On Friday evening, I was out for a walk, gathering blackberries (like I do, most days). I leaned over a fence to reach a prime specimen, only to have the nearest support beam spit in half and drop me, my camelback, and that particular section of split rail fence into the blackberry bush.
For those of you who live in places that blackberries don’t grow wild, they’re a pernicious weed that produces delicious fruit and is covered in wicked, curved thorns of varying sizes. Even the leaves are thorny. And for those of you who don’t live on the West Coast, one of the other extremely common plants native to this area is Toxicodendron diversilobum, aka poison oak. Poison oak grows EVERYWHERE around here, and can take many different forms – that of a tree, a bush, a vine, or a small, ground-level plant. Every part of the plant produces a toxic oil called urushiol that causes contact dermatitis (read: a gross, weepy, disgusting itchy red rash) in 4/5 of the population.
So I fell on a blackberry bush, and my arms and stomach got covered in blackberry scratches, and it was difficult for me to pick myself back up as I had a backpack full of water on my back and a half-full container spilling with previously-picked fruit in my left hand. I extricated myself from the thorny canes as best I could, only to notice in the dim twilight that smack dab in the middle of the bush was a bunch of poison oak. Great.
After I finished my berry picking (because I wasn’t going home empty-handed), I walked home, stripped off my clothing, tossed it in the washing machine, told Dan not to touch me, and headed straight for the shower, where I soap-and-cold-watered myself from head to toe. (Soap on fresh blackberry scratches hurts, by the way.) After my shower, I scrubbed myself with rubbing alcohol to disperse any residual urushiol. (Rubbing alcohol on fresh blackberry scratches hurts even more.) When I was rash-free the next morning, I figured I was in the clear.
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One summer when I was in college, my boyfriend and I lived in a big house with a bunch of other people. At the very beginning of the summer, he went for a hike one day with a friend, came home, and told me all about how they’d blazed a trail through some low scrub when they’d been out too late to see the actual trail. He took off his clothes that he’d hiked in, but didn’t shower, and I put his clothes in the washing machine. Of course, we slept in the same bed that night. The next morning, when we woke up, both of us were absolutely COVERED in the most uncomfortable and painful and itchy rash I’d ever experienced. It spread up and down our arms and legs, torsos, middles, and faces. I’d not been in so much full-body discomfort since my terrible case of chicken pox at age eight, and in some ways this was worse.
We knew the “low scrub” my boyfriend had walked through must have been poison oak, and the oil must have gotten on me through touching his clothes and sharing a bed. Somehow, I’d gone 20 years without managing to catch poison oak, and my first case happened to be secondhand. We tried a variety of folk remedies but nothing made either of us feel much better, and both of us were miserable and swollen and itchy and uncomfortable in places that you never want to experience that. (Yes, he got it there.) One of our housemates suggested we see a doctor because of how bad both of us were reacting to the poison oak, where we were each prescribed a regimen of prednisone (a cortical steroid used to stop the body’s severe autoimmune reaction to the skin that contacted the urushiol).
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About 24 hours after my ill-fated blackberry gathering, one of the deep scratches on my arm erupted in itchy welts. Then another one. Then, a spot where I’d been poked in the chest, just under my right breast, started to itch. Shit. We walked to the store on Sunday morning where I got some topical stuff that’s supposed to help minimize the symptoms of poison oak, and I put it on when I got home. It seemed to help, some. The rash spread to both my upper and lower arm, and down my chest and up the underside of my boob. My skin was obviously Not Happy, and I surmised that those specific scratches must have been from the poison oak plant rather than from the blackberry thorns. Which meant the oil had gotten under my skin, and maybe into my bloodstream, and who knows where it might erupt next.
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Prednisone, if you’ve ever had to take it for a situation like that, has its own unfortunate side effects, as you start out with a high dose and then have to taper down. The prednisone I took for that case of poison oak back in college made me ravenous, which, coupled with my disordered eating at the time, made me feel like a horrible person for giving in to the hunger. It made me extremely irritable. And it made it so I Just Could Not Fall Asleep. Two days after I started the prednisone regimen, I had a job interview for a summer job. I explained to them why my face looked the way it did (read: covered in swollen, gross welts) and lucky for me, I got the job, though I’m not sure how as I’m sure I looked like absolute shit. The first week at work I was basically a zombie because, while my itches were getting better, I wasn’t able to fall asleep until 3 or 4 AM and having to get up at 6:30 to go to work. One night I had finally fallen asleep sometime after midnight when the significant other of one of the housemates called the house phone. I guess nobody else was around to pick it up, because I chewed the person on the other end of the line a new asshole for daring to call so late after I’d finally fallen asleep. (The whole thing was just really not pretty.)
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Today, Dan told me that the skin on my arm looked like leprosy. I’m erupting in tiny patches of more contact dermatitis in random places (further evidence it got into my bloodstream) and the major rashy areas are now blistered and weepy. I’m basically a huge mess, but if I can avoid paying a fee at the clinic to be prescribed prednisone, and avoid having to take prednisone altogether, I’m going to do so. While we’re no longer in touch, today is my college boyfriend’s 34th birthday, and that coupled with my leprous arm is making me think back to that time he got poison oak on his pink bits. I do hope, for his sake, that he never got it there again.