The skin across my mid-back rippled with fire in that hard-to-reach place between the bra strap and tail bone that makes even the most double-jointed of persons stretch beyond the inches of their capacity to sooth an itch with scratching relief. I reached and reached, hoping the tips of my short, natural nails could graze against my inflamed epidermis to rake against the small bumps that had appeared overnight. Once I finally managed to contort myself into a position to ease my consternation, I trekked into my bathroom to take a look at the damage to my back in the mirror.
Upon my initial inspection, I saw what looked to be a red rash. As someone who suffers from eczema, I self-diagnosed myself and got in my car to head to my general practitioner for the prescription-grade hydrocortisone cream I was sure I needed. The entire drive, I rubbed my cotton T-shirt-clothed back against the back of my seat, scratching and driving the whole way.
I saw the GP relatively quickly. She didn’t give me a diagnosis; she wasn’t sure that it was eczema, and she wasn’t sure that it wasn’t. She prescribed the cream I asked for and told me to feel better. I smiled through clenched teeth and then walked screw-shoulder through the hallway, trying to scratch an itch I could barely reach without making a fool of myself in public.
A week went by. My irritation grew. The skin on my back refused to comply with the medicated ointment. In the mirror, instead of a slight red rash I saw two distinct stripes in which swaths of my skin were red, with raised bumps I was happily scratching into open sores. I returned to the general practitioner.
“This is very different from last week,” she said.
“I know,” I said, with my face in a deadpan that read, no shit, Sherlock!
“Give me a moment,” she said stepping out of the room.
Upon her return, she brought another doctor with her. They both assessed my inflamed back and then concluded, “You have shingles.”
What the hell is that? I said aloud, “What is that?”
“Did you have chicken pox as a child?” My doctor asked.
“Yes. When I was like seven.”
My doctor and her associate then proceeded to explain to me that since I had chicken pox as a child, the virus that causes the outbreak was still inside my body. Only now it had rage-manifested on my back in the form of shingles, because of stress.
I nodded in full understanding. In that moment of clarity, even my skin finally found the relief we had been seeking for the better part of eight days.
At 24 years old, I had broken out in shingles — a condition normally associated with people aged 60 or older — because I was so stressed out. I wore cotton underwear and sweats, bathed in oatmeal and swabbed calamine lotion everywhere that itched for the next two weeks. There was nothing else the doctors could do for me. There was nothing else I could do for myself. I was stressed out over a relationship I was desperately trying to save. I called him, yelled at him for stressing me out, and told him the diagnosis. All he could do was offer apologies and platitudes. All I could do was scratch, cry, and try to calm the hell down.
That was ten years ago.
I have been stressed out since then: over a job, my child, my relationship — but thankfully shingles has not reappeared on my skin. However, I always keep the experience in the back of my mind as a reminder of what my body can and will do to get my attention if I don’t listen to the other signs that say, “Sis, you’re stressed. Go find you some relaxation.”
I always keep the experience in the back of my mind as a reminder of what my body can and will do to get my attention if I don’t listen to the other signs that say, “Sis, you’re stressed. Go find you some relaxation.”
Years after my experience with shingles I found out a good friend of mine went through a similar experience around the same time I did because of stress in her own relationship. Writer, relationship blogger, and life coach Demetria L. Lucas discussed her own bout with shingles during an episode of her podcast as she talked about getting divorced. The commonality between all of us was our youth and stress being the trigger.
And now, life, in this year of our Lord 2020, has been stressful AF.
The pandemic, working from home, raising children, you can’t go outside, homeschooling, zoom after zoom, not being able to get away from anything, all induce stress. While the memes regarding mental health sent in group chats and shared on social media remind us to take better care of ourselves, doing so is not as simple as typing encouraging words on a square post and sharing it in your stories for the world to see. Self-care must be intentional when stress is the exact opposite. Where self-care takes time and patience with self, stress is insidious in the way it creeps into our bodies without warning or regard for the health of the host.
Right now, stress is the most unintentional intention we have when we’re tying to simply make it through the day without catching a murder charge, or at the very least screaming at a loved one (big or little) for coping as best they can, too.
Self-care must be intentional when stress is the exact opposite.
Stress is the physiological response of the brain and body to any type of challenge or demand. For women, life comes gift-wrapped in stress. Women of color get a super-sized box. Pay inequality, racism, sexism, any form of gendered discrimination, and micro-aggressive behavior based on how we present in the world induce stress. If left unchecked, stress can lead to an early death, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression or anxiety, and other illnesses. And then there is my example: shingles. Stress can lead to shingles, no matter what your age.
While such a resulting diagnosis is miles ahead better than death or any other chronic disease that serves as a comorbidity with COVID-19, it is still very much a diagnosis that can be avoided. Yet there is very little conversation about it.
Let my story serve as the igniting flame on the conversations we’re all having with our girlfriends on group chats with glasses of wine, tumblers of brown liquor, or shots of white. Stress does not have to be our status quo, and high blood pressure, heart disease, or even shingles does not have to be our warning to slow down, calm down, relax our shoulders, and breathe.
A version of this story was published December 2020.
Before you go, check out our favorite mental health apps for looking after your stressed out mind and body: