Scratching a living and learning to say 'hi' to my inner monster
He's had the demon all his life and has learned to live with it as best he can. Paul Kimmage describes life with the skin condition eczema.
"To be honest it's Ann I feel sorriest for."
"My wife, 28 years she's had to deal with it."
"To deal with it?"
"My, umm problem; my condition . . . it can't be easy sleeping with someone like me."
"Are you sure you want to share this?"
"Maybe not, it is kind of delicate."
"Well, I mean if you were standing outside our bedroom with your ear to the door you might get the wrong impression."
"I'm not with you."
"Have you seen American Beauty?"
"Do you remember that scene early in the film when Lester and Carolyn are in bed?"
"Remind me, Lester is . . .
"Kevin Spacey, and his wife Carolyn is played by Annette Bening."
'Okay, I'm with you."
"It's the middle of the night and they appear to be sleeping soundly until Carolyn is disturbed by something rustling in the sheets."
"'What are you doing?' she says."
"'Nothing.' he replies."
"'You were masturbating!'"
"'I was not.'"
"'Yes you were.'"
"'Oh all right! So shoot me, I was whacking off! That's right, I was choking the bishop, chafing the carrot, you know, saying "hi" to my monster!'"
"Yeah, I remember it . . . great scene."
"Well that's my problem: I say 'hi' to my monster."
"I start in the middle of the night; she wakes and grabs my hand. I change hands; she grabs me again. We wrestle, I win; she pleads with me to stop. But I can't stop. That's the thing, once I get the urge I can't stop."
"Sweet mother of frozen peas! You masturbate beside your wife in bed!"
"Yeah, my legs, my arms, my back, my chest, my neck, my wrists, the small finger of my right hand and lately, for some strange reason, the back of my head."
"How long have you been afflicted by this?"
"The first time Ann laid eyes on me I was scratching. It was a track race in Waterford if memory serves; I was wearing blue flip-flops, a striped rugby shirt and was ripping at my right butt cheek through these flared beige pants. She did not offer her hand. But I've been at it since I was a baby. It started with a rash behind my knees and between the folds of my arms - the classic symptoms of eczema."
"It's Greek apparently - their revenge for austerity . . . Naah, according to the Irish Skin Foundation it means to 'effervesce' or 'boil over'. It's hereditary - my mother's side. She gave birth to four boys but just two of us - myself and my youngest brother, Chris - were cursed with it."
"Absolutely. I blame God. I'm with Stephen Fry on this - only a nasty piece of work would inflict such misery and pain."
"Not at first, my childhood was fine. Ma was careful with detergents, and I could never wear anything wool, but it never really bothered me until I started racing."
"Bike racing. That's my real gripe with God. He sends me into the world with a poxy skin condition knowing that bike racing, my singular passion, was the one sport guaranteed to make it worse."
"The two biggest triggers of eczema are sweat and cosmetics. What sport requires athletes to shave their legs?
"Right, so before we turn a pedal we've created a rash. Introduce five hours of sweat to the mix - an average stage of the Tour de France - and add a 40-minute massage with perfumed, oils and you'll wake-up next morning with blood all over the sheets. The shave? You scratch. The sweat? You scratch. The oils? You scratch. Sometimes the racing was the easy bit."
"The winter was actually worse - the combination of sweat and icy wind, chaffing and burning your face. I've some pictures at home from a harsh pre-season in Lille. I look like the Elephant Man."
"Is there no cure? Was there nothing you could do?"
"Once, when it was really bad, I went to see a doctor. I was serving an apprenticeship at Dublin airport and had this massive rash on my back. 'It's eczema and there's no cure but it can be managed,' he said. 'You need to stop cycling.' Swear to God. I was the National Road Race Champion at the time."
"So how did you manage?"
"Tons of moisturiser, ointment and creams. And the climate when we moved to Grenoble was much better. I was actually coping quite well by the end."
"That was 1989, right?"
"You retired and started in journalism?"
"But you're still wrestling with Ann?"
"So your skin didn't improve?"
"It actually got worse."
"I had developed a taste for fine wine and coffee - not the weak, frothy crap you get here, but these small caffeine bombs that really stoked your engine, especially when you added a dash of Remy Martin. That's when the wrestling started with Ann, I'd wake up at three in the morning crazed with itch and completely dehydrated. But the biggest single factor was the stress."
"Writing is ten times more stressful than racing a bike, and stress is ten times more irritating than sweat. To cope, I drink two litres of coffee a day and too much wine. I'm preparing an interview: I scratch. I'm writing an interview: I scratch. I'm fighting my deadline: I scratch. The lawyers want cuts: I scratch. It's not very good: I scratch. It is very good: I scratch . . . Actually, would you mind? I'm trying to find a bottom line and just thinking about it is making me itchy."
"Not at all, do whatever you need to do."
"Thanks, just a quick dart will do it . . . Uuhh . . . Uhhh . . . Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh."