By Dana Christensen
I am a squeamish person. My body overreacts to certain triggers, causing my heart rate and blood pressure to drop suddenly. I learned the technical name for this—vasovagal syncope—following an ER visit after fainting while driving. Thinking too much about something stuck in my eye sparked that particular episode. After CAT scans, an ultrasound, and walking around with a heart monitor taped to my chest for a day, science concluded that I am capable of worrying myself into unconsciousness.
This affliction shows up most readily as acute nausea when people discuss illnesses and injuries in detail. For example, I passed out in science class in the seventh grade during a tame introduction to cancer cells. I realized early on that I could never be a doctor. This, in part, explains why I opted to become a lawyer.
Despite my extreme sensitivity to graphic medical procedures, I have a deep fondness for popping pimples. Not only do I love to pop my own, but I help contribute to the millions of views for Youtube videos that document epic pimple pops. What I really go for is a good cyst pop, either aided by a surgical knife or downhome razorblade. There comes the greatest satisfaction in watching the accumulation of dead skin matter and white blood cells erupt past the surface of the skin—even better when it projects outward like a dermatological volcano. This is the money shot of pimple popping videos.
Although I continue to search my body for my own cystic object of perverse desire, I have yet to find one that could be showcased on either Dr. Pimple Popper’s Youtube page or her hit TLC show. This does not stop me from going after whatever hard cystic bumps happen to form on me with the feverish impulse of an addict searching for a fix. I seem unable to let these bumps run their course or use over-the-counter drugs or home remedies to rid them in their own due time. I end up making them worse by squeezing and poking mild blemishes into bloody, swollen messes, even when they are between my eyebrows or on my chin. Gotta chase that rush!
Why can’t my acute vasovagal syncope kick in when I’m going to town on my face? It would spare me of self-inflicted scaring. Or rather, where is that pimple-popping resilience when I feel sick after reading a WebMD link from my Google search “why am I spotting?” I may or may not have Googled this question and felt the unease that came with reading the first few results while also cuing up a “ten-year-old ingrown hair” Youtube video. I know, I am one sick pup. Instead of objectively discerning my situation, I must talk myself down from the queasy sensation that come with the dread of my uterus either shutting down or acquiring a surprise occupant. Meanwhile, I am moving the curser of the homemade zit pop production to the climax. Who can explain, let alone untangle, such twisted paths of the heart? It wants what it wants.
While I have yet to find a 12-step program for my pimple addiction, I am showing signs of improvement. Once, in the recent past, I felt the hard, sore lump of a headless pimple. I could visualize in my mind the micro tectonic forces occurring underneath the surface of my skin. I gave a hearty squeeze, but knew I would get no satisfaction out of it, just a pink spot left on my skin, no exit in sight. I massaged various creams into the bump. I ignored it, and eventually, it disappeared. My white whale came and went, with my usual response to a biological phenomenon replaced by one both anticlimactic and well-adjusted.
I went to law school five miles away from the birthplace of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. It took until my final year of living in South Royalton for me to visit the museum built on his childhood home. Soon upon arriving we learned that people of the faith consider it a major honor to volunteer at this museum. Our tour guide was a tall, broad shouldered, ruddy faced older man and retired doctor. With the earnest enthusiasm of a camp counselor, he welcomed me and three of my guy friends, all of us flaming homosexuals and high from our brunch proclivities. Our tour guide relished in the details of Joseph Smith’s life, making for an engaging immersion into a religion that is still trying to shake off associations with polygamy, bigotry, and magic underwear.
Some facts about Joseph Smith, we learned, particularly resonated with the tour guide and his former medical career, like the osteomyelitis that caused a severe infection in the leg bone of the seven-year-old Joseph Smith and required a grueling early nineteenth century surgery to save his life. We stood around him as he painted the visual and technical context of such an ordeal, how Joseph Smith’s survival from this stood as a true miracle that Mr. Smith used later for credibility in his religious career. He asked us to imagine not only the excruciating pain this young child must have suffered and the putrid stench that must have come from his leg, but also how the infection opened up as a rotten sore, using his hands to demonstrate the parting of the muscle from the bone. Why yes, I could imagine this all too well. That old familiar feeling of lightheadedness and weakness took over me, and I knew it was not the touch of the spirit or whatever else going through me.
I squatted and rested my head in my hands. The tour guide seemed upset that I would interrupt his presentation, right in the middle of what was clearly his favorite part: the surgical tools they used to treat the bone infection. He stopped talking to stare at me. After an awkward silence, I explained that I get queasy from such vivid accounts of diseases. He acknowledged this with a bewildered “okay” before carrying on right where he left off. I had to leave my friends to neutralize myself in the final exhibition of the museum tour. I laid down on a couch set in a room of Manifest Destiny-dripped paintings and life-sized statutes of Mr. Smith and his friends. Eventually, the tour guide and my crew joined me there. At one point in this juncture, our tour guide got behind the statute of Joseph Smith, placed near the center of the room, wrapped his arms around him, and put his hands over the statute’s metal ones.
“Look at these hands! These were strong hands. These were hands that built things.” My friends and I exchanged looks of raised eyebrows. Who doesn’t love a pair of strong hands?
Our tour ended with our doctor guide leading us to admire the 50-foot granite obelisk erected over Joseph Smith’s exact birthplace, in all its phallic glory, on the property grounds. By then, I had fully recovered, and we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the grounds, taking in the gayness of Mormonism on a beautiful Vermont spring day.
The last time I fainted because of vasovagal syncope was a Sunday in April. I had worn poor quality glitter mascara the afternoon before and had an itch in my eye that would not go away, no matter how much I rubbed or blinked. The first few hits off a Google search of “what happens when glitter gets stuck in eye” shook me. I had to lay down and decide how I was going to save my eye from a blinding infection.
I then spent hours in the waiting room of the 24/7 oncology wing at Mount Sinai, feeling foolish for not packing anything to read. I eased my anxiety by going through all the old human-interest magazines and medical brochures before it became my turn to see the doctor. She was younger than me, with an affable bedside matter that made me feel more at ease. She took a quick look through her large grey contraption and located the rouge glitter flake.
“I am just going to flip your eye lid and use a swab to get rid of the glitter, ok?”
“Flip my eye lid?”
“Yeah, it will only take a moment.”
I had every reason to trust her, but I remember having to tell myself to breathe and play it cool. I woke up aching all over after what felt like a lengthy and detailed dream. I found myself slumped in the patient chair, looking up at the doctor and her nurse. I explained my tendency and they were gracious about it, giving me a snack and some water and asking me questions about my life. This empathetic professionalism didn’t stop me from fainting one more time before they removed that damn silver spot of plastic out of my eye.
Seeing more fine lines than zits on my face lately forces me to at least fancy my inevitable decline. From these fleeting existential musings, I can make a safe conclusion that much of my uneasiness with the body’s infinite vulnerabilities comes from a visceral fear of death. While a decidedly universal contemplation, most people are able to have frank conversations about illness or injury while maintaining consciousness. I remember becoming so ill listening to my friend recall the ordeal surrounding her broken arm that I thought I would vomit. I imagine that those who can graduate from nursing or medical school can separate their own bodies from the ones they study and serve, that their empathy channels itself away from an immediate personal identification with the subject to one of the removed observer, ready to think and act rationally. This may also explain why some folks experience only pleasurable thrills from horror movies and others (no surprise, myself included) start white knuckling their armrest or pillow and closing their eyes as soon as the soundtrack switches to a discorded minor key. Death, even in the abstract of narrative, remains too close for comfort for some.
I like pimple popping because of its accessibility and immediate gratification of the need to fix a problem. There, right in front of my eyes, an attack on the body manifested in a manageable bump, one that my own hands can eradicate. Pimple popping provides a false sense of control over a body made of uncertainty. This I will use as my theory to explain why I went nuclear on two minor cysts and a blackhead on my face last week. A pandemic, an upcoming election to oust a fascist, and whatever momentary stirrings of the heart had sent me over the edge. None of these excavations bore any fruit, if you will, and only a constellation of red blotches remained as a testament to my unbridled impulse.
The scabby bits remained in time for my weekly pandemic-era ritual of Sunday FaceTime with my parents. I figured they would say something about them during the conversation. My parents tend to have something to say about my face, starting around when I first started getting pimples as a preteen. Both of them have clear skin, yet still keep a range of anti-acne medication on hand for any stray blemish that crosses their paths. I noted to myself while we started to say our goodbyes that a whole half an hour of conversation had passed without a single mention of my zitty face. But then my mother, mid-goodnight, asked, “I see some spots on your face, what’s going on there?” A beat of silence passed, my parents waiting, feeling entitled to an answer. In what I can only mark as growth, I responded, “Why don’t you mind your own business?” Before they could say anything, I followed up with, “And with that, goodnight!” and hung up. When it comes to owning your life, there is no room to be squeamish.