Essay — From the September 2013 issue

The Devil’s Bait

Symptoms, signs, and the riddle of Morgellons

( 9 of 12 )

Doubting the existence of Morgellons hasn’t stopped me from being afraid I’ll get it. Before the conference, I told my friends: “If I come back from Austin thinking I have Morgellons, you have to tell me I don’t.” Now that I’m here, I wash my hands a lot. I’m conscious of other people’s bodies.

Then it starts happening, as I knew it would. After a shower, I notice small blue strands like tiny worms across my clavicle. I find what appear to be minuscule spines, little quills, tucked into the crevice of a fortune line on my palm.

If you look closely enough, of course, skin is always foreign — full of bumps, botched hairs, hefty freckles, rough patches. The blue fibers are probably just stray threads from a towel, or from my sleeve, the quills not quills at all but smeared ink on the surface of the skin. But it’s in these moments of fear that I come closest to experiencing Morgellons the way patients do. Inhabiting their perspective only makes me want to protect myself from what they have. I wonder if these are the only options available to my crippled organs of compassion: I’m either full of disbelief or I’m washing my hands in the bathroom.

I’m not the only person at the conference thinking about contagion. One woman stands up to say she needs to know the facts about how Morgellons is really transmitted. She tells the crowd that her family and friends refuse to come to her apartment. She needs proof they can’t catch the disease from her couch. It’s hard not to speculate. Maybe her family and friends are afraid of catching her disease — or maybe they’re keeping their distance from what they understand as her obsession.

Kendra tells me she’s afraid of getting her friends sick whenever she goes out to dinner with them. I picture her at the sushi place — handling her chopsticks so carefully, keeping her wasabi under strict quarantine, so that this thing in her won’t get into anyone else.

The specter of contagion serves a curious double function. On the one hand, as with Kendra, there is a sense of shame at oneself as a potential carrier of infection. But on the other hand, the possibility of spreading this disease also suggests that it’s real — that it could be proven to exist by its manifestation in others.

This double-edged sword of fear and confirmation is on full display at the Pets with Morgellons website, one of the oddest corners of the Morgellons online labyrinth. In a typical entry, a cat named Ika introduces herself and her illness:

I have been named [for] the Japanese snack of dried cuttlefish. . . . Typically I am full of chaotic energy, however lately I have been feeling quite lethargic and VERY itchy. My best friend/mommy thinks that she gave me her skin condition, and she is so very SAD. I think she is even more sad that she passed it on to me than the fact that she has it covering her entire face.

The litany of sick animals continues. A sleek white dog named Jazzy sports itchy paws; two bloodhounds are biting invisible fleas; a Lhasa apso joins his owner for stretches in an infrared sauna. Another entry is an elegy for an Akita named Sinbad:

It appears that I got the disease at the same time that my beautiful lady owner got it. And after many trips to the vet they had to put me down. I know it was for my own good, but I do miss them a lot. I can still see my master’s face, right up close to mine, when the doc put me to sleep. . . . I could sniff his breath and feel the pain in his eyes as tears rolled down his face. But, it’s ok. I’m alright now. The maddening itching is finally over. I’m finally at peace.

Who knows what happened to Sinbad? Maybe he really did need to get put down; maybe he was old, or sick with something else. Maybe he wasn’t sick at all. But he has become part of an illness narrative — like lesions, or divorces, or the fibers themselves. He is irrefutable proof that suffering has happened, that things have been lost.

is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet (Free Press), and of The Empathy Exams: Essays, to be published next April by Graywolf.

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October 2019