood rushing into the shower drain. Exhausted, defeated, and still unbearably itchy, I looked at the matted skin beneath my fingernails and over the tracks of ruin left across my body, and I sobbed.

Sometime, though I can’t say when, I called my mother. I pawed for my phone, still in the back pocket of my discarded jeans. Shower water ran along my body and pooled on the floor as I lay there, half in the shower and half sprawled across the tiles. When my mother answered, I told her what I’d done in a hushed, strangled voice. She and my father murmured. The phone went dead.

It was a long drive, but they still came. They found me there, slumped over the edge of the bathtub in exhaustion. I’d never been to happy to see them, despite the grotesque fear in their eyes. The way my mother’s hands trembled. My father’s deeply-lined frown.

They immediately took me to the ER. I was strapped down and injected with steroids. The medical staff soothed me and told me it would be all right. I was too tired to thank them, but I think they knew.

The following hours were ethereal. I know my mother sat beside me. She would occasionally reach out and caress my shoulder or whisper soft words to me. They’re lost now, but I still remember her tone, gentle and quivering. My father was there, too, pacing in the hallway while he talked on the phone. It must have been my brother. He was on the other side of the world that night, but I still felt like I could hear his voice, teasing me, but filled with underlying concern.

Eventually, the world fell into order again. The new doctor came back. She told me that I’d been bitten by a brown recluse. That, however, was not the cause of the episode.

I was allergic to the antibiotic.

Within a couple hours, I was released. They sent me along with a different antibiotic prescription, along with an oral steroid to ease any further itching. On the way out, the doctor stopped me.

You may want to visit a dermatologist, she said.

Why?

You’re probably going to have some extensive scarring.

I didn’t think about it. I rode quietly in my parents’ car, silently thanking them for staying by my side through such agony. Those years of twitching and picking, they’d finally culminated in something so strange that we couldn’t even speak. They didn’t tell me not to scratch. They didn’t even say they were sorry or that they loved me. I didn’t say thank you. But we all knew.

Once we reached the top of the mountain, they left me there in the dark, with the crickets and the frogs singing all around. I stood on my porch for a while, watching my parents’ tail lights vanishing into the trees. I couldn’t do anything else but breathe. I’d never been so tired.

Inside, I could hear the shower still running. I didn’t want to go inside just yet. I didn’t want to go into the bathroom and see all the blood.

I did, after a while. The water was everywhere now, soaking the placemats and the pile of dirty clothes in the floor. There was still a bit of blood, but most of it had washed away.

After turning off the water, I took my clothes off and stood in front of the bathroom mirror. My chest became tight. So many trenches of torn skin. Some deeper than others, but all hellishly red.

Already, I could see where the maze of scabs would form.

My fingers twitched.