At the end of August 1996 both my daughters left home to take up graduate scholarships in America. I knew that they would probably never again spend extended periods in my house, but persuaded myself that I had ‘coping strategies’ well in place. Within days of their departure I embarked on a more than usually expensive holiday, a Hellenic cruise. I had calculated that in the course of this holiday I would become really keen to get back, even to an empty home, and to resume my absorbing work on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. This was indeed the case, and I returned to much enjoyable busyness, not consciously marred by what I took to be a moderately virulent outbreak of athlete’s foot, caused by too many visits to my swimming club, in a prep school where term began in early September. After a week or three I went to my GP and told her I thought I had athlete’s foot. Amid pleasant chat of this and that she sat at her computer and prescribed some anti-fungal cream. I warned one or two fellow members of the swimming club that there might be infections around in the women’s changing room, used at other times of day by ‘away’ rugby teams of little boys. My spirits were slightly dampened, as autumn and a new academic year set in, by a sense that as a responsible citizen I should now cease to visit the swimming pool – I normally went three times a week – for fear of infecting others. I hit on what I thought a rather brilliant solution: I bought some rubber foot coverings from a sports shop, and went swimming in them a couple of times, hoping to avoid passing the infection on, but was surprised to discover what a part toes play in swimming, and how impeding it is to have the feet encased in latex. Perhaps this unsatisfactory experience gave me some empathy with the condom-wearing sex.
The only real solution seemed to be to abandon swimming, especially since the ‘athlete’s foot’ was if anything more virulent, in spite of a second instalment of anti-fungal cream, and had now spread to the right foot as well. I also noticed that, immersed in the morning paper, I seemed clumsily to have cut some flaps of skin loose on the palm of my right hand while peeling my apple and pear with a sharp knife (yet often I used only a table knife) at breakfast. However, being extremely busy, as October and November advanced, with teaching, lecturing, and writing the introduction to my edition of the Sonnets, I didn’t devote much thought to any of this, though I did find myself having to buy lots of packets of hypo-allergenic sticking plasters to keep the cracking and bleeding soles of my feet more or less in one piece. My early morning and bedtime routines – peeling off the day’s plasters and applying a fresh set, with what seemed like great cardboard-like rafts of skin coming off with the plasters – became increasingly disgusting.
My doctor changed her tune, and decided that either it never had been athlete’s foot, or that the athlete’s foot was secondary to some other skin problem. She set things in train for an appointment with an NHS dermatologist, though she was fairly sure that what I had would eventually be diagnosed as ‘acute dermatitis’ – doctors’ Greek for bad skin trouble – and that I would be none the wiser, or fitter. She recommended me to wear cork insoles. With terrifying speed, lacking my habitual exercise, I became alarmingly lame and unfit. I kept thinking of Hans Andersen’s Little Mermaid, who was permitted to exchange her fishtail for human legs only at the price of feeling that with every step she was treading on scissors and knives. Normally a very early riser, I took to lying in bed in a state of acute apprehension, dreading the pain when I put my bleeding feet to the floor, and not at all sure whether I could face the small amount of walking required to get me downstairs, and to work. After a few minutes I usually became inured to the pain, especially once I had strapped up my cracked and bleeding feet with rolls of the continuous sticking plaster I was now using, but I did make careful calculations of the least amount of walking I could get away with, and got quite stressed if I had to walk any further. Meanwhile, the skin on my hands was flapping off in large horny pieces, and I dreaded encountering anyone who might shake my hand and feel its horny edges. My hands, like my feet, were now so cracked at the centre of the palm that sometimes they bled slightly. I began jokingly to refer to the condition as ‘my stigmata’, adding that whatever had caused it, it certainly couldn’t be sanctity.
By December I was tottering from foot to foot in considerable pain. My left foot was still much the worse, however, and my doctor alarmed me with a breezy bit of medical humour, saying: ‘We don’t want you to lose that foot.’ She put me on some quite powerful steroid cream – milder, across-the-counter stuff had done little – and suggested that I wrapped both hands and feet in plastic bags. I was glad that I had no current bed-companion to see or feel my plastic-wrapped extremities. My elder daughter, back briefly for Christmas, fell about laughing at the sight of my nocturnal plastications. Sometimes I kept my feet wrapped and anointed during the day as well as at night, thoroughly concealed with socks and trousers, and hoped that no one would either see the odd and bulging look of my ankles or hear the occasional susurrations of the crumpled plastic. By mid-December, when I went to give a lecture in Switzerland, I had become a steroid junkie. I dreamed of buying a more powerful cream across the counter in that great land of pharmaceuticals, and was deeply disappointed to be fobbed off with a tube of cream of even weaker concentration than I was allowed to buy in Oxford. I was also embarrassed, in a nice clean Swiss hotel room, to find no way of getting dressed and undressed without scattering humiliating heaps of dead skin on the carpet.
In the New Year, still waiting for my appointment with the dermatologist, I tried to cut down the steroids. My feet were ever so slightly better, my hands quite a lot worse, but there was no doubt that all four extremities were madly and painfully exfoliating all the time. Night after night, in a warm bath, I would try to rub them clear of dead skin flaps, hoping they would be nice and soft the next day, but new flaps and cracks seemed to appear in next to no time. Finally, in March, I saw the NHS dermatologist, and was diagnosed as suffering from hand and foot psoriasis – a rare enough condition to be unfamiliar to many GPs, yet common enough for the Oxfordshire Health Authority to have invested in special ultraviolet light boxes for the treatment of hands and feet. During the summer of 1997 I had a 12-week series of sessions with ultraviolet light, and this treatment, combined with a new habit of continually applying moisturising and emollient creams, eventually brought my feet, at least, to better condition than they had been in for years.
The connection between mind, consciousness and body is notoriously both intimate and inscrutable. In Feet of Clay (1996) Anthony Storr traces a recurring pattern of events in which an individual who has undergone a period of severe illness or depression emerges from it convinced that he can now impart spiritual insight and detailed guidance to mankind on how life should be lived. Many celebrated ‘gurus’, such as St Ignatius, Jung and Gurdjieff, have undergone such mind-changing illnesses, and have persuaded large numbers of followers of the universal value of the insights they gained during them. In my case, the pattern of events seems to have been reversed: I have been led to rationalism rather than mysticism. I am less certain than ever that I have any belief of my own, let alone anything of value to impart to others, despite feeling moved to write this diary. Rather than feeling, like St Paul, that ‘I know that I bear in my own body the marks of the Lord Jesus,’ I now meditate with sympathy but considerable cynicism on the agonising lives of such celebrated stigmatics as St Paul, St Francis or Padre Pio. Spending long periods in dark cells meditating on one’s own sin and unworthiness in the sight of the Almighty must be the perfect recipe for exacerbating psoriasis, a stress-related disorder of the immune system, which is also aggravated by lack of sunlight. Another site where psoriatic patches can break out badly, besides hands and feet, is round the midriff, leading to ‘hole in the side’ type wounds. For a short time in October 1996 I had this symptom, too.
Until 1997 I was a regular churchgoer. Despite a strong inclination towards pantheism, I felt myself to be sustained and nourished at some deep level by Christian ritual and worship. Since more or less recovering from psoriasis, I find that whatever frail thread it was that connected me with institutional religion has snapped. As an Anglican I had never been required to take such saintly miracles as the stigmata particularly seriously. Nevertheless, the close parallels between this form of psoriasis and Christ’s wounds might have led me to a deeper faith. In practice, however, I find that my healed and anointed feet no longer carry me into places of worship.