Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Everything is Illuminated

I have finally figured out what's been wrong with me all these years!

Of late, I've had a disturbing rash on my face. You may have noticed. If you've never seen me with the rash, you're lucky. It wasn't pretty. Of all places to have a disturbing rash, smack on the face is kinda the worst.

Its first actual appearance was maybe 10 years ago. I was working at the MTV at the time, and the uber-slick corridors of MTV were not the sort of place where you'd want to be seen with a red blotch on your face, even a small one. And the rash did start out very small. About the size of the fingernail on your little finger. So, in the grand scheme of things, not a very big deal, but still... there it was.

On my face.


And the only thing beautiful young corporate media co-worker types had a harder time dealing with than a fellow employee with a small red blotch on his face, was direct communication about something potentially embarrassing. SO, while I was riding a packed elevator up 42 stories, one of the young ladies would clear her throat, then say to one of the young men something like...

YOUNG LADY: You know, my sister started developing a skin condition.
YOUNG MAN: Really? What did she do?
YOUNG LADY: Well, at first she tried aloe, but it didn't work. So she went to a dermatologist who gave her a cream, and it cleared it right up!
YOUNG MAN: Oh, that's good. Yeah, I think there are lots of good dermatologists, right here in Manhattan!
YOUNG LADY: Why, I'm sure you're right about that.
etc. etc.

Kind of sweet of them, in a way, to want to give me super obvious advice without actually talking to me. Why, I'm sure it was hard for them just having to ride in an elevator with me, what with me being so horribly disfigured and all. Made me wonder what their conversation would've been like had John Merrick worked on an upper floor at the MTV...

LADY: You know, my sister was developing an incredibly severe case of elephantiasis.
MAN: Really? What did she do?
LADY: She killed herself by jumping off of a really tall building in mid-town.
MAN: That was nice of her, to spare us normal healthy folk having to see her horrible twisted form every day.
LADY: Yes, very considerate of her. We all appreciated the gesture very much.
[John Merrick shifts uncomfortably back and forth in the tightly packed elevator.]
MAN: I think there are lots of really tall buildings, right around here, aren't there?
LADY: Why, yes. You're right. In fact, we're in one right now!
MAN: And look... the elevator we're in goes all the way up to the 53rd floor. Isn't there an observation deck on the 53rd floor?
[John Merrick sighs heavily and rolls his eyes.]

Of course, it had occurred to me plenty of times that perhaps I should see a dermatologist, but I was only a temp back then, with no health insurance, and the MTV didn't pay temps very well, so it would take a while to save up enough money for an actual doctor's appointment.

But I did eventually save up some cash and found a dermatologist in the yellow pages (I picked one based on proximity to my apartment). When I got there, I filled out the reams of paperwork with all my info, personal medical history, family medical history, etc. Then I sat in the waiting room for an hour. Then I was finally shown to a small examination room. I sat on the exam table. For another hour. Then a gruff older man in a white lab coat came in, looked at my face for 3 seconds, declared "This is caused by stress -- you must be under stress at your job," and wrote me an infinitely renewable prescription for a topical steroid cream. Then he gave me a heaping handful of tiny little free sample tubes of the same cream. "Only use a tiny amount, and only on the affected area."

I didn't have the nerve, or the time, to say, "But doctor, I'm only a temp and have no stress on the job. I have the easiest job in the world. The only thing causing me stress in my life is the rash! Ipso facto... you must be full of crap!"

After handing me all the tiny tubes, he told me to settle up at the reception desk on my way out, and left the room.

I'd waited two hours. He'd spent under a minute with me. The receptionist said, "That comes to $210.00"

I was fuming with impotent rage as I carried the most expensive free samples of steroid goo in the world home in my jacket pocket assuming they wouldn't do shit for me. But out of sheer curiosity, I did apply the goo to the rash, and after a day and a half, the rash was basically gone, and holy shit.

But about 6 days later, the rash returned. "Ahhhhh. Now I get it. I've been given a free taste, and the means by which to obtain more of the stuff in perpetuity, but after the free taste runs out, I've got to pay cash money. Possibly for the rest of my life. Assuming that I don't want the rash to come back."

So, at the first signs that the rash was coming back, I'd put the goo back on, and keep the ugliness at bay for another few days. It took so little of the cream to accomplish this that it would take months, or maybe even years to run out of the free taste. But there was this one time... I went on a trip and forgot to pack some magic steroid goo, and half-way through the trip the rash came back. And it came back quite a bit worse than it had been when I first started applying the goo.

"Ahhhh. So it's addictive and you need to gradually use more and more of it to remain rash-free!"

Clearly the underlying cause of the rash (whatever it was) wasn't going away. And the rash, though usually subdued by the cream, was actually getting steadily larger, covering more blotchy areas on my face.

But even using ever more of the cream, I still had plenty. In fact, I didn't run out until less than a year ago. It lasted 9 years. When I'd used up the last of the cream from the last tiny tube, I went searching through my personal archives and by some miracle of organizational forethought I managed to dig up that prescription slip, now slightly yellowed and faded with age. I took it to a local Duane Reade, but the Pharmacist said that it was too old to honor. The state of NY had long since changed the printed form for official drug prescriptions, and I'd have to go back to the doctor and get a new one.

Well, by that time, I not only had no health insurance, but had no job, no income and no savings. So a luxury like a visit to a doctor, for what basically amounted to cosmetic purposes, was just out of the question.

My face was a ticking time bomb. And within a few days, the rash exploded. It was pretty bad. At first, it was genuinely difficult to look at myself in the mirror. But harder than that was seeing other people's reaction to me -- most having to look away, or grin and bear it, pretending it wasn't there. And the cute girls I passed on the street who used to make eye-contact with me, weren't doing so anymore.

And my life did get more stressful, and the rash did get worse, so I thought maybe it was true. It was just a stress-reaction. So, the fact that I had it at all was just due to my inability to cope with stress?!

Am I that tightly wound? Most people would say I'm a pretty mellow guy. To the point of almost being unconscious. But maybe, being so mellow outwardly, in the midst of the so-obviously fucked-up times we live in, was causing me to internalize a lot of stress, which was then manifesting as this unsightly redness on my face.

I tried everything I could think of to just relax and de-stress, but nothing affected the rash. It became a fairly permanent feature. I almost got used to it. But not really. And some days it was worse than others. If it had always just been the same, then maybe I actually could've gotten used to it.

But then I got a job.

And after a few months, I was offered the job on a staff basis.

And soon after that, I had health benefits.

And I found a dermatologist within the plan (also by proximity to my apartment).

And he took one look at my face and said, "This is caused by fungus. Yeast. Or mold. I'm going to give you a prescription for harsh anti-fungal pills which are toxic to your liver. But, you'll only take one a day for two weeks, so nothing bad will happen. The yeast will be removed from your system, and your face will clear up."

And that's exactly what happened.

But in order not to have to constantly take liver-toxic pills, I have to prevent yeast and mold etc. from coming back.

This is exceedingly difficult if you eat or drink anything. The list of foods and beverages I must avoid is a long long list. I must not consume anything...

- sweet
- fermented (good lord!)
- smoked
- aged
- cured
- canned
- processed
- tangy
- leavened with yeast
- containing yeast extract
- exposed to air for more than a minute
- in any kind of sauce
- that has been left-over
- with cheese
- with a flavor
- containing any of the above

So, that pretty much covers it. What's left for me to subsist on?

- celery (blanched)
- mung beans
- algae
- the blood of the innocent

For people who love food (and I am one) and who love to drink alcohol (and I am one) these restrictions might seem cruel and unusual. A fate worse than death. Or at least, worse than a big red rash on your face. So... right. That was the choice in front of me. Either suffer the removal of all culinary joy and all future drunken revelry, or live with a face that will horrify women and children. And sensitive men.

Not exactly the worst tragedy ever to befall anyone, but still, a pretty raw deal. Raw enough to make one wonder "Why me?"

I spent quite a lot of time wondering why this had happened to me. Of course, it all comes down to Karma. But on a more concrete mundane level, what happened? I mean, the thing with yeasts and molds and fungi is... they're everywhere. In the air. On surfaces. Absolutely bloody everywhere. Maybe not the surface of the sun, but pretty much everywhere else. And other people aren't breaking out in facial rashes! Other people don't have to give up beer and cheese and wine and chocolate bars and bread and fruit and beer and soy sauce and cake and beer and beer! Why do I have to? No fair!

And then it came to me. I remembered something from my childhood. (Seriously.)

In New Jersey, from the age of two, I lived in an old brick house with old slate shingles. Unbeknown to any of us, the roof leaked a bit, right above the front wall of my bedroom. Whenever it rained, water seeped down inside my bedroom wall. This had no visible effect until one day when I was about 15, when all the wallpaper spontaneously fell down. Behind the wallpaper was the sickest, craziest amount of mold and mildew you can possibly imagine. Just tons of this poison sludge. And I'd been basically sleeping in it, breathing it, from the time I was a toddler, every day and night of my life. Until my immune system simply couldn't deal anymore. Because that's the only real danger. If you live in a normal environment, you inhale or otherwise ingest a bit of mold here and there and it's no big deal because your immune system can easily handle it. But if you're in a highly moldy environment for any length of time (like 8 hours a night every night for 13 years), you run the risk of getting so much of the stuff into your system that you become essentially permanently sensitized to it. So, even if you remove the excess mold from your environment, your body can't even tolerate normal background levels of molds and fungi etc.

The results? An allergic-type reaction consisting of all the normal symptoms: sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes and throat, and skin rash. All growing up, I had all of those except the skin rash. The rash didn't start until after I'd been living in my apartment in Hell's Kitchen for a couple years.

My apartment in Hell's Kitchen is on the top floor of an old 5-story brownstone. The landlord isn't the quickest to make any major repairs. Repairs on things like... the leaky roof [dun dun DUHHHHHH!!!]

Yes, the roof of my building leaks, and my ceiling has places in each room where you can easily see where the water came in. Wherever water comes in, wooden beams rot. Wherever there's moist rotten wood... mold.

But I'm not about to give up a rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan just because it poisons me with a substance I can't fight off due to overexposure as a child resulting in a horrible face rash. I mean, come on. It's rent stabilized!

Of course, no matter how strictly I follow the impossibly bland yeast-free diet, how can it possibly help if I am, once again, living in mold central? Well, it can't hurt, but it won't be enough. So what hope is there?

The answer turns out to be simple and weird: Stinging Nettle Herb. It is a natural anti-histamine, anti-inflammatory and has the added benefit (supposedly) of actually helping to reduce your body's susceptibility to many irritants.

So, I eat the crazy diet. But not fanatically. And I avoid alcohol. But occasionally have a drink or two (but only distilled liquors -- darn). And I supplement my diet with herbs that are known to have anti-fungal qualities. And Stinging Nettle herbs as well, to eliminate the effects of whatever gets through. And not only is the rash gone, but I don't sneeze anymore and my eyes don't itch. I have more energy, and my mood has improved.

But all this has got me to pondering the course of my life. It seems likely that my childhood depression, and dropping out of high school (and college, and college) and my inability to hold down jobs in those days, and my general fuck-you attitude and misanthropy etc. etc. etc. were all due to teeny tiny micro-organisms that had colonized my childhood bedroom and then my body. Having your immune system constantly overtaxed by a foreign substance is extremely physically draining. Which is also mentally and emotionally draining. It explains a lot. My whole bleak outlook growing up. My very personality, even to this day.

For whatever reason, God made me, and then chose to mold me... with mold?

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