Eczema: A Young Woman's Story

The author chooses to remain anonymous

Until recently, I'd never heard the word “excoriation,” but now I know it was my primary symptom: “scratching so severe as to tear the flesh.” That's what I did every night, clawing until blood flowed. I was shocked to read that neurotic excoriation is caused by emotional difficulties 98 percent of the time. I was taken to doctor after doctor from 1957 to 1971, but this was never mentioned; no one acknowledged that I had emotional problems. Perhaps my parents thought the problems would go away if they pretended they weren't there. Maybe they were ashamed to admit their daughter might have such problems.

Nighttime was the hardest time. Without the day's distractions, it was just me and my itching, me and my skin. Kids with severe eczema have an early self-awareness that comes from confronting themselves in the dark every night. The nightmare is your own body; the monster is you. This is emotionally devastating to a child because it breeds self-hatred; when you feel so bad, you think you must be very bad—what did you do that you're being punished for? Parents' reassurances are dwarfed by the power of the itch, like an evil spirit. It was basically a solitary struggle.

At age eight, I was fascinated by Houdini because he had been able to escape any physical confinement: handcuffs, straitjackets, chains. I myself was put into straitjackets, handcuffs, chains, and gloves to keep me from ripping my skin to shreds every night. I would spend my nights figuring ways out of confinement; I'd wriggle my skinned and bleeding wrists out of the cuffs and tear at my flesh with a sense of triumph.

Eventually, I learned to stop myself from scratching by concentration: I tucked my hands under my butt and pretended they were paralyzed. But whether I struggled to free myself to scratch or to stop myself from scratching, I would strive only for a harsh physical control over my body. For three years, I was a wild animal with myself as prey.

I was a secretive child, always ashamed of my skin. Trying to hide, to pretend I was normal, to fool everyone by remaining mysterious, I lived in a fantasy world. I hated to explain my allergies: I told all sorts of lies, believing no one would go near me if they knew the truth. I became cynical at a very young age, hardening myself after so many disappointments: the doctors promising miracle cures, my parents promising miracles from God.

Looking back, I can see the sexual side of my eczema. I was able to touch and play with my body more openly than most children; strangers were always peering at and touching my naked body. I needed to have oils and lotions rubbed all over me, a task I particularly enjoyed when performed by my father. He gave me a good workout with his big, muscular hands.

Scratching was like ecstasy to me: digging my nails in and running them up and down my body was orgasmic; I moaned and grunted as I scratched and clawed myself.

I can remember the advantages. Everyone gave me and my skin attention; it made me important, although in a negative way. I got sympathy and affection that other kids didn't get. It was a way to miss school, sleep late, be lazy and spoiled, feel special and unique, spend time alone and in fantasy, avoid social confrontations.

My situation was painful, but it was safe and familiar, keeping me dependent and afraid of risks. I always had an excuse to avoid an unwanted task. I was the exception to every rule.

Before age eleven, I believed a fierce vigilance was the only defense against the all-powerful itch. The only relaxation I remember from those years was exhausted collapse after scratching myself into a frenzy. But then I learned to relax consciously.

This came about through my attempts to overcome my insomnia. Left to themselves, my hands would scratch automatically, and it was scratching that kept me awake. To keep my hands otherwise occupied, I held them up in front of me and touched the fingertips together one by one, watching them slowly move and lightly touch, thumb to thumb, forefinger to forefinger, down the row and back again. In this way, I hypnotized myself to sleep.

Your Guide to Eczema


Take a Personalized Health Test