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Hello – my name is Nigel and I’m a scratchaholic

Hello, my name is Nigel and I’m a scratchaholic. I’m now in my fifties and I’ve had eczema since I was a baby. I don’t remember any point in my life when I haven’t had it. I’ve never particularly talked about my eczema, and certainly not shared anything on forums about it. In fact I’ve always really rather tried to hide it, and despite trying everything to fix it, it has simply not massively improved.

However, after self-diagnosing, identifying, and accepting I’m a scrathaholic, I have witnessed a very dramatic change in not only my, eczema, but overall wellbeing as a result! Since treating my condition as an addiction I’m astonished at the changes taking place.

I have very engrained memories of suffering with eczema throughout childhood. I remember hating water, and the stinging pain of encountering it. I recall with profound sadness memories of being the small child in ‘country dancing’ that no one wanted to partner with, as they would have to touch me, and even worse, hold my hand. I remember the many names, from Salty (due to the white skin) to Dandy (dandruff) for the dry scalp. I remember being too sore to be touched yet wanting to be held. I remember feeling alone, isolated and hating my skin. I used to think, why me?

I also know I’ve not had it or got it too bad. I know there are others out there who suffer far more than me, and for that you have my very deepest and heart felt sympathies.

I’ve tried everything to ‘fix it’. Don’t talk to me about the goats milk my parents desperately tried to swap for dairy milk as a kid. I’m sorry to those who love it, but to my taste it’s just grim! I’ve tried patch tests to find ‘the trigger’ with nothing conclusive. I’ve tried dry wraps, wet wraps and if rapping would have made a difference, I would have tried that as well! I’ve tried homeopathic remedies and still use prescription medication to manage it.

If I was to describe my eczema, I would say I have: atopic dermatitis; mixed in with some hand eczema; a good dollop of neurodermatitis and some lichenification on the side. Fortunately, now it’s mostly on my hands and feet. However, my hands now look like those of a person much much older, after 50 years of abuse due to the constant demands of the need to scratch them. The skin is both thin, and yet in places thick, due to the repeated use of steroidal cream and constantly needing to repair itself.

So, what led me to realise I am, and identify as, a scratchaholic?

In the last few years, I have become more and more frustrated and desperate about the condition of my hands. More and more embarrassed and ashamed of them. Guilty at the way they look, knowing I had caused the damage, and cross at myself that I could do nothing to stop myself from scratching them.

I’ve become so familiar with the itch-scratch cycle I could virtually set my watch by it. In the last two years, I started having what I could only describe as ‘eczema attacks’. When an ‘attack’ happened I would find myself physically unable not to claw my hands into a bloody mess. My heart would race, my breathing would become shallow. It would only stop once the pain and damage caused would blissfully replace the itching. I would then spend days nursing them back to a semblance of normality, only for it to happen all over again.

It was as I started to ponder this total inability to stop myself scratching, that I got to thinking. I started to think about when I scratched, why I did it, and actually how it made me feel. I started to realise at times it was a guilty pleasure.

Then I started to recognise just how good it felt! Not the scratching, but the reward from scratching the caused the itch to stop. I thought I had over analysed things, a tendency of mine, until I actually Googled it and found a number of articles by scientists and researchers on the connection between itching, scratching and the addictive nature of it.

In one article I read, ‘Researchers may be closer to understanding why scratching evokes a rewarding and pleasurable sensation in patients with chronic itch. Using advanced MRI, they looked at brain activity while chronic itch patients and healthy subjects scratched. They found areas of the brain involved in motor control and reward processing were more activated in chronic itch patients while they scratched. This may help explain the addictive scratching experienced by these patients.’

In another article I read, ‘They found that the brain’s reward circuits are involved in both the pleasure of scratching and the relief of itching. These same circuits play a role in craving, pleasure, and even addiction, which helps explain how the urge to scratch—and the initial relief it brings—can feel so strong. It might also provide a clue to why scratching an itch leaves you wanting more.’

I felt like a light bulb had come on in my head! I could identify with this ‘chronic itch’ being described. I could identify with the relief gained from scratching, a genuine, real profound and physical relief.

So, this got me to thinking about how you treat addictions. I had recently watched some films (movies for our American audience) where the lead characters had become addicts in their life. I was particularly struck by the film ‘Rocketman’. Wikipedia describes it as a, ‘biographical musical fantasy drama film’ about Elton John. Part of the story deals with his addictions and a lot of the story line is carried along as he attends an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The epilogue notes, ‘that Elton has been sober for over twenty-eight years.’ This got me looking into the 12 step programme.

There are, funnily enough, 12 steps, and when I reviewed them there are a number that don’t apply to a scratchaholic. But the following I felt were relevant:

1. I admit I am powerless over my compulsive behaviour. I am sick of trying to overcome it and failing.
2. I believe that only God (or high power of choice) can help me change and overcome. I cannot achieve this in my own strength and will power.
3. I make a daily decision to not to ‘scratch’ and turn my will and life over to the care of God (or high power of choice).
4. I was entirely ready to have God remove the need to scratch from my character.

Without significant study of the programme, I came to the conclusion that I would adapt the approach. However, there were some key pieces I would keep. One, that I would not rely on my strength and will power not to scratch but rely on the strength of my higher power. Second, I would only take one day at a time. I decided I was ‘entirely ready’, and being a born-again Christian, I asked God to help me.

I made that decision 73 days ago, and 73 days later I am astonished at the changes! Each day, to start with, I made a conscious choice t ask God to help me just for that day, to not scratch if my hands itched. I stated that I was not able to stop on my own, but that I believed God could help me. I just took one day at a time.

The change was remarkable and continues to be remarkable. For 73 days I’ve simply not scratched my hands. Yes, the odd occasional rub, but not enough to break the skin. The thick lichencfication of knuckles is turning soft. The itch/scratch cycle seems like it is broken.

I am so amazed, and so surprised! I just felt I had to share this with some people who would know just how much this means to me. I’m overjoyed.

However, I am not taking it for granted. While it might not now be every day, I still recall that I am not able to achieve this outcome on my own. I still think I am a scratchaholic! But each day that passes my skin and well being improves.

Is there anyone that identifies with my story? If so, maybe you’re a scratchaholic as well? If so, I would encourage you to try.

  1. Hi Nigel! Thank you SO much for sharing your story with us. Wow you've been through so much with eczema since childhood. When you shared about kids not wanting to partner with you during country dancing and calling you names... that hits home to many people here. It's great to hear that faith has helped you so much. Have you found anything else in terms of treatment/skincare helpful in this journey? I hope to hear back from you. -Sarah ( Team Member)

    1. - Thank you for sharing your story with us. You have certainly been on a journey with your eczema, that's for sure. I think it is fantastic that your faith has helped you get through a difficult period, but there are many in our community who do not subscribe to a higher power, and instead rely on things like diet and medication to help them through their suffering. I hope your eczema continues to improve. Best wishes - Pete, Team Member

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