The scratching started in grad school.
I didn’t notice what I was doing at first. It was a background hum. A self-conscious tic. An unnoticed behavior that barely infiltrated the die-hard to-do lists lunging in my brain. Soon, though, the slow and sporadic scratches morphed into something else.
First, a feeling.
Then a want.
Then a need.
Scratching my legs became my strange habitual routine. Like how runners stretch before a race, or singers belt out strange verses to warm up the vocal chords: Mi, mi, mi, mi, mi, mi, mi. Ah, ah, ah, ah, ahhhhh. There’s more in the middle of the Egg McMuffin than the egg in the middle of the muffin.
I was fresh out of my undergraduate years at Central Michigan University. The ink was barely dry on my diploma. I hung my black graduation gown in the closet of my old room at my parents’ house, while the diploma went in a maroon and gold frame.
I felt proud. And mature.
At nearly 22-years-old, I had mentally switched my career path about three or four times in the past five years. I originally wanted to be a journalist. Or, as I specifically referred to it with flair and pride, “a magazine reporter.”
Since my wide-eyed high school days in my small hometown, my heart was set on working at Seventeen magazine. I wanted the career of Kate Hudson’s character in the movie “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” writing witty columns and relatable articles geared toward young women. The flashy and bright and bold of New York City appealed to me like a shiny lure to a large mouth bass. The complete opposite of the brown dirt and green woods and Black Angus cows I grew up around.
Then I went to college.
My Journalism 101 professor snuffed out the flames of my passion-fueled plan. It wasn’t his fault, though. He was telling his truth…and in doing so, I discovered mine.
“NEWSPAPERS ARE DYING!” he bellowed from the front of the class. “It will not be the same in five years. No one will read newspapers anymore.”
I translated his claims to mean I would never find a job. I determined that I needed a new route that veered away from journalism. Which goes to show my hunger for the career path wasn’t strong enough. Luckily, I fell in love with a Communication course I took the next semester.
I decided to major in Communication and minor in Journalism. The journalism professor retired. Everyone was where they should be.
The next four years went certain and smooth...from an academic standpoint, anyway. Time marched on. Graduation loomed ahead. I was too involved in the Now to focus on the Later.
One night during the spring of junior year, my roommate asked me what I wanted to do after college. We were getting ready to go to a Stoplight party. The kind where you wore green if you were single, red if you were in a relationship, or yellow if things were, erm, complicated.
“I’m not really sure,” I admitted. I picked at the cheap brown carpet that covered the apartment floor.
“Well, what do you like?” she asked. Her bright red shirt matched her plastic earrings and shiny red heels.
“Um,” I stammered. What didI like? “Writing.” I paused. “People. I like learning about people. Their stories. How they act. Why they do what they do.”
My roommate looked at me thoughtfully. “Maybe you could be a counselor or something? You’re good at listening.”
“Yeah,” I considered. “Maybe.”
The seed of doubt was planted in my brain. My stomach dropped as realization rang a bell above my head. Sure, I loved my communication classes. But the lessons weren’t exactly a direct arrow pointing toward a specific career. “You can do ANYTHING with communication!” the department brochures boasted.
If only I wanted to be a dentist, I whined. Or a teacher. Something with a direct title. A clear path.
My stress levels grew. I played the comparison game. Everyone around me felt so certain about the future. Physical Therapists. Speech Pathologists. Business. Photography.
I was a question mark in a world of periods. Uncertainty amongst the statements.
Who would I be in this world? I subscribed to the belief that who you are was defined by what you do.
I needed a plan. And I needed it quick.
That summer, I got an internship in the Public Affairs department of a large corporation near my hometown. Amongst the cubicles and heels and suits, I had a light bulb moment during my lunch hour.
“I should be a COMMUNICATION PROFESSOR!” I chewed my turkey sandwich with excitement. YES. Of course. I loved my classes. I enjoyed academia. I liked people. This was The Answer. I finished my lunch feeling full in more ways than one.
My fresh career path was inspired by a suggestion from my favorite professor. She once wrote in blue ink in the margin of my completed exam: “Ever think about grad school?”
Nope. But now I was. Oh, I certainly was.
I pursued my path—COMMUNICATION PROFESSOR! WOO HOO! — with passion and certainty. When my last year of college began in the fall, I applied to graduate school for Communication at CMU. I was accepted. Even better, I was offered a teaching assistantship that would help pay for my classes.
My future was in place. All was well.
Until it wasn’t.
Fall semester—my first year as a graduate student—began. And the scratching did, too.
As a teaching assistant, I felt extremely anxious. I had felt nerves before (hi track meets and public speaking class and dance recitals) but this was on a whole different level. I was a fish trying to walk on sand. On days when I taught, I didn’t know where to put my pent-up energy. The nerves. The insecurities. The doubt.
So I scratched.
I’d sit on my bed and splay my notes and COM 101 Power Point presentation printouts on my white comforter with the hydrangea print. I’d go through what I needed to teach, what I needed to say, what I could do to help guide my students…who weren’t that much younger than me. I felt incompetent. In over my head.
My knees folded towards my chin. As I read the notes, I’d take my right hand and scratch the flesh on my legs in front of me. Right where runners get shin splints, or children get bruises from falling on the playground.
All the while, the worry repeated in my head. The forever itch I couldn’t scratch, no matter how hard I tried. How am I supposed to become a professor if I feel this way?
Sometimes I’d scratch my legs so fervently that I drew blood. My shins became pockmarked with scabs that eventually grew into scars. Like a cat with sharp claws, I had turned my legs into my own personal scratching post. An accessible outlet for anxiety.
I scratched on and off for two years. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I never thought it was a symptom of anxiety, or stress. Just a weird reflex.
When I finally graduated with my Master’s degree and said goodbye to teaching for good, the scratching stopped. My legs were clear. The scratches faded. The need to itch melted away.
Until this autumn.
Our puppy Daisy was sick. She was lethargic, and quiet, and sad. Her brown eyes—usually so full of life and curiosity—were dull like two flat coffee beans. She wouldn’t eat. She wouldn’t drink. She wouldn’t play.
We took her to the vet, who gave her an antibiotic. But her lethargy continued.
I didn’t know what to do.
So I returned to what I knew what I didn’t know what to do. I scratched. And scratched. And scratched.
We took Daisy to a new vet, who determined she had an infection in her back that needed to be removed. They performed surgery. The brown fur on her back was shaved away.
She had scabs. So did I.
Her infection went away. My scratching did not.
One night soon after Daisy had healed, I took a shower. The hot water pelted my back. Steam clouded the glass door. I pulled up my leg up to the shower wall to shave my legs.
As I ran the cheap pink razor from my ankle to my knee, I examined my shins. Red scratches and scabs dotted my skin like a road map.
“I need to stop this,” I thought. I ran my fingers along my skin. “This isn’t normal.”
The scratching had jumped from my subconscious to my conscious. It was no longer a casual reaction, but a serious issue I need to address.
Six months since Daisy’s surgery, and I admit: the scratching isn’t completely gone. But it’s not so bad, either. It’s engrained in me as a habit—a fight or flight response— so it’s harder to kick.
My husband helps. He holds my fingers to his chest with care. “Don’t scratch, my love,” he says tenderly. I listen. I try to listen.
Sometimes I feel like I need to wear those mittens like newborn babies. Other times, I curl my hands into iron fists and fight the urge with determination. I try to convince my thoughts to overcome my actions.
I was scared to share about my scratching. I didn’t want you to judge me, or see me as weak, or weird.
But I’m also human. I believe we all have things, you know? Weird behaviors, or secrets, or tendencies. I guess it’s like anything else that people use to cope. Like food. Or drugs. Or alcohol.
We don’t always pick what we do to respond to life. But we can decide if we use those behaviors as a crutch.