Every morning, once I’ve worked the kinks out of my joints, made the bed and done some stretching, I wash my hands and sit down with manicure scissors, clippers, nail file, tweezers, ointment, bandages, wound dressing and moisturizer to tend my fingers. I pick and nip any shreds of dead skin, clip nails that have split or splintered at the corners, file away rough skin patches and inspect for signs of inflammation. Then I treat and bandage any open ulcers and slather on moisturizer, rubbing and wringing my hands over and over until the skin no longer feels sticky.
This is how I try to protect myself from the world—all the inevitable bumps, bangs, cuts and bruises, as well as all the nasty germs that could invade my body through cracks in my skin, inflicting pain and havoc.
It takes time, this daily ritual, sometimes five minutes, sometimes a half-hour, depending on what I did with my hands the day before, how well they have healed in moisturizer and white cotton gloves overnight, and the random factor.
In statistics, random factor analysis is used to determine whether an unusual observation—a data outlier—is caused by random events or some underlying trend.
Each morning, as I clip and nip, I perform my own informal random factor analysis: Did I get this ding when I banged my finger on the kitchen chair? Is this soreness on my pinky from tapping too often on my iPhone? Does this nail-bed inflammation stem from forgetting to wash my hands when I got home after running errands and using the germ-covered keypad at CVS without my gloves? (All random events.) Or is the increased number of recent ulcers due to the extremely cold and fluctuating temperatures these past few weeks? (An underlying trend.)
Trends, such as weather patterns, are a bit easier to cope with, once identified. I just need to dress with greater attention to the forecast. More layers. Don’t mothball the down coat or sweaters quite yet. Keep those scarves and wrist-warmers handy.
Random events are the most challenging because, by definition, they’re random. I have no idea that I misjudged the distance between my finger and the back of the kitchen chair as I reach to pick my wallet off the table until I feel the pain. I can’t anticipate an ulcer on my iPhone pinky when for months the finger has been fine and I haven’t changed my frequency of tapping and texting. I don’t always get an infection every time I use a check-out keypad bare-handed, though I’m beginning to douse my hands in antibacterial hand cleaner as soon as I get back in my car, just to be safe.
You could say that I’m constantly adjusting and adapting my protective behavior as I continue to gather more data points.
But random is as random does. You just can’t anticipate all the bad stuff you’re going to run into every day. Or, to be fair, all the good stuff, either.
So my morning ritual is as much a meditation on my state of being as it is a random factor analysis. Here is where my fingers are today. This is how the rough patch of skin feels before and after I file it down. That is an incipient hangnail in need of trimming before it gets worse. Here is how much dead skin I can cut away to sense more through my thumb. That ulcer still needs a bandage. This one looks like it could go without, finally.
Rub, wring, rub, wring. The moisturizer absorbs into my pores, a silky, invisible film to keep my skin flexible and ready for whatever the day may bring. This is how I try to protect myself. This is how I face the world each morning.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.