I have started, stopped, started again, paused, neglected, and started this post again on loop for a few years now. Never really knew how to finish it. Almost five years later… I’m putting in the work to finish it, because now I have an ending.
This story starts the summer after I turned thirteen.
Really, it starts before that. I have always struggled with skin issues. I’m prone to breakouts, acne and otherwise. A doctor once told me that I have what looks like “dyshidrotic eczema” on my hands, which one internet source (of questionable reliability) told me is commonly referred to as “housewife eczema” because it only shows up on the hands. (Massive sigh.)
Sometimes, external stimuli cause problems. Seasonal allergies are a serious enemy. If I could murder every piece of dust in the universe, I would. I also had a lot of food allergies/sensitivities as a kid. Once, when I was four or five, my gramma made a ham for Thanksgiving and cooked it with huge pineapple rings toothpicked into the surface – I broke out in hives. This is one of my first memories of the bewildering fear that I’ve since grown accustomed to — the thought that my body is unclean, it’s killing me from the inside, something I did made it this way.
Sometimes, the stimuli are more internal. Stress is the big one. If I have already been compromised by any of the above issues — food, dust — stress only compounds the problems. My hands will crack and bleed, the insides of my elbows will break out in hives. Once, I found tiny hives in the crease under my right eye. (Ugh.) It got especially bad the year I moved home to Ohio from Chicago, as I was in the midst of an anxiety-inducing move that took me months to recover from.
But this post isn’t about now. It’s about the summer before I turned thirteen.
That was the year the eczema on my hands started. My mom, brother, and I were visiting family. We stayed with my gramma for around two weeks. It was around that time that my hands got really bad — itchy red welts, tiny little blisters, scabbing, peeling. It was gross. It probably had something to do with environment, and stress, and the weather. Any number of things. And of course my gramma, being my gramma, was so concerned. We tried everything topical we could think of. Soaking it in baking soda. Gobs of lotion. Steroid cream. Nothing worked.
This was also the summer I started writing my first novel. It was a project. Echoes of this novel are still alive in my work today — in fact, I’m trying to resurrect it. I would spend hours bent over my huge trapper-keeper, producing reams and reams and reams of character data, information about the fantasy world, scenes of dialogue. (I still have this trapper-keeper. I lug it into every new home and every new life. Maybe someday I’ll take some photos.)
So there I was, hunched over these mountains of college-ruled paper, right hand wrapped around my favorite pencil (there will never be another like it), lost in listening to Hybrid Theory, the Linkin Park album I had just purchased, on my silver discman.
And then it happened: My gramma casually said, “Eliz-beth, maybe all that writing is making your hands worse.” She meant: The sweat between my fingers from always holding a writing instrument was having an adverse effect. It was a salient point, really.
As soon as she said it, my body rebelled. Involuntary sobs ripped themselves from my throat – I had no idea it was coming, no idea where it had even come from. All I knew was that as soon as my gramma suggested that the thing I loved most in the world was hurting me in some way, I rejected it from the core of my being. I know she was surprised, too, that a seemingly innocuous comment could have such a profoundly negative impact.
I remember fleeing to the bathroom, sitting down on the closed toilet, and just crying, looking down at my hands, thinking the thing I love is hurting me.
She apologized, of course, but that moment has stuck like a prybar between my ribs for decades.
In the twenty years since that day, I have had a lot of time to think about it. The writing itself wasn’t the thing hurting me. I was young, and hormonal, and stressed out. The words my gramma said to me that day were almost more painful than the actual problem. And it certainly wasn’t her fault! She was simply trying to find a solution, and I reacted without thinking.
The issues I had are just part of my story. The act of writing is also part of my story. This could be fiction, blog posts, poetry, novels. I notice that when I go for long periods of time without writing, my mental health deteriorates. I can usually trace “bad” weeks and months back to that. Even if it’s short-form pieces on this blog, putting words together in a row is meditative for me.
The physical effects of the eczema and stress have diminished as I’ve gotten older. I’ve learned to keep my living space clean to cut down on pet dander and dust, two of the biggest triggers. My stress is manageable — not great, but manageable. Getting out of those hormonal teenage years had probably the biggest impact, really. I eat pineapple regularly, too.
The writing, however, has been a near-constant in my life, and even though this blog is one artifact of that journey, it’s an incomplete history. Times are up and down. The recent pandemic situation has not been good for writing productivity — even though I feel like I should be writing even more nowadays… with everything that’s happened, it’s hard to plunk myself in front of the computer to do hardly anything.
I’m getting back into the habit, though, slowly but surely. I know that it helps. I know it’s not hurting me. In fact, not writing is what hurts the most. Putting notes together for the podcast helps, especially with the books we’ve been reading recently. And doing promotion for Bloodmade also helps, too, because I’m remembering what it feels like to be excited about a story. Last weekend, I sat down at a coffee shop and wrote a few hundred words of my WIP for the first time in months. It felt nice.
When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a writer. It’s a mindset, yes, but it’s also a determination. I’ve been feeling odd about my identity lately. But making that definitive statement (“I am a writer”) is me making clear (to myself, mostly) that this is how I see myself, and this is how people should see me, too. Maybe if I say it enough, it’ll be true.
Maybe if I say it enough, I’ll believe it.
All those years ago, my gramma’s innocent words were simply the launchpad for me thinking more critically about how I move through the world. If thirteen-year-old Liz knew anything, it was that I needed to be doing this with my time here. Even if she wasn’t aware that she knew it. And if she knew it even then, who am I now to disagree?
Last week, my gramma called to tell me she had read my book, that she couldn’t put it down. She told me to write a sequel.