I think it’s my second grade portrait. I look like I have the chicken pox, except it’s not the chicken pox but a forehead dotted with scabs, the result of habitual scratching. (Strangely, I’ve never been a viola player. What’s the difference between a viola player and a dog? A dog knows when to stop scratching.)
I can remember lying in bed as a small child, scratching craters into my skin, probably the result of the poisonous combination of boredom and anxiety. One Saturday morning in particular is fixed in my memory. If my brother and I got out of bed too early, we got into trouble, so I lay in bed, catatonic with ennui, digging away at my forehead like I might find gold. My parents would reprimand me but not investigate any further than skin deep, it would seem.
My third grade teacher, who was something of a fanatic—she was the only teacher I ever had who paddled anyone in the class (not me!) or read the Bible, in 1986!—noticed this scratching habit and kept an eye on it until I quit doing it. For a time, I stopped. She even gave me a certificate, saying, “Mike has made it!” But the underlying problem was never solved, and it wasn’t long until the habit resumed. (That teacher, incidentally, left the profession that very year for a career in podiatry. I suspect she didn’t get along with the post-Eisenhower ways of public education.)
Anxiety isn’t all that drives this habit, though. I’ve always had something of a macabre fascination with scabs: how they form, how they heal, their translucence—yes, I know this is gross; I’m just telling you the truth. Part of what started this habit is that when I’d get a cut and a scab would form, I’d think, “Get this damn thing OFF me RIGHT NOW!” So I’d pull at it, and out flowed blood and water (which phenomenon is nothing miraculous, by the way). I’m often fascinated by the different consistencies of blood. It almost seems unpredictable.
Then there’s another aspect that I found really confusing, particularly at first: I experienced any pain associated with scab-picking as momentarily exhilarating. One of my trumpet teachers once accused me of being a masochist, and I can’t find any basis on which to argue with him. There’s this bolt of electricity that courses through the body at times with pain which can be thrilling—not that anyone should look forward to seeing me on a St. Andrew’s Cross any time soon.
Over the years, this habit has come and gone with fluctuations in happiness and anxiety, like eating too much, drinking too much, and having to sleep with the television on. About ten years ago it was really bad when I was in a place and a job that I hated and which gave me a lot of stress. At that time, I could still obscure the habit on my scalp under what was left of my hair, but now I’m bald as a cueball and there is no hiding it. It’s come back with a vengeance in the past few months. My scalp seems to be the first place my fingers crawl, and usually in my sleep, which makes it very hard to control. The advice of a friend to sleep with my hands in my pants would not seem to be foolproof in this matter. I now have a giant spot on the top of my head. It looks terrible and I wish I didn’t do it, but every morning, I wake up to a dome covered in blood.
I hate this habit. It’s embarrassing and gross. I had two dates last week. One was over coffee, so I could leave my hat on to cover up this blemish; the other was over lunch, so I had to bare all. Then I’m left to wonder what people think. Is he a leper? A cutter? The strangest documented case of herpes ever? It’s awful.
If only men were Angels! Maybe these wounds aren’t so much self-inflicted, at least in a poetic sense, as they are inflicted by wrestling matches with the demons that visit me at night, the devils of self-doubt, regret, sadness, loneliness. If only we could flap our wings and rise above our own mixed natures so easily! But I’m not dumb enough to think that we actually deserve better. Why, though, do I have to wear the marks of my affliction on my own body where everyone can see them? Only a megalomaniac would want to be so manifestly tormented. Well, maybe I am a megalomaniac and I’m the only one who doesn’t know it. Alas, even Angels aren’t immune from any of this. Lucifer was the greatest of them all, until he wasn’t.
While this habit is gross, it’s also picturesque, or illustrative. Vulnerasti cor meum—you have ravished my heart. My heart is wounded, and I bleed because of it. Your heart is likely wounded, too, and maybe you just bleed in a more allegorical way. The world is a valley of tears. Maybe my morning routine, though, is the cause for hope. I wake up, stumble into the bathroom, take a piss, glance into the mirror. It looks like a small volcano has erupted on my head. I bow down, bend over the sink, and wash off the clotted sadness. I make a cup of coffee and start all over. Life is too short, too precious, to be sticking our fingers in our wounds all the time.
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