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The Art of Itchy

I blame my older sister for ruining Halloween 1982.


Being four at the time, I didn’t fully understand her role as “the carrier,” or that my mother had been keeping us both under close observation for weeks as the disease ripped through her first-grade classroom. I only knew that as she pulled up my yellow polyester gypsy top and located the telltale spots, that trick-or-treating was most certainly off the table.

Although my disappointment over lost candy would soon be overshadowed by the power of the itch. Unlike my sister who had barely a scatter of pale pink dots on her abdomen, I was COVERED.

I had no idea how close the itch and I would eventually become.

I remember looking in the mirror and crying over my hideousness in between rounds of clawing at my speckled calamine-soaked flesh.  At four, I had never experienced such a torturous, monstrous itch (although at four, I had no idea how close the itch and I would eventually become), and it drove me to near madness.  At thirty-four, I’ve still got pits and scars all over from my lack of self-control. I still blame my sister.

A  few years later, there was the head lice.

The lucky kids got caught early by school nurses with sharp eyes and wooden toothpicks (why was it always toothpicks?). But the unlucky kids (like me) got infested. Fingers buried scalp deep, scraping the itch away with furious six-year-old fingernails. My head was bloodied and crawling with bugs by the time my mom finally plastic bagged all my stuffed animals and doused me in foul chemical shampoo.

By eight, I had come to fear the itch. So much so that in third grade, when I thought I might have head lice again (I didn’t), I freaked out and poured an entire bottle of Pine Sol over my head. I remembered my ragged first-grade scalp and was too scared and ashamed to confess my fears to my mom. Luckily for me, the chemical stink of Pine Sol would permeate the entire house and blow the cover off my covert operations before I accidentally blinded myself.

But by high school, the itch was pretty much just a vague specter of unpleasantness that lurked in the background. Occasionally, a frisky mosquito could jolt back the memory for a minute, but those were easily banished with an application of After Bite and an X dug into the infected flesh with a fingernail. At that point, like most kids (I assume), the itch and I had an understanding.

The summer before my twentieth birthday, I was working at a local summer camp as a counselor, doing all those important summertime college girl things like pretending to be drunk off a single Heineken  and giving hand jobs in the camp’s pump house after lights out.

That summer, I also woke up one night completely covered in giant itchy welts.

At first, I just thought that they were mosquito bites. But slowly, the lumps began to multiply and spread. I was terrified. (Although it was sort of exciting to leave camp to go to the emergency room.)

It was determined that I was having a bad reaction to some medication, but that it was “nothing serious.” I was injected with some Benadryl and sent home to sleep it off.  And by morning, they were gone.

Until they weren’t gone. Pale pink dots would emerge by afternoon, and swallow up my arms and legs in puffy patches that itched like my skin was on fire. Unlike mosquito bites the sat quietly on top of this skin, this itch came shooting from deep within. I imagined that peeling the affected skin and muscle away from the bone in thick strips would be the only way to find true relief. I was miserable, but was assured by my doctor that it would be short lived.

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