Real or Imagined

March 7, 2012 § 5 Comments

Real or Imagined
Rebecca Bielik Zick

Needle sharp, needle sized points of itching flare over her back, possibly thirty of them. She really shouldn’t count. A few spark on her arms. She feels one or two prickle on her butt and maybe some are scattered over her thighs. Probing for these far flung irritations goes against popular wisdom.

She must consider the flares don’t exist at all.

One November on the five hundred mile car ride to the cold North, wearing a sweater pulled out of a box, the itching first started. She fought the attack waged by the inside of her sleeve with full bore scratching, with reason and when those failed, with dissociation. She’d never been allergic to wool, and in any case, the sweater was most likely a cotton/poly blend.

By the time they cleared Kentucky, she had a full blown epidermic calamity: welts rising all over her right arm. She took off the sweater. She didn’t wear that or any other sweater the entire Thanksgiving holiday. She wore short sleeves. She tried drug store ointments. Regardless of sensible interventions, when she wasn’t on her parent’s couch sleeping the sleep of the catastrophically bereaved, she watched the spreading paths and hillocks.

Her family, a living daughter, a husband, a sister, a mother and a father all thought she was nuts. When did “dust” accumulate in a sweater washed before it was cleanly packed in a taped box, gain such power? They didn’t believe in such dust, and even if there were dust, they didn’t believe in its atomic capacity for contact dermatitis. She has a sense of humor, and so Phantom Itch was born. With medicine, extreme will power and time the first occupation by Phantom Itch dissipated.

She never donned, before a thorough wash and two rinse cycles, a single item of clothing from a box again, and yet Phantom Itch continued to visit. It’s a running family joke now and she faced the possibility of hysterical symptoms. How could she avoid it when one summer vacation, she had inexplicable traveling pain in one arm, and the repeated need to ask her daughter, “Am I drooling?” as she swiped at the corners of her mouth, coming up dry fingered every time.

And so tonight, she won’t think about dust accumulated in the fabric of the rental home’s furniture. Once or twice, with lightning speed, she bats away visions of mites until she can suppress them altogether. She does fantasize taking Benadryl, purchased on arrival against the possibility of mosquitos and sand fleas.

And the prickling itches that scatter like evil fairy dust over her skin?

She’ll never know if they are real or imagined. She does know the fallout of tragedy can linger in the most absurd, in the smallest ways. She can take the itches. She’s glad, more than ecstatic, that she can keep them in their place, that she has more choices with which to accommodate her mind than the question of craziness or slumber.


In a past life Rebecca was a clinical social worker and in a parallel universe she is an NHL hockey player. In this one, she is a writer. Real or Imagined is her second published piece.

Image: Wood and Stone, By Stephen Martin

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