Unsolicited Arrogance (October 10, 2013)

“Good advice is often annoying. Bad advice never is.”

-French Proverb

I’m a huge fan of pithy, enigmatic quotes, but the Frenchies couldn’t be more wrong on this account. After weeks of sitting on the receiving end of advice from friends and strangers alike, I can confidently declare that really tone deaf guidance is more offensive than the helpful variety. Although when it comes to perfect strangers, I’d rather prefer they offer nothing at all.

For several months I have been grappling with a progressively debilitating case of pompholyx eczema on my hands. It is a particularly mercurial form of the skin affliction which affects only one of out every 20 eczema sufferers. Its causes are mysterious and there is no known cure. Available treatments offer limited results, are typically expensive (Coming soon in my annual blog series: America’s Healthcare System is Still Broken – Part III, wherein I examine an employed woman with a “Cadillac” health insurance plan dropping $540 on necessary medications at the local CVS), and bear the threat of their own detrimental side effects.

The attacks are affecting my work, exercise and wellness routines and most certainly, my self-esteem. It is my firmly held belief that creative types such as writers are already cursed with inordinately high levels of insecurity and self-consciousness. The misfortune of contracting a disfiguring and crippling chronic condition compounds the pain of profile immeasurably.

For the most part, friends and colleagues who want to discuss my illness and treatment course are loving people who mean well. Though there are times I’d rather reflect on something, anything besides the constant burning itch and unattractive qualities of my hands, I have patiently indulged their collective desire to help. I’m confident that I’d have much bigger problems to deal with if these souls lost interest in me altogether. And there have been times where the sincere pain I see in the eyes of a valued friend, envisioning my suffering, acts as an imperceptible balm for the heart and soul. May I never grow so cranky from inveterate discomfort that I stop appreciating these overtures.

I have noticed a real peculiarity, however, on the part of people who don’t know me from Adam. And it has taken me the more by surprise since I hail from, and still reside in Chicago, a bustling metropolis known for harried citizens who shuffle quickly down the streets, avoiding eye contact at all costs. It’s as though my embarrassing malformation has become community property. I can be quietly minding my business, reading a book or what have you, staring out the window of a CTA train. And it’s just then that an interloper crashes my reverie, feeling fully empowered to question and offer unwanted, asked for counsel about my “problem.”

I give you two anecdotes from the last 10 days, by way of example.

On my way home from a particularly dispiriting workout at the gym, where my hands cracked and bled profusely after relatively mild strength training, a man seated next to me posed the following question: “Excuse me, but I’m a professional chef and I have to ask. Did you burn your hands?”

Before I could organize my thoughts, humiliated blood rushed to my cheeks. I love the anonymity that city life offers and I was suddenly acutely aware that the hated eczema came with a price I’d never anticipated. I no longer blended. Once I recovered from this horror, I grew incensed by the man’s impertinence. The visibility of my affliction does not make it a topic for public discourse, and the whole “I’m a professional chef” declaration seemed to suggest that this show of concern was merely an excuse to talk about himself.

This was one for Ms. Manners. What do the rules of civility say about my obligation to indulge and respond to such unwanted conversation? I downshifted to the sunny disposition I typically reserve for telemarketers and unwashed tavern suitors: a dead eyed, nail-to-the-floor bitch stare accompanied by as few words as possible, spoken with flat affect. To my later amusement, the man seemed to take this disinclination for engagement on my part as a character flaw. I had to appreciate the irony.

But you know, CTA weirdos and miscreants abound, and I was ready to chalk it up as a one-time, annoying encounter. Until last night.

I was on my way home from the pharmacy chatting with my younger sister on the phone. I reached the station where I was to change trains, when a young woman tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around briefly and pointed to my cell. I figured she wanted directions or something and would understand to seek them elsewhere. Alas, she wouldn’t let up and I told my sister I’d call her right back. The most creative fiction writer in the world could not have devised what I heard next:

“Sorry to bother you, but you know, doctors aren’t going to tell you that it’s all the toxins in your body causing that problem with your hands. What you need is a colonic. It will clean your system and fix you right up.”

I believe my mind actually went somewhere else for several seconds. I was paralyzed and emotionless, incapable of doing anything more than standing and blinking. Then a well-bred autopilot functionality kicked in. I thanked the women for her counsel, told her I had a train to catch and walked away.

What. The. Hell. My beloved and hilarious friend Beth summarily labeled this “The Magic Poop Theory,” offering me my first genuine laugh of a trying evening.

This pattern of unmitigated gall has instilled more than a wish for invisibility. I am left wondering about the crust of people. When did it become socially acceptable to identify people’s physical ailments and then discuss bathroom cleansing rituals in the same breath? I mean, shouldn’t she have bought me dinner first?

I don’t know if anyone who might be tempted to quiz me about my hands will come across this blog post, but just in case let me be clear. John Q. Public: your desire for information and need to pass yourself off as an expert of some sort pains me more than the pompholyx. Real talk. I am under the care of several physicians and have tried more remedies in the last several months than you can imagine. You do not have the answer, and even if you did, frankly, your disrespect for my personal space and privacy renders me unwilling to hear it.

I read somewhere recently that there is strong connection between chronic conditions and the development of agoraphobia. At the time, I found the relationship puzzling. How could the spirit crushing itch and burn with which I struggle lead to a fear of open spaces? Turns out I was missing the Jean Paul Sartre principle so important to this correlation. Hell is other people, or in my case, outsiders who mistake my condition’s perverse visibility for a “Help Wanted” sign.

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