Folie à Deux
A Mother and Daughter's Shared Medical Problem
Rebecca pulled up to the house and saw her mother’s car parked in the driveway. She hoped today was a better day for her mother. She parked her car and drew in a deep breath before releasing a heavy sigh and making her way towards the front door. As she reached to unlock the door, she felt a tightening in her thigh, and she could not figure out if it was because she was anxious or itchy.
“Better day?” Rebecca asked.
“Better, but certainly not my best. I managed to get through work today at least, but I was miserable the entire day. I don’t think I carried as many with me to work today, but there were still a lot. There!” She pointed desperately, her face in anguish. “There’s some! See them?”
“I think so, Mom.”
“Look!" She thrusted her arm closer to her daughter's eyes. "There’s nothing to think about. More now—they’re right there. All over my arm!”
“I see them," she surrendered.
Rebecca stared at her mother’s arm, full of bleeding scrapes and scratches. Her mother had been itching herself all day; she could tell by the dried blood underneath her fingernails. These abrasions would eventually disfigure her mother’s arm, just as similar marks had ruined her skin elsewhere. She worried her mother’s day wasn’t much better after all.
The skin on her legs—where it first started—was the worst. Scars covered her thin skin from the knees down. She once saw her mother rip out the nail of her big toe looking for the wretched critters that crawled all over her body. She felt nauseous even thinking of it.
Rebecca did not notice them when they first started invading her mother’s skin some months ago, but now she noticed them irritating her own body. They still weren’t bothering her like they did her mother, but Rebecca worried they might get worse. She was beginning to feel them more around the house as they burrowed into her skin.
“Mom, you have got to stop itching yourself so much. Look what you are doing to your skin,” Rebecca pleaded.
“I can’t help it. It itches so bad.”
“You could get an infection!”
“Look at me!” Her mother insisted angrily. “I’m infested!”
“Do you think you can make it until our appointment in the morning or do we need to go to the Emergency Room?”
“No, no. We aren’t going back to the ER. That was humiliating. I hated having them all gawping at me—calling me crazy”
“I know. I’m sorry, Mom, but I couldn’t bear to see you ripping yourself apart.”
“It’s okay, sweetie. I’ll make it ‘til tomorrow. Promise.”
“Please try. I’m going to go make something for dinner. Try to take your mind off them. Take a shower or something.”
In the kitchen, Rebecca put some noodles into boiling water. Her thigh itched so terribly now that it burned, but she refused the urge. The shower faucet could be heard turning on in the other room, and Rebecca checked around the corner to make certain her mother was not nearby. She reached for her phone and searched through her contacts before calling Jill.
“Hello,” answered Jill on the other end of the phone.
“Hi Jill, it’s Rebecca.”
“Hi Rebecca! How are you, dear?”
“I’m okay, Jill.” She sighed heavily before continuing, “I’m calling about my mother.”
“I see. To tell you the truth, I’m glad you called. I was actually considering calling you for the very same reason. I worry about her.”
“Me too, which is why I’m calling. I wanted to ask if she went to work today.”
“Yes, she did.”
“And she stayed the whole day?”
“Yes,” she confirmed.
“Good. That’s a relief. I was worried she hadn’t gone in at all.”
“It wasn’t good though, Rebecca. What’s going on with her?”
“It’s complicated.” A silent pause followed. Rebecca knew that answer wouldn’t satisfy her.
“Well, the good news is that I don’t think anyone has noticed. At least, not to the extent I have. I’ve known her for so long, and she’s been acting differently for a while now. But it wasn’t until recently that I noticed she was constantly digging at her skin. In meetings, she hides it under the table, but I’ve caught her practically tearing her skin apart in her cubicle.”
“Her boss hasn’t noticed, right?”
“No, not yet, but it’s only a matter of time. It’s getting worse.”
“We are working on it. I just wanted to talk to you and see how she’s been at work. I won’t keep you any longer.”
“Rebecca, she needs help.”
“I know. We have a Dermatology appointment tomorrow morning.”
“She tells me she has something—some type of bug—crawling all over her skin. She asks me to look, but there’s nothing there. Don’t you think she might need another kind of help—like mental, maybe?”
“No,” Rebecca responded sternly, “And don’t mention that to her. She’s not crazy.”
“I’m not saying that, Rebecca. She told me she’s gone to several other doctors and none of them have found anything. I just really think—"
“No, Jill,” She interrupted. “That’s the end of it. My mom wouldn’t do this if it weren’t real.”
“I never said it wasn’t real, but she does not have bugs on her. Surely you can see that.”
“If it’s all in her head, then why am I itching too?” Rebecca almost screamed through the phone.
“Rebecca, truly, I don’t mean to upset you I only want—“
“Thanks for your help, Jill.”
Rebecca hung up the phone and slammed it on the counter. The skin of her face wrinkled tightly as she clenched every muscle in her face, trying to hold back tears. She hoped that tomorrow’s appointment would be better than the others, but she had a feeling they would probably return home empty-handed. The burning itch in her thigh remained insatiable, as it had all night.
The next day, Rebecca and her mother sat quietly in a cold clinic room. The sound of two knocks on the door broke the silence, and the man behind the knocks entered immediately after. He wore greenish-blue scrubs beneath a long white coat that hung just above his knees. His hair was dark brown, though it had the look of hair that hadn’t quite started greying yet but soon would. She thought he looked old enough to be experienced but young enough to not have been spoiled with burnout. He extended his arm to shake hands.
“Hi, Miss Nolan. I’m Dr. Moore. Who do we have with us today?” His voice was warm and loosened Rebecca’s tension like a knot untied.
“This is Rebecca, my daughter,” her mother responded.
“Hi Rebecca. Nice to meet you.” He shifted back to her mother. “And, before we begin, is it okay to discuss everything in front of her, today?”
“Yes, that’s fine.”
By now he had found his seat directly across from her mother. He crossed his legs, interlocked his fingers, and leaned forward.
“So, what brings you in today?” He asked.
The question was familiar to both Rebecca and her mother, as they had heard some form of the same inquiry at every other doctor visit they had been to for this damned thing they were dealing with. Rebecca wondered if they taught this question in medical school or if it was passed down from one generation of physicians to the next by habit alone. Nonetheless, it didn’t matter, because, though the question was the same, this time it sounded different. The source behind it was curious and kind, and maybe that meant he actually wanted to help. And, more importantly, maybe he could.
Rebecca sat there listening to her mother tell this stranger all about her most personal ailment. Her mother presented him with the box she had brought in with the scrapes of her skin and hair as evidence, and she showed him her scars all over her body and the newer, still-bleeding erosions. He sat and listened, barely even talking, as her mother went on and on. Rebecca had never seen her mother be this open about this with anyone else. Rebecca looked at her scarred, vulnerable mother, searching for the woman she used to be. She hoped that he too was looking for the same thing in her mother.
After her mother had finished her story, he asked her a few more questions and examined her. He then asked if it were okay to talk to Rebecca alone, and though she was hesitant, her mother agreed to it. After she left the room, he turned to Rebecca and with the same warmth he had asked his initial question, he asked, “What are your thoughts on all this?” She unconsciously reached to her thigh and scratched it intensely until the itch was soothed. She drew in a deep breath and began to talk.