This week is the first time I’ve taken the project title of Catharsis quite so literally, diving headfirst into personal anecdote.
When I was a kid, I used to get dry skin on the back of my hands.
I still do, to be honest – I’m a bit of a germaphobe, and wash my hands too much. But back then, I was more carefree. Washed my hands only when I was specifically told to. After all, hand-washing is a chore that is foisted upon all children, accepted begrudgingly in the knowledge that the chicken-salted chips you want to eat will be withheld without meeting the minimum system requirements.
My hands would crack and bleed, riddled with deep wrinkles. I remember my dad once inspecting them, concerned, turning them over in his own, well-moisturised hands. When I asked him what the matter was, he forlornly told me that he didn’t want his seven-year-old son to have the hands of an even older man than him. It sounded important to him. His voice cracked a bit, too, I recall. My memory is probably making that detail up, the moment turned over and over in my brain, rinsed endlessly in the wash of searching consideration. But I took his pleas to heart. This was a problem to be treated with careful diligence.
I was told, in no uncertain terms, that the issue was that I wasn’t drying my hands properly. This is a confusing thing to tell a seven-year-old human being: my hands were too dry because I wasn’t drying them enough. As far as I could see, my hands were so dry I should’ve been carrying around buckets of water affixed to my shorts, dumping my mitts into them at every available opportunity in the hot dry Adelaideian summer.
It was explained to me that I was probably leaving soap residue on my hands that was cracking and drying my skin. I needed to rinse more thoroughly, and then use the towel to make sure I got rid of any excess soap. This would fix my dry hands. To this day, I’m still not sure if that makes any fucking sense whatsoever. I noted the facts as read, though. I would try to rectify this behaviour.
I did not. My hands stayed dry and bleeding. The fact is that, even though I recognised that my father was concerned for my well being, and it was important to me not to upset him because he was my dad and I loved him, I was a seven-year-old kid who really needed to get back to the computer. I honestly had other things to do. After a short period of due diligence, I promptly forgot about trying to dry my hands properly. The wrinkly old skin on my fingers wasn’t really affecting me enough for me to take much notice. Seven-year-old habits die hard.
So, my parents tried a different tactic. They told me, quietly and with a sense of the cavalier, that if I used wet hands to turn off the light switch in the bathroom after washing my hands, there was a slight chance that I would be fatally electrocuted.
It’s an interesting parenting technique, fear. Time honoured, to be sure. Flawed, to be sure. Especially problematic considering that the child they were using the tactic on – me – would routinely worry about all manner of far-flung postulations. A news article was enough to convince me I had measles or a parasitic organism or ebola (not as far-flung now, but in the 90s certainly more of a stretch). After I saw the movie Independence Day I was convinced aliens were going to invade and take me to their ship and kill me or make me hang out with Harry Connick Jr. And when my parents told me that you could get electrocuted through a wet light switch, I was convinced that I was going to get electrocuted through a wet light switch.
I became obsessive about avoiding this eventuality. I would desperately, furiously make sure that I didn’t touch the light switch in the bathroom with wet fingers. Always made sure my fingers were dry before operating the light. Sometimes, my young mind would forget this important safety briefing, or get complacent in the blissful rush to get back to the game of Monopoly or Turok Rage Wars occurring in the room next door. And when I realised that I’d gotten the light switch wet, somehow escaping with my life, I would return to the bathroom, grab my sleeve or a towel or a piece of toilet paper and set about carefully drying off the light switch. Carefully search its seams for stray droplets and neatly get them out. Double and triple check – just in case I was inadvertently creating a death trap for the next, far more responsible patron of the toilet facilities. Just in case.
Of course, this wasn’t particularly helpful to the original problem. My hands remained wrinkled and cracked. Sure, I dried the tips of my index fingers thoroughly enough, but the backs of my palms were never likely to actually touch the light switch, were they? So I pretty much ignored that. I honestly had other things to do. Like making sure I or my friends or my entire family didn’t get electrocuted by a wet light switch.
It’s easy as a child to get wrapped in a tightly bound net of your own design. Ideas turn over and over in your head, picking up debris and growing. You can’t communicate those ideas particularly well, either, so they don’t find a space to leave your mind and fade away in the cold light of day.
I would try, however, to share these fears. I would tell my parents everything, every niggling worry in the back of my head. And they would deal with them all, one at a time, with patience and calm. I’m confused now as to whether to be thankful that. I will always be thankful for that.
Once, I accidentally ripped the shirt of a friend of mine in our after school drama class. He didn’t care, not at all. Laughed it off. I worried for seven days that when I returned to that drama class, he wouldn’t be there. He’d have gone home that night, presented his torn shirt to his parents, and never been allowed to come back. Grounded forever, doomed to grow up in a darkened hole under the stairs, years before wizards made that a viable option. Or, worse, he would return, but with eyes full of venom and hatred, accompanied by scowling parents who would look at my parents with disgust as they dropped me off.
Nothing happened, of course. The shirt was never spoken of again. I felt skittish and nervous around that friend for the rest of the term.
It’s hard being a kid.
I’m now 28 years old. I still get dry skin on the back of my hands.
And I still use toilet paper to dry off light switches.
Words copyright Matt Vesely. Image copyright David Keen.