"Why are your hands so oily?" Ken Jones asked me.
P.E. 5th grade. We were playing amoeba tag. And Ken, well, he was that kid. The one who talked back to our teacher, was awkward and got picked on or left behind. And he was my amoeba tag partner, which meant we had to start linking up by holding hands and tagging someone else, thereby creating a long chain...you get the idea. I could see my friends giving my pitying looks from across the gym as we started to play. And of course, as soon as we linked up, Ken had to point out my major prepubescent weakness: my gross "oily" hands.
But it wasn't oil that Ken was feeling. It was sweat. Lots of it. My hands, feet, and armpits would find a way to release an extraordinary amount of perspiration. The constant wiping of my hands would only leave wet imprints on my jeans. Worse, I couldn't predict when it would strike. It seemed to happen at random. One time in class I picked up a paper with my sweaty palm, demonstrating this strange ability to a friend who just laughed. I didn't think much of it.
But it wouldn't go away and adolescence was nigh. This was a particularly dangerous and potent combination.
In 7th grade, I saw a doctor who told me that she also suffered from this condition. She called it hyperhidrosis.
In case you are wondering what having hyperhidrosis means to someone like me, Wikipedia has a pretty accurate description. (My responses follow and are italicized.)
- Hyperhidrosis can have physiological consequences such as cold and clammy hands, dehydration, and skin infections secondary to maceration of the skin. Hyperhidrosis can also have devastating emotional effects on one’s individual life. (Please don't reach for my hand. Please don't reach for my hand. Oh, no. We're holding hands. My face is turning red. It's pounding. My hands are dripping...I can feel them dripping. There are water droplets on the floor. Oh my gosh. I feel humiliated. I know you're going to wipe your hand. I know you think I'm disgusting. I can't help it. I'm so, so sorry. Ugh.)
- Affected people are constantly aware of their condition and try to modify their lifestyle to accommodate this problem. This can be disabling in professional, academic and social life, causing embarrassments. Many routine tasks can result in a disproportionate level of sweating, which can be emotionally draining to these individuals. (Quick, Erin, wipe your hands. No, it's okay. They're cold and clammy. But dry. Phew. Dry. But really cold. How many hands do I have to shake at this professional function? If I don't shake their hand, I'm rude, right? Can I wave? Shoot. Now they are dripping again. I'm not that nervous, but they are going to think I am because of my hands. Also, I know my hands are sweaty. You really don't have to point that out to me.)
- Excessive sweating or focal hyperhidrosis of the hands interferes with many routine activities, such as securely grasping objects. Some focal hyperhidrosis sufferers avoid situations where they will come into physical contact with others, such as greeting a person with a handshake. Hiding embarrassing sweat spots under the armpits limits the sufferers' arm movements and pose. In severe cases, shirts must be changed several times during the day and require additional showers both to remove sweat and control body odor issues or microbial problems such as acne, dandruff, or athlete's foot. Additionally, anxiety caused by self-consciousness to the sweating may aggravate the sweating. Excessive sweating of the feet makes it harder for patients to wear slide-on or open-toe shoes, as the feet slide around in the shoe because of sweat. (I have changed shirts multiple times in one day because of sweating. I have a really hard time wearing flip flops. Yes, summer is the worst.)
In high school, I tried a topical treatment that just made my palms turn brown and extremely dry and skin would flake off and crack. It was like having dandruff on my palms. It was pretty gross. I also used a probably highly toxic, heavy duty antiperspirant. I tried to avoid handholding. Winter was awesome because I could wear gloves.
In the past few years, I've been involved with groups where praying together in a circle and holding hands is 100% always going to happen. And my hands pour and pour out and I can't do anything about it. Just thinking about praying in a circle is making my hands sweat. I would ask the person to my left and the person to my right if we could not hold hands, but instead just put hands on each other's back. Most of the time people were okay with this. But of course, I left a sweaty print on their shirt once we were done with the prayer which would feel like an hour but was actually about 10 minutes. (10 minutes too long, if you ask me.)
My teacher and friend, Ylva, said she loved it (my sweating). She said that she thought it was beautiful. "The hands are an extension of the heart. And you have so much to give." I started to find ways to reframe it. I began tracking when my hands would start their engines, so to speak. Often it was when I was writing or thinking of something creative or working on a project I was passionate about. Hmm...
It didn't always happen under these circumstances, but it was interesting to note when that was the case. It will happen when I'm excessively warm. When I'm anxious. And of course, the unpredictable variant: just because.
I've been fortunate that the people I have been in relationship with haven't minded. They haven't made disgusted faces or complained. They have respected me when I didn't feel comfortable holding their hand. No one has told me to "get it fixed," or pitied me for it. Most people are simply surprised or curious or incredibly generous in holding space for me around it.
I know there are surgeries available, but that's not for me. I've tried acupuncture and had shamanic work done around it. But it's still here.
You can't see it, but my hands are dripping right now. Maybe I really needed to write this post. Maybe you needed to hear about it....maybe someone you know has hyperhidrosis. I know I'm not the only one; I know it's something that I might have to navigate for the rest of my life.
It is awkward. It is personally embarrassing. I'm never trying to be rude if I'm weird about shaking your hand. And, it is true that I have lots to share, lots of passion, and lots of heart.
Perhaps one day, the heart and the hand will find a simple, peaceful congruency of expression that leaves my palms warm and dry. And future handshakes pleasant for all parties.