It was becoming difficult to differentiate between the sweat and tears that were sliding in salty lines down to my jaw. My iPod was at the Teenage Boy volume level until a wasteland of songs came on that I had to skip through because sometimes Johnny Cash and Laura Branigan are too hard to run to. My breathing returned to a normal, non-hyperventilating rhythm.
I was thinking about irrational and random things, like my high school yearbook graduation photo. We all submitted corny and clever quips, mottos, nicknames and our future aspirations to be posted underneath our grinning pictures. My career ambition? “To be a hand model for maxi pad commercials.” Did my parents proud with that one.
For those who haven’t followed my Trending Topic of ITCHING since October, well, I’ve been itchy since October. Fingers of blame have been pointed in many directions: too many years as a massage therapist with my hands dipped in oil for six hours a day, chimpanzee cooties from the Congo, mould, dairy, latent jungle parasites, Canadian winters, Tide detergent, parabens, gluten, people with hair, meatballs and spandex.
For over a thousand days (or, since October if you’re really counting), I have watched my poor hands react in a full-blown arsenal of hives, weeping patches, bumps and all other manners of rejection. I know this is some kind of message from the Universe, but I have a lot of messages in my inbox, coming in from all fronts. As a social media savvy sort, I have Facebook and Twitter posts to get through first. Reading what the Universe has to say will have to come after that.
But as I ran through Riverdale park with Stevie Nicks and the late afternoon sun on my shoulders, I thought about what the Universe might be saying. I could decipher the Universe easier if I broke my wrist. I could Nancy Drew that in a snap—“you need a break from massaging.” Duh. Then I had an awful thought that made my breath thin and rapid—UNIVERSE, PLEASE, please, don’t break my wrist right now. The thought of wearing a cast and having the itch issue that I have would be unbearable. I would have to saw off the cast with a breadknife and take a belt sander to my arm.
For a few weeks now, I’ve been getting knowing looks from crystal meth addicts who are also scratching as much as me. It’s a tell-tale sign. They nod in recognition as I walk through Allan Gardens. I belong.
I used to get compliments on my hands all the time—now I just get comments like “Oh my god! What happened to your hands!” They have become their own reality show. Every day at work I show my palms and flip my hands to the horror of my co-workers. Then I show them the welts running up my forearms and even my own eyebrows raise when I see the impact my body is taking.
The most convincing thought that I had that assured me that this was definitely not cool and normal, came in the form of Sandra Bullock. I imagined her calling me and saying, “Hey Jules, now that Jesse is outta the picture, I was wondering if you wanted to go for a walk along the beach. I know this great place where we could get ice cream—best waffle cones you’ll ever have. You know, we could watch the sunset, hold hands…” AH! And this is when I realized how awful my situation was. I would not be able to hold hands with Sandra Bullock because my hands look and feel so awful that I can barely stand them.
I kept thinking about Sandra as I passed an American bulldog on Yonge with a plastic cone around his head. I spoke to the owner as we waited for the light to turn at the intersection. Lucy was on her fourth cone, she had busted the previous four apart with her aggression. Because she had a delicate eye graft procedure, Lucy has to wear a cone for six weeks. I need a cone. I need cones around both my wrists to prevent scratching.
Two months ago, heavy drinking allowed me to sleep through the night. I was like Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. I had a big belt buckle and some bourbon, and could knock off nine hours of itch-free sleep. For some reason this has changed. I’ve tried different formulas that include whiskey and Reactine allergy pills, Benedryl and lychee martinis, and even Guinness and steroids. I’m lucky to get a sound two hours of sleep now. I drink a double-shot latte at work and fall asleep for the rest of my break.
Maybe I’m allergic to the allergy pills?
As a massage therapist, I am careful to practice what I preach. I am excellent at pampering myself with manicures, $6 beet juice and wheatgrass drinks, shiatsu, reflexology, Oprah magazines, zen moments in bookstores and long runs. I tell clients that when a health issue interferes or affects their daily routine, it’s time to isolate the cause and make drastic changes.
So, now I’m a big, fat liar. A massaging hypocrite. Still, I tell myself that, just like Jann Arden sings on her album Free, “everybody’s broken.” Every human is given something to tackle—gluten allergies, acne, obesity, whiplash, sciatica, depression, ruptured Achilles, addictions, asthma—we all have something to contend with. Being the optimist that I am, I think of all the conditions and issues that I don’t have, which makes me feel remarkably better.
A colleague at my spa has had insomnia for the last two months. She fights all night for maybe three hours sleep and arrives at work like a zombie, dizzy and exhausted. We talked about how easy it is to adapt to a new sense of “normal.” She can no longer remember what it’s like to sleep a full eight hours. I can no longer remember what it feels like to not be itchy. I asked Lori, who was diligently charting her clients as Lilian and I chatted what her issue was. Just to make us feel better. She won with degenerative disc disease.
When I had trench foot in the jungle, I became convinced that I would have it for the rest of my life. Much like when you get a sore throat. One hour into waking with a sore throat and you can’t remember what swallowing without knife-like pain was like.
I have taken action with this situation, and have been very proactive in isolating the cause of my non-stop itch. In fact, I went all the way to Venezuela to do my research. However, when I returned from my itch-free week, I realized that I only narrowed my itch source down to Canada. Something in Canada is making my skin crawl. It could be work, winter or my house. With the Venezuela sun still retained in my bones, I began to wonder if it really was something inside the house. I moved and started work within the same week at the end of September. I still suspiciously lie on top of my mattress, wondering if two cross-Canada trips in a moving truck has allowed some evasive mould to sneak in somewhere between Moose Jaw and Wawa.
I’ve even thought about things that I eat on a daily basis (besides my words). Soya milk, bagels, peanut butter, bananas, 300 almonds. I phased each of them out with no obvious results.
My friend Katie, who had travelled overseas and had similar post-travel itches, suggested I freeze all my clothing to be on the safe side. All my clothing? And while freezing my clothing I could bake the ten pre-fab Dr. Oetker Ristorante pizzas Kelly has packed in there?
Another friend advised it might be my spandex, so I’ve been running in shorts and stopped wearing my gloves that have a spandex-blend. The cold only split the exposed skin on my knuckles to a more disastrous state. I fill all the splits with barrier cream at night, but when I lace up my shoes to run in the morning, I open all the areas that semi-healed to the point where I contemplate stitches.
I walk around with Costco –sized lotions. I have Uremal at the ready and Aveeno with soothing oat essence in every room. I eat more sunflower seeds than all the squirrels in Cabbagetown to up my Vitamin E. I still drink the crappy liver-cleansing rose tea that gives me greenhouse breath. But I’ve abandoned the steroid cream.
The steroids took away the itch, yes, but also took away my skin, as witnessed when I went to Margarita Island. I talked to my parents before I left, and expressed my nervousness in using sunscreen as my skin was having a panic attack over everything. My mom suggested I just let the sun fry my skin, it would be good for it.
Ha. Day one. The steroid cream that I had been using in such liberal amounts left me with the fragile skin of a baby’s eyelid. As I was reading Andrew Westoll’s The Riverbones and sucking back frothy pina coladas, I was oblivious to incinerating my hands. The next morning, I woke up with a left hand that seemed more suited to a sumo wrestler. I had no knuckles. My hand looked like I had been stung by a thousand bees. One pinprick and it would have exploded. I went for breakfast and hid my hand behind my book. I grabbed arepas and pineapple with my good hand and scurried back to my room. Now what? The sun was a magnet to my hand. The heat coming off of my hand in the shade was enough to fry an egg. I probably needed emergency medical care of some sort, but I dug my winter gloves out of my bag, put on my bikini, grabbed my book, picked up a 10 a.m. pina colada for the beach and stretched out.
As I pulled on the black gloves I initially felt like the biggest dork on the beach. Surely EVERYONE was looking at me and wondering what the hell was wrong with the chick wearing gloves on the beach. I felt a bit Diane Keaton-like, slightly regal in my bikini, with gloves. But my hands were safe. Sweating, but safe.
That night, a couple from Orillia invited me over to their table at the Mexican a la carte. Joe asked me point-blank, “So, where’d you get the gloves?” (Which I did not wear to dinner).
On the jungle excursion to Angel Falls I pulled on my gloves when the boat pushed off for a two-hour ride through the lagoon to our lodge. Our guide, Rafael, commented: “Black gloves is bad choice for Venezuela.” I almost snapped but internally yelled, “I didn’t plan on wearing winter gloves in Venezuela!” Our local Indian guide asked no questions, and when we went piranha fishing, he insisted on baiting my hook with raw chicken every time.
On the second day the edema had left my hand but the skin cracked in the night into a shocking mess. So shocking I had to do a photo shoot as proof. I slathered on wild aloe vera bi-hourly, but ended up wearing gloves the whole time I was in Venezuela. I ended up giving myself a bigger problem than I had left with, but sometimes it’s good to think about something new.
I know a few weeks off work would probably allow my hands to return to normal. But then what?
It seems inevitable that a new career is on the horizon. Hopefully the Universe sends me a text message tonight.