Saturday, July 28, 2007


Have you ever had a problem that grew on you?

Around 1998 I noticed this hard little spot in the center of my chest, like an M&M just under the skin. If I touched it with my fingertip, I could move it around a bit, but there was no pain or discomfort, just this hard little bump.

Within a year it had grown to maybe four or five times its original size, and I was slowly growing alarmed. Was it a tumor? I eventually went to my doctor, and he looked and felt it and said it was a sebaceous cyst, nothing serious. My memory of that initial doctor's visit is hazy but he may have lanced and drained it, and bandaged the area and it seemed to heal. Either that or he did nothing, but it seems crazy to think that that might be what had happened: Nothing.

I started working at a radio station in the middle of a nature preserve in Albany in 2000, and around this time the cyst got infected. It was growing larger and larger, and as the skin stretched over it, it grew quite uncomfortable at first and then genuinely painful.

While on the air one day (it was an all-news station, and when I wasn't reading local news I could take a break while pre-recorded national programming played), I went in the men's room to take a look.

Removing my shirt, I could see that the cyst had, in the space of less than a day, ballooned to the size and hardness of a golf ball directly under my skin. It was horrifying and painful and at this point I had lost most of my rationality and just WANTED IT OUT OF ME.

The men's room in this radio station was tiny. I am a big guy, and had just room to stand in front of the mirror, the toilet to the left of me, the door right at my back. Facing the mirror, chin on my chest as I looked down at this horror, I took the heels of my hands and dug into the sides of the cyst, and squeezed the fucking thing as hard as I could.

It was unbelievable, surreal, and yet probably altogether ordinary. There was an audible crack as my skin ruptured and a golf ball's worth of pus and blood exploded out of my chest and onto the mirror in front of me.

As I have said, this thing had been slowly building now for a couple of years, and the smell was vile. Reduced to an almost animal-like state of unintellectual curiosity, I poked and prodded the extremely sore area where the cyst had been growing, and felt with disgust and dismay that I had managed to squeeze out maybe only half of what had been inside me. For a brief, idiotic moment I somehow thought it was OVER, but it was really only just beginning.

I squeezed and squeezed and more and more pus shot out, in these jerky, erratic pops, as if they were lined up waiting for just the right combination of pressure and angle of attack. I experimented for quite some time, poking this way and that, until all that trickled out was a little bit of pale blood, and I presumed that I had got it all out.

I covered the wound (for that was what it was now, no question) with toilet paper, cleaned off the mirror with soap and hot water, and flushed all the evidence away down the toilet. After finishing my shift, I went directly to the nearest pharmacy, and bought bandages and tape to dress the wound while it healed.

Which, of course, it didn't.

I don't know how long this went on, but I can tell you that exorcising this demon became a daily ritual in that little bathroom -- never again as much as that first, horrific rupturing of my skin, but sometimes maybe half as much, sometimes hardly anything at all.

It slowly dawned on me that this ritual was providing me with some artificial sense of control and a genuine sense of comfort, like it was my secret friend waiting there for me in the tiny little bathroom every day. The smell, the blood, the pus -- most of all, the sickest part of remembering this is the joy I took when it was enough that it would splatter on that bathroom mirror. I think on some stupid level I thought that the more there was, the more I was removing from myself, and sooner or later I would get to the last of it, and be done with it. But part of me didn't WANT to be done with it, I know that now.

Eventually the smell, the discomfort and pain and the constant visits to the pharmacy to buy more supplies drove me again to the doctor and I was prescribed antibiotics, and after many weeks, I was able to keep my hands off it and it healed over. There was a part of me that didn't want it to heal, I think, because I dreaded having to rupture it all over again -- the sound of the skin breaking and that first, momentous splatter onto the bathroom mirror loomed large in my mind and as weirdly comforting as it was, I wanted it to be healed and I didn't want to ever go through it again.

If I touch my chest, to this day, years later, my fingers go right to that spot, remembering it like a primal memory. In the years since it has never again re-infected, but there is a tiny bump, perhaps a tenth the size of that original M&M, and I know something of that long-ago nightmare remains, waiting, inside me. I have never forgotten it, the non-nonsensical conviction that I was the only person this had ever happened to, that I was deeply ashamed and frightened by it, but most of all some secret joy that this strange thing I didn't understand was MINE, like a secret lover or favoured child.