You may think you know what it's like, but you don't. Unless you do.
John Updike knows. I once read a passage from his book about psoriasis, and I knew he knew. I couldn't bear to read the book.
If you know that it's best to scratch around the itch, that light fingernails are better than digging, that the best thing of all is a piercing hot shower directed right at it, then you know. If you've ever read on a website that some people cure poison ivy by pouring bleach on it, and thought that sounded good to you, you know. If you have grown expert at gauging the exact moment when pleasure will turn to pain, and you have taught yourself to stop there, wait a moment, and then go on, you know.
If you had a bad case of poison ivy once, or you hate mosquito bites, you don't know.
E knows. She spent her four and a half years in Red State Capital City Suburb itching. She had scaly red rashes in the cracks of her elbow and I could tell when she was about to get an ear infection because she would start to scratch her head. It's been better since we moved to East Coast Big City, but it's bad again in the summer. She likes me to run my nails up and down her spine. I keep hers clipped down to the skin. Still, her mosquito bites are all red and scabbed over.
When I was a kid, it was mainly the poison ivy, and I won't go into the dilemma of whether to scratch when it's oozing. It got bad, though, when I was 22 and after minor surgery developed an allergy to adhesive tape. The white kind. That they use to hold the bandages on.
After that, it was open season on my skin, and I never knew when it would strike, or why. Once I spent days scratching the top of my feet, then looked down and realized the rash was in the pattern of my new criss-cross leather sandals. Strike Bass from the list of possibilities (probably a good thing, fashion-wise). I try to limit myself, strictly, to hypoallergenic cosmetics, but once it was a sample tub of Clinique eye cream. When I gave birth to E, it was the disposable absorbent pads on the hospital bed, and the pain of the rash all over my backside was worse than the pain of the stitches. My first shower was all about the bliss of the blistering hot water on the itch, not the blood washing away down my thighs.
It started going systemic maybe 10, 15 years ago. I'd get the itch, then I'd see the rash, then I'd get nauseous and feverish. And the rash would pop up in other places, places which I knew hadn't touched the sandal or the sweater or the lotion. And the poison ivy, my god, the poison ivy.
The worst is when I don't know what's causing it. Like this time. I suspect it's some liquid soap I let M pick out a few weeks ago, hypoallergenic soap for sensitive skin. Ha. I don't know what else it could be, because it's all over the place. There's a patch on the front of my left ankle, and one on the inside, swollen out around the ankle bone, both of those red, raised and defined. There's a slash down my right shin. It's on the outside of my forearms, just below my elbows: you can't see it there (yet), but you can feel the bumps. I think it's moving down to my wrists, too. And it's on the back of my neck, where I can't see it, but S says there are nasty red bumps. And I'm feeling sick. And it's been hot. And I'm scared it's going to come out on my face, which feels kind of tight.
I took a luke-warm Aveeno bath and felt great while I was in it, then horrendous when I got out. I slather on my current ointment of choice (Aveeno, again, with 1% hydrocortisone--another way to know you know is if you firmly believe in steroids). I guess I won't be going running till it's gone. I guess I won't be getting waxed before we go to the beach. I hope it's better on Friday when I have a long drive. I hope the heat wave is really ending. I hope it doesn't spread to my face. I hope I can sleep through the night. Maybe I'll take an Advil. Maybe two.
Or maybe I'll scratch.