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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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We’re All Sensitive People

Hi Betsy,

My name is XXX, and I am reading and enjoying FOREST FOR THE TREES. I was surprised to find that you referred to the link between psoriasis and writing a few times in your book, especially in relation to John Updike’s reflection on the subject. I was just wondering if you or loved ones you know suffer from it, or what compelled you to include it in your book?  I am a psoriasis sufferer and a writer, and I’ve never before seen a reference to them in one place.


Dear Itchy:

Thank you for your letter. Updike’s piece about his psoriasis was a revelation to me. I had written a poem called “My Life as A Rash,” in graduate school. While I only briefly suffered from psoriasis’ ugly cousin exzema, I had the very strong suspicion that rashes were a big problem for writers. And after I started working with writers (first as an editor and later an agent), I saw that most writers enjoyed a wide array of physical symptoms (both real and somewhat hypochondriacal).  Skin eruptions were only one manifestation of a writer’s agony, though a particularly cruel and uncomfortable one given the “thin skin” and  necessary sensitivity of the writer. I’ve seen a lot of self-mutilation over the years, fingers that looked like bloody stumps. I’ve seen faces picked over, hair pulled out, massive weight gain and loss,  teeth grinding, migraines, back problems, OCD, agoraphobia, and insomnia. Show me a writer and I’ll show your someone who suffers either secretly or like John Updike, leaving flakes of skin in his wake.

Anyone  care to share their symptoms? The weirder the better.

61 Responses

  1. Except for a pressure-bruised tush, permanently hunched shoulders, overdry eyes, a touch of sciatica (though that originated with my first pregnancy), a nasty diet Pepsi addiciton, the skin of a fifteen-year old (not a good thing), and a twitch in my right eye from severe sleep deprivation (also originally the kids’ fault) . . . I got nothing.

  2. A perforated stomach ulcer at the age of 30.

  3. I’ve got rashes in all the highlighted areas except knees. I’m allergic to plastic, cats, ragweed, camels, but manage with Zinc oxide ointment and cortisone cream. Marat had to soak himself because of psoriasis. It’s really an immune system deficiency. Writers may occasionally be psoriatic but I doubt there’s a causal connection. Sunshine helps.

  4. Throughout the first draft of my memoir, I couldn’t eat enough: pasta with meat, mashed potatoes and gravy, pizza, Taco Bell, cheeseburgers and fries, fried bologna and cheese sandwiches, McDonald’s breakfast, bean burritos with sour cream and guac, potato chips, and cake (and I don’t even crave sugar). Add on lots of wine. I went from running 10ks every month to never, ever sleeping and gaining 25 pounds. And then I got a red rash under my eyes and lost all of my lower eyelashes.

    When someone says to me with joy, “I want to write my memoirs!” I feel f-ing smacking them.

  5. I chew my fingers (not just nails) and my lips and cheeks until they bleed. It’s disgusting but true.

  6. In all crazy honesty, I got a disease about a year ago that gives me a large amout of symptoms especially Vertigo. That branches out to double and blurred vision, stuttered and slurred speech, tingling in the hands and feet, and to top it off basically not controlling the right side of my body.

    But in my defense, that is when I found the time to write, I wasn’t writing before hand. It is my beacon of light, aside from my family, in the hell hole of crap that has been my last year of life. Which may be getting better thanks to the great doctors at John Hopkins.

    • I am not looking for sympathy in any way. But these ailments exist and happen. Just like anything else shit happens, you deal with it, and you grow from it.

      I have just grown into something that I have always wanted to be. A writer.

      Please don’t offer any pity.

  7. If I get anywhere near poison ivy/oak, even in theory, I break into an allergic reaction so severe that I more often than not have to go to the emergency room and get pumped full of steroids.

    I also grind my teeth and obsessively worry that every slight headache, stomachache, or sore throat is going to kill me in some spectacular way.

    And then there were the panic attacks. Oh, the panic attacks…

  8. First things first: What happened to that man’s genitalia? It seems to have been disappeared.

  9. I’m feeling kind of lucky on this one (that’s a jinx, right?). Itchy knuckles in the winter time from eczema and a hornets nest size pimple on alternating cheeks each month. Expecting something nasty now that I’ve jinxed myself.

  10. Just before I clicked on this post, I was scratching my head like crazy. And tomorrow, when I’m up against two deadlines at my dastardly day job, I know my legs will itch. And itch and itch.

    Also, none of my cuticles are intact, and haven’t been in 20 years. I want to go get a manicure, but I’m afraid the manicurists will laugh at me.

  11. My gluteal cleft has gotten larger.

  12. No skin ailments here.
    But I do chew my cuticles fiendishly, though not while writing.

  13. Overeating, chewing my nails due to anxiety (am doing these things less often than I used to, so there’s been some progress). Started chewing my nails when I was three, according to my mom, as I went to a really crowded chaotic pre-school and I guess felt overwhelmed. Started overeating when I was 9/10 and family life began getting complicated.

  14. Nearsightedness, carpel tunnel and a probably-developing hunchback from umpteen hours a day glued to my beloved laptop. I try to leave it alone, I really do. Can’t.

  15. I’m starting to question if I am a writer since I enjoy writing and never suffer from stress, anxiety or any type of skin problems, aches, or pains. I thought writers write because they enjoy doing so? Why are so many suffering?

  16. Only a few horrifically painful, quite possibly terminal diseases. I scratch, shiver, chafe, convulse, throb, vomit. But I consider myself lucky.

  17. Insomnia, natch. And I’ve had a rash on my arm for about three years now that never quite goes away. It has a very long, impressive sounding name that I can never remember.

    Don’t you just love visits to the dermatologist by the way? ‘We’ve run some tests and found out that your red bumps are in fact (long latin name for ‘red bumps’). There are a variety of posible causes including stress, being indoors and living. Here is some very expensive cream to treat it.’

    This post made me think of this: http://amzn.to/fIxu0p

  18. Psoriasis and also gut problems. I’ve tried everything from steroid creams to emu oil to water that has weird harmonic resonance (seriously.) Nothing works. I believe that if I quit my teaching job and live as a hermit on an island in Puget Sound, I might have half a chance of getting rid of it, but alas, I have a mortgage and a family. I love them very much. But they make me itch.

  19. I run to get the noggin going, so there’s the knees. Then I’m a chronic head scratcher when I write, so there’s flakes of another sort that stack up. And apparently, according to my husband, I also go deaf.

  20. Yeah on the eczema and OCD.

  21. Weight gain, inexplicable crying jags, RSI, neck problems, teeth grinding and mouth ulcers but no psoriasis. The only one of the above that I suffered from BEFORE writing was teeth grinding.

  22. Once had a love and it was a gas soon turned out I had a spine of glass. 3 surgeries, paralyzed leg for a year, learned how to walk again only to have plates and screws put in my neck to prevent paralysis from the neck down. But the bad news is that since I started writing a blog I now have raised red welts everywhere. Could be the French water…


  23. I used to have an acupuncturist who was more like a shrink. He’d tap in a bunch of needles and then spend half an hour telling me why I was so screwed up:

    Sore throat? You’re afraid to say what you think.
    Skin ailments? Better to hurt on the outside than the inside.
    Stiff back? You’re too rigid.
    Stiff neck? Keeps you from losing your head.
    Constipated? You can’t let shit go.

    He kind of cured me, but then I kept seeing him because he made a great character for a story I was working on.

  24. Reading these posts is like the many times my second grade class was infested with lice. I’m itching just thinking about it. One year it went on forever. The school nurse told the parents to wash their kid’s hair with Quell. Things got better, but not for long. Finally, the “carrier” was identified. Her mother’s response: Don’t blame me. That Prell doesn’t do a damn thing!

  25. What an esthetically beautiful sounding group. With all the itching and peeling and chewing and insomnia it sounds more like a casting call for the Walking Dead. Good thing we write vs going anywhere in public. And yeah, what happened to the dude’s junk ? Extreme case of eczema ?

  26. Like anonymous, I suffer from inexplicable crying jags (often eerily timed to the receipt of agent rejections). Yet, I still decided it had to be pre-menopause and not writer neurosis.

  27. I had a lot of weird things this past year–like one infected toe, a gross thing that grew on my face etc. But these things finally went away–it took months. I think writing more helps.

  28. Fiction writers have the best metaphorical diseases. Memoirists seem to be plagued by chronic diseases, biographers are prone to auto-immune diseases, and humor writers only hurt when they laugh.

    Travel writers, though, have the very best diseases. I like the one that Paul Theroux had, when bugs laid eggs under the skin of his back and when they hatched he had little worms bursting out of his epidermis.

    • I just puked in my mouth.

      • That could mean something too – I’d get that checked out if I were you

      • I love this expression . . . but once I thought about it (no idea why), I couldn’t figure out how, when puking, one could avoid one’s mouth.

        And no, I didn’t practice.

      • Does that mean you swallowed it back down again?

      • I think the formal explanation would be an act of reverse peristalsis when nothing actually leaves the mouth and yes, is swallowed back down.

        I’ve learned to do it while smiling and eating the traditional Christmas dish of Scandinavian called lutefisk (Norwegian), lutfisk (Swedish) or the one I know, lipeakala (Finnish), loosely translated soap or lye fish. Top that!

      • Deb,

        I cannot deny that lipeakala is one of the worst of traditional foods, and I admire the iron control you have on your gag reflex.

        But I myself have a childhood fear of gefilte fish, which lurk at the murky bottom of jars in the kosher section of the supermarket, occasionally bumping the glass in search of small children to assimilate . . . and the smell, in my opinion, gives the lutefisk variations a run for their money. I’m just sayin’

      • Deb,
        We went to Northern Minnesota one summer because everyone kept saying how great it was. We stayed at the nicest hotel we could find, but had to check out after only one night. They were boiling white fish in gasoline — that would be some kind of lutefisk — and the place stunk to the heavens. And then, at night, they only had 25 watt bulbs in the lights, so we couldn’t even read a book. Ahhh, the joys of travel ….

    • I was chuckling until I got to the worm part. Thanks, Vivian, you may have just given me the excuse to never scratch my husband’s back again.

  29. I stressed myself into a case of hives a couple of days before defending my MA thesis. Cleared up literally while I was sitting there talking.

  30. Spiritual writers get toothache PAIN, which my dentist said is all in my mind.

  31. hair-puller. Used to pull it out by the strand, now I pull it out by the hank. it hurts, but there’s a kind of orgasm too. several doctors said that several prescriptions would make it stop. they didn’t.

  32. I think you’ve hypnotized us, Betsy. The things we’ll say for you … You’re like the pied piper of sorrow.

  33. I don’t itch, flare or bleed. It is just this brain of mine, it keeps going round and round in circles with lovely panic attacks as side benefits. The best part: writing makes it stop.

  34. This is about another kind of pain and disease but the concept gets me through most of the mental and physical symptoms and sensitivities that I’m certain are related to writing and equally certain would be worse if I didn’t write.

    From “The Soloist”:

    “I can tell you that by witnessing Mr. Ayers’s courage, his humility, his faith in the power of his art, I’ve learned the dignity of being loyal to something you believe in. Of holding onto it, above all else. Of believing, without question, that it will carry you home.”

    -Steve Lopez

  35. I have trichotillamania, probably not spelling it right, every couple weeks i wake up to find my eyebrows and eyelashes have been pulled out in the night. the day following is miserable, i hate people looking at me seeing what stubble was around my eyes the day before has been replaced by bare red splotches. but at least what i write during those lows sucks, that way i have a reason for not taking meds! i had a girlfriend kiss my naked eyes once, i married her. thanks betsy, didnt think i’d ever post on here!

  36. My wife just informed me that it’s incorrect to pronounce the word psoriasis as sorry-asses, but it seems an appropriate pronunciation when referring to a writer’s affliction.

  37. Perhaps there should be a special kind of health care for writers.

  38. Jaw clenching, broken teeth, free-floating anxiety, existential angst, ennui, skull-crunching headaches, unrepentant (and often misplaced) bitchiness, self-loathing, egotism, eating disorders (starving or stuffing), incipient incurable alcoholism, and stomach warts. Also (pretty sure it’s genetic) eternal optimism. Dammit.

  39. Face dandruff, big massive flakes that fall as I speak. Eyelashes disappearing from the pink, crusty stuff that gathers at their root. Oh thank you Jesus, it’s not just me.

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