- Category: Opinion
- Written by Jim Dee
Editor's Note: The squeamish and/or time-constrained may wish to skip this lengthy, disgusting post. Medical and encyclopedic web sites tend to cover the physical descriptions of poison ivy. I thought I'd share a bit of that as well, but coupled with some of the psychological effects of the malady. Enjoy, if you dare.
As I write this, it hurts to type because the blistery rash has entered the space between my index and middle fingers on my left hand. My left eye is swollen, making it tough to see well. Shaving has been out of the question for the past 4 days, since I have some of the rash along my neck. My right arm looks like something you'd see on WebMD or the CDC's web site or some documentary page about smallpox. I've got outbreaks pretty much everywhere. Even my lips are covered in places with tiny bumps, making eating rather painful. (I forced down two small handfuls of raisins yesterday, and about four ounces of water.) Showering right now, I think, would be an exercise in futility, as it would wash off all of the numbing medicine I've coated myself with to ease the discomfort. (So, I've called off work, again.) Sleep comes sporadically, and uncomfortably at best. And, in general, it feels as though there's a poison coursing through my veins. Yes, I'm allergic to poison ivy.
Yet, I feel extremely lucky ...
From Thursday (somewhat better and back to work):
However allergic I am now, at 38, to this crap, it's nothing compared with the severity I experienced during my formative years in the Midwest. If you've never contracted a strong case, consider yourself lucky -- and allow me a quick description. My daughter describes the rash as "pus filled boils." While I'm tempted to defer to a 12-year-old on most matters of grossology, I've always associated the word "pus" with a thick, whitish gel-like substance -- the disgusting contents of a mature zit, for example. It's not like that at all, though.
The boils, in my experience, are groupings of mostly smallish, pale yellow juice-filled bumps. There are highly-concentrated patches (in which you might have 50 or so tiny bumps over a square inch or so), and less-concentrated patches (in which you might have only a few bumps per square inch). The bumps themselves are generally tiny, no larger in size than grains of salt might be if embedded directly under the skin. However, within a given patch of these itchy little hills, there may also be an unsightly "mountain" or two. In such cases, it's much more evident that the boils are juice-filled. The larger boils look almost like tiny water-balloons, some the size of fat rice grains, embedded just beneath the skin. (The internet abounds with photos of such boils approaching the size of large marbles.) It's foul business, but it gets worse ...
Most of the body seems fair game, although in my experience the palms and fingers (at least up to the second knuckle), bottoms of feet, and skull all seem impervious. Every place else (and I mean every place) seems nearly equally susceptible. Well, I don't think you can get it on your eyeballs, inside your nose, or inside your mouth, but the rash does seem to manifest rather well just barely outside of these places, each of which offers new and exciting opportunities for nearly unbearable discomfort -- especially just around the eyes, where it's tough to medicate and thus makes itch-relief difficult if not impossible; and around the lips, on which the bumps do manifest, though in much tinier and more highly-concentrated bumps. A lip rash of poison ivy makes your lips feel almost like a smooth-grade sand paper, just a hair smoother than your cat's tongue -- though any movement (smiling, frowning, eating) causes severe pain.
Come to think if it, I could never be a spy (despite my Mitty-like tendencies). Because, I guarantee you, if the bad guys ever held me captive and read this, they'd have the best threat ever. I mean, I'm a pretty tough dude when I want to be ... I can imagine withstanding electrocutions, roughly-extracted molars, bamboo hammered beneath my fingernails, broken bones, etc., in the name of, say, protecting the name of some fellow CIA operative. But, if it's a choice between being hosed down with poison ivy juice (aka Urushiol ) or giving up said operative's identity, well, I can only hope that the other dude wasn't too good of a friend.
I believe I was roughly 12 upon learning of my allergy to poison ivy (the hard way, naturally). By age 14, I'd heard all of the poison ivy folk lore and "wisdom" out there -- that sensitive people like myself can inadvertently contract it via smoke from a nearby brush fire, that ingesting the plant's concentrated essential oil can reverse one's sensitivity to outbreaks (even, some said, to the point of complete immunity), that scratching spreads the rash, that scratching does not spread the rash, that going to get the shot and the steroids makes it fade more quickly, that calamine is best, that it's not, et cetera.
What I knew for sure were my own observations -- that, despite my keeping an eye out for the evil three-leaved motherfucker, I'd nonetheless undergo a superlatively uncomfortable experience damn-near every summer, that the sensation of extreme itch is an ultra-frustrating pain, that scratching does indeed make things worse, but that giving in once or twice to the scratching urge brings on, ironically, a temporary pleasure almost unmatched in any other category of physical sensation. (I'll explore this further in a moment.)
Light scratching, you see, is to be expected. You always lightly scratch, or you scratch around the rash ... That sort of thing often helps and seems relatively harmless. Often, even during a wave of intense pain (for it always comes in fits and waves), I'd wonder about the way this poison affects a person's network of dermal nerves. At times, the more affected areas seem the least itchy -- but some lone, renegade boil on the back of your hand, no where near any other major outbreaks, is driving you up the friggin' wall. No amount of Lidocaine, Benzocaine, calamine, alcohol, menthol, alcohol, zinc, "stop-itch," etc. seems to do the trick. Why would one small pock itch so damn badly, when an overly swollen, highly concentrated patch somewhere else does not bother you (at that moment)? Why do the most itchy spots shift around continually -- now your arm, now your calf, now your thigh? Is there a pattern to the cycle? Does it matter ... when's this shit going to get better!!!???
On a related note, I've also noticed strange phantom-itch sensations. You almost have to practice a kind of zen body-awareness to notice this, but sometimes the itch doesn't necessarily correlate physically with the rash itself (not exactly, that is). Once you realize this, you can sometimes gain a bit of actual comfort by scratching near a rash rather than scratching the rash itself (as I've mentioned above). But, I digress ... Let me get back to that manic scratching episode that seems to come at least once per outbreak:
Every year or so, between the ages of 12 and 18, I have a distinct memory of being driven over the edge by the overwhelming sensation -- giving in not just "to scratch" but to dig in with a mindset toward retribution, to scrape and abrade so fiercely and violently, not infrequently using a pocket knife, that I'd knowingly transform an entire area from a bumpy patch of weeping boils into a rough cut-open, often deep-red section in which each vesicle, from the aforementioned mountainous variety to those no bigger than sand grains had been lanced, some now profusely bleeding, the yellowish juice smeared all over the area as though I'd taken a belt sander to it.
Yes, this causes, eventually, severe pain of a different kind. But, I have to say that, during those rare scratchings, there must be some special chemical manufactured deep within the brain and launched immediately into the blood stream, an opiate or endorphin of such exalted magnificence, it's momentarily worth whatever shame or pain that follows such an ill-considered act of ... not quite self-masochism, but something along those lines, I suppose. I can't describe it, really, but if heroin is any thing like it, I can understand why we have a drug problem in this country -- especially considering that heroin generally leaves no painful bloody aftermath.
Afterward, though (and, the intoxicated stupor lasts but a few moments), it's pure pain -- not this monstrously fucked up cruel sensation that is poison ivy, but rather the purer, more delicate, raw sensation of an open wound. You feel embarrassment, more or less, knowing full-well that it's gotten the better of you, that you shouldn't have done what you did. But then again, you also "enjoy" that other phenomenon -- your newly created wound hurts more than the itching all over the rest of your body, which sort of draws your attention from one frustrating problem to another. Maybe it is better to give in, now that I think about it.
For me, it always included and then went beyond the description, above. My reaction would usually land me in a doctor's office -- not simply covered head to toe by some unbearable rash, but a few areas, usually one per year, reaching such a severely swollen state as to cause considerable concern among anyone who looked at me, including doctors. It usually happened on the inner side of an elbow or a knee -- swelling up to the point of my being unable to bend the appendage.
To help reduce both the unsightliness of it as well as the general urge to pull one of those belt-sander incidents, I developed my own best practice for treatment. Remember how everyone wore giant tube socks in the 80s? They'd usually go nearly up to your knew, with a few stripes at the top. I found that, if you cut off the toe of one of these, it makes a great bandage. So, each year, you'd find me sitting in my room for a good week, a cut-off tube sock covering one of my arms forearm to bicep or one of my knees calf to thigh. Underneath would be many coatings of calamine and topical analgesics.
Occasionally, I'd take out a pocket knife and spend time individually lancing the more unsightly and or itchy boils. I think it was a patience thing. All that juice in there, I'd think. It's never going to recede, be absorbed into my body and return to normality. So, if I stepped in with an exacto knife, I reasoned, maybe I could speed the process along. (All that and I never turned emo ... Weird, eh?)
In the end, whether you truly give in to the scratching or not, whether you self-mutilate or not, what you wind up with are crusty patches. Somehow, all of that juice emerges and forms a sulphur-yellow crust over the affected area. Usually, this means you're approaching the downhill, the return trip. You'll be unsightly for several more days, but quite a bit more comfortable. The hopelessness with which you regarded your skin and your general situation fades, and you pick up, once again, with your life -- though also, perhaps, with a psyche that is correspondingly a bit more crusty as well.
Below, are the original comments on this post. Additional comments may be made via Facebook, below.
On May 31, 2007, wrote:
I got poison oak once. It stayed on my elbows for so long that it become a habit to scratch them. I spent an entire year of my childhood with scabs on my elbows. People probably thought my parents were abusing me.
On June 1, 2007, wrote:
That sucks! Oh, and OUCH!
On June 8, 2007, wrote:
The pleasure from scratching is, as you described, almost unmatched.
On August 28, 2008, wrote:
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
On December 7, 2009, wrote:
Your description of the torment that is Toxicodendron is spot-on. I have resorted to modifying a hard bristle toilet bowl brush to scour rashes from my skin just to alleviate the burn/itch/pain. The worst cases I contracted though have been from the smoke of burning leaves where no area of exposed flesh is spared. As I am currently suffering from today.