Allergic to Water from PTSD
Updated: Apr 11, 2021
For thirty years I have been told to switch lotions and change soaps, look into reverse osmosis and dry shampoo, suck it up and don’t dance in the rain…
Only the last one came from a medical professional. The others were merely kind and hopeful suggestions from friends who couldn’t believe it is the actual water causing my skin to itch and burn. Time and again I would explain that it isn’t only when I bathe that this happens. “But your body is like 60% water. It isn’t possible,” they would say. Pool water, rain, the Atlantic Ocean, hell, my own sweat and tears will leave literal streaks of hives down my cheeks and cause my eyes to swell shut if not controlled quick enough. I have tested small patches of skin with purified varieties of drinking water, all with the same painful result. It varies from irritating to excruciating, and I’m sure it is needless to say, I don’t bathe frequently. I bathe as needed. A ten-minute shower can make the skin on my face stretch so tight it feels as though my forehead will rip in half across my skull.
After exhausting myself with a battery of fruitless allergy tests, it was finally in the comfort of conversation with my therapist that it all became clear how this “allergy” ever came to be and calling it what it is – post-traumatic stress.
My earliest memory of red blotches and itchy skin presenting at bath time was when I was six-years-old. Six was also the age when my abuser bathed me most regularly and would take me swimming almost every day in the summer. This is an ice bucket full of chips off the berg that is my early-childhood trauma, but it is enough to have convinced my wee body and my six-year-old Self that water means “unsafe.” My skin screamed for fight or flight when no other part of me knew how, and it screams still. Interestingly, the only two stretches of time in my entire adult life when my skin did not respond to water this way was while on two separate vacations with my husband, in two entirely different countries. Both trips I showered for hours just because I could. I was so physically, mentally, and emotionally removed from my abuse and trauma, so immensely happy and joyful in the celebration of life with my beloved, that I was actually free, for a time, from my trauma body. On the flip-side, there are places now that I still can’t so much as wash my hands without feeling a burn behind my knuckles reminding me to dry quick, and they are places tied tightly to my most traumatic experiences.
So, what to do? Suck it up and don’t dance in the rain? I never liked that option. Instead, I’ve decided to reframe my relationship with water. Three decades of dreading having to shower and resenting this most precious source of life was not serving me. It only doubled me down on my misery. I have been taking my mindfulness practice with me to the shower all year, experimenting with various breathing techniques and meditations to welcome and release this outdated internal alert system. These practices, along with cannabis strains selected specifically for their anti-inflammatory and transcendental effects, have helped me to redirect the muscle memory of my entire body away from that fight or flight response. In a few weeks’ time I was able to lie in a bath for over an hour with only five little hives to show for it. I have even managed to apply some mindfulness to a good and necessary cry I had last month, with minimal hives and very little pain. There have been so many times where I would be crying from the pain of an endometriosis flareup, and then cursing and sobbing over the injustice of such an insult to my injury in the painful hives, adding to the agony. It is a lot of work, managing my pain from endometriosis and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, but such work is vital. So, too, is my work to manage this pain. The really great news is I carry the tools to do so with me everywhere.
PTSD comes in all flavors, and can manifest in many ways for different people. For me, some of my internal anguish presents as an actual physical flare-up, easily dismissed as an "allergy" and unresponsive to antihistamines. Connecting dots and developing the tools for managing my PTSD in all its forms has been essential to my healing. Just because something you're experiencing hasn't yet been identified as PTSD doesn't mean that it isn't related. Let's explore that together.