man standing on top of mountain with pine trees view

My Eczema Horror Story

The most important ingredient of any horror story is the villain. Sure, it helps if the atmosphere is spooky, like a mist-covered moor or a creaky old house.  And yes, a likable hero is standard, maybe a spunky teenage babysitter? But the villain, that’s the tricky part.  Because the villain must actually be terrifying. Powerful, sinister, dangerous, and ultimately, unknowable. The villain can be human, like your run-of-the-mill serial killer. It can be an animal, say, a shark or a flock of birds.  It can be psychic, extraterrestrial, biological, technological, ancient, and, as in the case of Dr. Jekyll, the villain can turn out to be the hero the entire time.

I have thought a lot about this because I have been living in a horror story my whole life.  I wish I were being stalked by a deranged psychopath.  That’s something I could kill, once and for all.  But no, my villain is much more subtle, much more clever. In fact, my villain lives inside of me.  It tries to kill me, it tries to drive me insane, it simply will not leave me alone.

My villain is my eczema.

Let me be clear: it isn’t hyperbole to say that my eczema has tried to kill me. To the uninitiated, eczema is just a little dry skin. And that is correct, to an extent. It creates dry, cracked skin, usually on my feet, hands, arms, and back. But what those cracks in my skin do is make me vulnerable to bacterial infections.

The first time an infection got the best of my immune system, I was fresh out of college and working in a restaurant in New York City. It was a demanding, physical job that required me to constantly have my hands wet and be on my feet for 10 hour shifts. Inevitably, dishwater would splash onto the hideous black sneakers I was forced to wear, and my feet would end up soaking wet for the better part of my shift.  This would aggravate my eczema and cause major cracks in my heels. I tried every cream known to man.  I bandaged them, took steroid pills, local honey, light therapy, yoga, meditation, gluten-free diet, even reiki.

Nothing worked.

On a day off, I decided to hit the gym before going out with some friends.  I planned on showering at the gym, but forgot to bring shower sandals.  No problem, I thought, I’m sure the showers are clean.  The next morning I woke up with what I thought was a nasty bruised ankle.  My foot was completely black and my ankle had ballooned to the size of a softball. Did I roll it while dancing the night before?  I couldn’t put any weight on it.  I took a cab to the ER and told the doctor that I had broken my ankle.  They ran X-Rays, which came back negative.  By this time, that black coloration on my skin had spread up my leg, halfway to the knee.  The doctor realized what was wrong and immediately started pumping me with a high dose of antibiotics.  Before tending to other patients, he took out a sharpie and drew a line around my upper calf.  He said, “Keep an eye on this.  If the black gets to here, we’ll have to amputate.”

The second time my eczema tried to kill me was in a hot spring.  On New Year’s Eve, 2019, trying to be young and care-free like the people on Instagram, I went skinny dipping in some springs in the California high desert.  I had the usual cracks in my hands, but I figured maybe these natural springs could be therapeutic for my skin?  Hell, I’d tried pretty much everything else.  So I jumped in.  Three days later, I couldn’t walk.  I couldn’t get out of bed.  Sneezing felt like getting punched in the spine by a fist made of shrapnel. Hospital, X-Ray, MRI, conflicting theories, multiple experts, and finally, after an entire excruciating month, a diagnosis: an exceedingly rare bacterial infection in my lower spine that, if left untreated, results in paralysis and then death.  I got a 6 week course of intravenous antibiotics.

I escaped with my life.

It felt like the end of the movie, when the hero scrambles to the car and fumbles with their keys just as the killer runs out of the house. Then the keys fall to the ground!  What’s wrong with them?  Why have they suddenly lost all motor skills?  (Why would I jump into a bacteria-filled hot spring?)  Finally, the hero gets the right key and jams it into the ignition.  They speed off into the distance crying, covered in the blood of their friends.  They look into the rear view mirror– the killer is gone.  They’re safe. Or so they think… because right before the screen cuts to black, the audience sees… the killer is hiding in the trunk.  It’s a cheap twist, but we know that just like my eczema, the villain is going to follow them wherever they go.

Even when everything is going fine, when there are no flare-ups, no cracks, no rashes, I know my villain is still out there, waiting.  I know that every good horror story gets a sequel.

About the author

Matthew Brown