An Itch To Scratch

July 27, 2012

Unless I’m mistaken an itch isn’t that different, physiologically, from pain. The difference is we take care of an itch by scratching it, which should cause more pain, but instead makes the pain go away. This is the weirdest thing. When you cut your finger you don’t make it go away by setting your finger on fire. But I think an itch is just a really low level pain, and scratching causes the release of endorphins which make it feel better. Or in some cases make it feel really good. Sometimes you have an intense itch and you really feel like there would be nothing better than covering a two-by-four with some five grit sandpaper and just rubbing it all over your back. And sometimes you get those weird itches that feel like they’re really deep under your skin, and no matter how much you scratch you can’t get to them. When I get those I know how a cat chasing a laser pointer feels.

And when you were a kid in the summer did you ever just roll around on the grass? It was worth it, too, until you got up a few minutes later and you felt like your entire body was covered with ants. Once that happened to me and I realized I’d been rolling on an ant hill. I really shouldn’t have covered my body with honey first, but that’s another story. Some itches feel better than others. Once I stepped in some poison ivy or poison oak or poison kumquat or something and my foot itched. It didn’t just itch, though, it itched in a very specific spot, right inside the arch. And scratching it was pure bliss. I’d scratch a bit, and then the itch would go away, and I’d start jonesing for the next itch, even talking to my foot, saying, “Come on, man, I gotta have my endorphin fix.” Yes, I’d been told that if you have a rash or allergic reaction you shouldn’t scratch it because that will just make it worse, but I wanted to make it worse. Then I discovered what “worse” meant when tiny blisters appeared in the affected area, but I kept scratching. I scratched until the blisters broke open and seeped pus, and the pain was excruciating. But there was still something about the searing intensity of the pain that was deeply gratifying. A light breeze blowing over the underside of my foot would give me paroxysms of exquisite pain. It was pain that hurt so good. It was pain that made me insane in the membrane.

Even now I get giddy thinking about it, which I realize is pretty disturbing, but I promise I’m not going to go tramping through kumquat patches. I’m just saying that there’s a little masochist in all of us, and I think that even though generally it’s not considered socially acceptable to scratch in public I think we should anyway. Remember those idiotic shampoo commercials where a person was about to ask someone they found attractive for their phone number when suddenly the attractive person scratched their head and it was a complete turnoff? I think they stopped doing those commercials because they realized we all have occasional itches, we all scratch, and it’s not like the attractive person had been dipped in honey and rolled on an anthill—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Not scratching is one of those social niceties I don’t understand. For the most part I have nothing against social niceties. I think they’re the quicklime or sand or cow snot or whatever the magical ingredient is in mortar that helps it hold together the walls that are metaphorically our civilized society. But not scratching is one I don’t understand, although there was one time I was talking to a guy who’d worked in the film industry. Like most creative people he had little time or interest in social niceties. Anyway, we were talking about the films of Kubrick, Kurosawa, and Jim Carrey, and he kept scratching his crotch. Or rather he was talking about the films, because I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I’d say, “Yeah, I—“ and he’d scratch and suddenly be off again about the semiotics of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. And I realized that maybe if he just allowed himself to itch it would distract him long enough for me to say something. Or maybe not. All I really know is all this talk about itching and scratching makes me want to go get a two-by-four covered with some five grit sandpaper.

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