I like to think of myself as, um, durable? You know, rugged, kind of… in a ‘put-your-head-down-and-get-through-it’ sort of way. But as I recover from one of my more difficult physical challenges I feel compelled to tell you that my perception of myself was somewhat shaken. Or, more accurately, rocked to the core. Last month I experienced my first bout of poison ivy.
First and foremost, let me say to those who’ve shared this experience, I’m sorry. I had no idea the suffering involved in this particular afflication and I’m genuinely sorry I didn’t express a deeper sense of compassion. I had no idea. Not a clue. Not even a vauge understanding of what you went through. Please consider yourselves properly empathized with.
It came as quite a shock; I’ve hiked and kayaked and generally rolled around in the lush fields of my Black Hills home for most of my adult life and I’ve never been “bitten” by the three-leaved devil. (I’d be knocking on wood if I thought it would save me now.) I was sure I was immune. So, when the tiny, itchy little bumps appeared all over the bottom half of both legs, I forgave myself for succumbing and I scratched. Lots. And then I sprayed myself with Apple Cider Vinegar and called it good. When I woke up two nights in a row fantasizing about cutting my legs off and dipping them in acid, I considered the possibility that it hadn’t been bites from tiny mosquitos.
A cursory Google search affirmed my fears. So, I slathered myself in a paste of activated charcoal, washed thoroughly, coated myself in ACV, and – when it dried – I doused the fire-breathing bumps with Tea Tree oil. (Perhaps a mistake, in hindsight, but, you know… li’l hippie didn’t want chemical stuff all over my legs. And, you know, I’m lazy. I already had the hippie-stuff in the house.) I tried hydrogen peroxide, health-food-store cream, hydrocortizone, and acetone in the form of nail polish remover (yes, I realize I had crossed into the ‘chemical’ world, here, but I was desperate).
FIVE REAL DAYS LATER I was still waking up in the middle of the night, having already scratched to bleeding in my sleep. On the porch swing at 11:45pm, waiting for my legs to turn to blocks of ice so I could go back to bed, I found myself reduced to a sniveling, whiny, teenager. ‘This is so awful. Why me? What message is the Universe is trying to send me here? Why am I able to get through months of rehab, learning to walk, waiting for broken bones and skin grafts to heal and this – THIS! ITCHING! – is reducing me to a victimized, infantile, 38-year-old woman?’ I understood then that sheer force of will pales in comparison to the compulsory reactions of a physical body. While I can accept that pain exists, and put it out of my mind… just get through… the desire to itch in that context was so profoundly undeniable, that I fantasized about self-mutilation just to get it over with. I even seriously considered re-scheduling meetings – because, you know, itchy.
FIFTEEN REAL DAYS LATER I slept through the night for the first time, and that joy – in and of itself – gave me an awareness of what I could gain from this; gratitude. It’s the same kind of feeling I get after backpacking. Trudging around, days on end, body screaming, I come home from such excursions and collapse onto my couch, suddenly and deeply grateful for the cusions. For the fridge just ten steps away. For the soft snoring of my pup. For the peace of stillness. For an endless supply of water. That immense and overwhelming gratitude is as much the joy of backpacking as the stunning vistas, glimpses of wildlife, and prevasive reminder that I am blessed just to be able to move.
Poison Ivy gave me that same level of gratitude. For the ability to sleep comfortably in my bed, instead of awkwardly positioned so that my legs didn’t get warm enough to itch. For the ability to get into to bed without a half-hour’s worth of preparation. For the ability to wear shoes and socks without the itch-inspiring chafe. For the ability to scratch an itch without fear of spreading toxin to otherwise un-affected parts of my body. For the ability to take my pants off without concern for stirring up an unquenchable desire (to itch. Gutter minds.). For my general health.
It was a profound reminder that I have a lot to be grateful for. Far more than I give credit to in my morning meditations. Not just ‘big’ things, like my warm, comfortable home, my joyful, stable career, the people who love me and whom I love… but big little things.
It also reminded me that I have under-appreciated the value of compassion and empathy. Even for those things we haven’t personally experienced. Perhaps especially for those things. How lucky am I that my worst problem is hell-level itching? Seriously.
The morning after the first full night of sleep I must have spent at least 10 minutes, eyes closed, on my meditation cushion, feeling – really, deeply, profoundly feeling – how grateful and blessed I am. Let us all pause and take a moment to feel our blessings, without the inspiration of what I now consider to be the most dangerous plant I’ve ever met. Perhaps that can be the universal healing-blam that will help us all live happier lives. Give it a shot. It’s a lovely feeling. But stay away from leaves of three.