As we were saying our family prayers this Thursday evening, I looked down and saw some sort of bug on my leg. I’m guessing a flying insect of some sort had wriggled it’s way in through a screen, or had come in with us earlier in the evening. However it came in, it was sitting there on my jeans, right above my knee. My response was very calm, collected, reserved, and appropriate for the middle of the rosary: I stopped in the middle of the bible verse I was reading, yelped, and swatted it away, jumping in my seat. OK, so maybe it wasn’t so calm. Alright, I’ll admit it. It totally freaked me out. In fact, for most of the rest of the rosary, I was fighting to keep my focus. I kept expecting to find more bugs, and I felt phantom bugs all around. In fact, thinking about it now, I feel the faintest itchy sensations again.
After this happened, as I was thinking about my reaction, I had some realizations. The first one was that it shouldn’t be too surprising that I reacted so dramatically to a bug on me, considering the conditions I once lived in. To me, it doesn’t seem too unreasonable for anyone to be bothered by bugs in their home, and I know feeling phantom bug sensations is a pretty typical response, and I’m sure my own response is rather magnified by past experiences. Whenever I see a bug of any type in our apartment, whether it’s fruit flies, or a spider or some other creepy crawly that meanders into our home, I remember where I once was, and some of the worst living conditions I’ve been in. I worry about backsliding to that point again somehow, even though, rationally, I know that I’m in a much different place in my life, and the likelihood of that backslide is very, very small. Fear, however, is irrational. Thankfully, though, this fear is not immobilizing, and the worries and memories are at an appropriate and manageable level.
Another train of thought that I had, after the “bug during the rosary” incident, was about itchiness in general in my past. For as long as I can remember, a common reaction I’ve had to stress and overwhelming emotions is, as mom and I nicknamed it, “the itchies.” “The itchies” would consist of feeling so tense, so upset, so angry, or some other extreme, difficult/unpleasant emotion, that I would feel like bugs were crawling all over me. I would itch all over, and usually in places I couldn’t reach, which would only magnify the frustration and tension, and often leave me crying and wriggling trying to scratch the itches and make it better. As a kid, it was hard to manage. It was a source of embarrassment for me. I felt ashamed, and wondered what was wrong with me. Did I just never outgrow tantrums somehow?
As I grew, though, “the itchies” followed me through time. Do I still throw myself onto the floor in tears trying to scratch every inch of my body? Generally, no, though the combination of “itchies” and my picking tendencies, my skin tends to always need a little extra TLC. I’ve gotten to the point, over time, where “the itchies” are bit more manageable, thankfully. When I feel the tension start to trigger an itch response in my nerves, I am able to acknowledge it and work on managing it, diffusing it. If it’s getting overwhelming, I can take a hot shower, or a bath with colloidal oatmeal, which helps to provide an external stimulus that can override the itching sensation, and also helps to calm the emotions that are the source of the problem in the first place.
With the lens of time and better self-awareness, I realize that “the itchies” were likely some of the first indications of my struggles with emotional health and possibly the first instances of anxiety in my life. I know that, with the recurring rounds of depression throughout my life, my depression is not purely based on emotional scar tissue or other external triggers, but rather has a chemical, chronic component to it. That is, no matter how much therapy I go through, no matter how many things I work through and reprocess, I will likely never be able to completely say goodbye to the frustrating antagonist that is depression, and that it’s a good possibility that depression was affecting me before I even remember experiencing specific symptoms. Combining this knowledge with the thoughts and realizations I’ve had about my physical reactions to tension in the past, I can’t help but wonder if the two are related or intertwined. I wonder if, as I grew and had to confront bigger and more challenging stressors and emotions, between the stage that was pre-set for a lifelong walk with depression and the relatively normal developmental challenges and struggles of learning how to manage emotions, combined with a personality that strives for order, everything combined into the perfect environment for “the itchies” to develop and, for some years, thrive.
Do I still struggle with managing stress? Definitely. Thankfully, I have a far fuller toolbox to help work through the stressful times, and even help prevent, or at least neutralize the impact of some of my older, recurring struggles, like the itchies. I am human, though, and my toolbox isn’t complete yet, and my proficiency with my tools is still developing, and that’s OK. Perfection is an unrealistic and unachievable expectation.
And so, after all these realizations, all these memories, all these thoughts, where do I end up? Well, in a place where I understand a bit more about myself, about some of the things I’ve struggled with for a long time, that I struggle with a bit less now. I can see some growth that has been so gradual over so long, that it’s been hard to see. And, well, I end up in a place where, thankfully, I didn’t find any other bugs after the one that instigated all of this reflection. In a way, I guess I’m ever so slightly grateful for that gross little thing that interrupted family prayer time.
What’s something that is, at best, an annoyance that you can actually be grateful for?