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Crazy Is as Crazy Itches

After my trip to Zambia many years ago, I returned home with a strange rash. The rash actually first appeared in Dusseldorf, where I stopped by to visit friends before flying back to L.A. I was in a very old and dingy train at one point while in Germany, so when the itchiness started I assumed it was from fleas or some other similar critters burrowed in the old upholstery. The rash spread across both arms and thighs over the next few days and at that point it seemed highly unlikely that tiny German bugs were responsible for this. The flight home was sheer torture.

By the time I was back in Los Angeles, my arms and legs were consumed by a wave of intense itchiness. Benedryl and Cortisol were no match for this. I couldn’t think of much else besides the itching. Nights were the worst. I would be in the bathroom, alternating between rubbing cayenne pepper and turmeric all over my body and scratching until I broke through the skin with my nails. At three in the morning, sitting under the din of the bathroom light on a floor covered with turmeric goo, I understood what it might feel like for a sane person to go insane.

Dermatologist #1 had a reputation for being an excellent diagnostician. He asked me when did the itchiness start, what was I eating/wearing when it started, where was I when it started, what is the nature of the itchiness. Dermatologist #1 concluded that my problem was psychological. He said some babies learn to hurt themselves on purpose to get their parents’ attention. He said I have some adult version of this, that my mind materialized this itchiness because I wanted or needed attention of some sort. Then he wrote a prescription for a $50 anti-itch cream. I left his office in a huff and a puff but in the back of my mind I wondered if maybe it wasn’t that the itchiness was driving me crazy but that my crazy was driving the itch. The $50 cream did not work.

I looked up information on the “itch-scratch syndrome” online. Basically, something sets off the itchiness at the genesis of the disease and once you start scratching, you start a potentially interminable cycle. The more you scratch, the more it itches, and on and on. I found an itch-scratch syndrome forum. I scrolled through comment after comment, all the while scratching my arms and thighs, watching the skin swell up and turn red and white welts appear like mutant polka dots and then bleed as I frantically scratched, scratched, scratched. One guy on the forum said that he’d been suffering from itch-scratch syndrome around his genitals. He had to quit his job and he just stayed home scratching himself all day. I had a moment of deep despair reading his story. Incessantly itchy genitals sounded like the worst of the worst. Think of the worst you’ve ever felt in your life. Then think of sitting at home scratching yourself down there to the point of bleeding and without any relief for years and years. If I were you, I would probably choose to feel that worst-feeling-in-your-life feeling than the itch-scratch syndrome of the privates.

After that, I visited the office of Dermatologist #2. As soon as she looked at my arms and my legs, she said, no, this is not a psychological issue. I was immensely comforted by this. She also said it probably had something to do with my trip to Africa but she had no idea what it was and all she could do was give me a steriod shot and hope for the best. This was not comforting at all. The steroid did nothing.

I kept on scratching for weeks. I would break that up by pouring near-scalding water on my skin, or numbing it with ice or slaps with a wooden spoon. The itchiness continued to be a full-time preoccupation, though occasionally I was able to busy my mind enough to forget the itchiness. Thankfully I was still able to manage a job.

My dad did his own research online. He came across a Korean medical forum where Dermatologist #3 would sometimes answer questions. My dad got his email address and send him a message explaining my situation. Dermatologist #3 wrote back saying he had seen many patients with similar symptoms, most of them having recently returned from Africa. There are germs and diseases specific to Africa that doctors in developed countries don’t know about and therefore cannot diagnose. He said that I most likely had a water-borne microparasite, probably from when I visited Victoria Falls towards the end of my time in Zambia. He said these microparasites live in the body for about four to six weeks before dying and getting flushed out of the system. I had to hang on for another two weeks or so, and stop scratching myself. Otherwise it really will turn into an itch-scratch syndrome even after the microparasites are gone.

Someone acknowledging my experience, confirming that I wasn’t crazy, and having an explanation for the itching gave me incredible relief. Having an end-game allowed me to put mind over matter for the next week and change. The itchiness, the rashes and welts, they really did go away. And I am elated to say that I do not my spend my days scratching my privates in agony.

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