The first time it happened, I was sure I was dying. A quarter-sized lump had suddenly formed on my hip, and it was tender, red, and so swollen it shone. I could feel the heat coming off the sore from an inch away.
Being 24, marginally employed, and without health insurance, I decided to wait and see. I had never seen anything like it, and my obsessive Internet searches hadn’t turned up anything that didn’t terrify or perplex me.
As I tried to recall anything dangerous I could have done over the past few weeks, I failed to come up with anything that would explain a sudden, painful skin sore. I was relatively certain that the protected sex I’d had with a friend wouldn’t result in anything like this, I didn’t do drugs, and I was clean enough to prevent weepy sores from forming on my body. It was far too large and in an odd place to be an expansion of the cystic acne that had shown up in my 20s.
I felt like a freak, and not a little unclean. I was too embarrassed to ask my mother, a medical professional, what might be wrong with me. I had never seen anything like it, other than the gross-out videos on YouTube of someone popping their friend’s massive back zit with a steak knife.
When my lump kept growing larger and harder, I sterilized a sewing needle with rubbing alcohol and a lighter and started poking at it. I prodded the center, but nothing gave way. I poked a hole through the top layers of skin, but my skin only weakly oozed pus. After a week of applying hot, damp clothes and smearing antibacterial ointment to the spot, it receded enough that I felt I could stop my worry that I was going to die of an MRSA infection. I was relieved that I didn’t have to find a new doctor in NYC or dig up the cash to pay for my mysterious medical problem.
I forgot about it entirely until another one showed up about three years later. This time, it was on my ass. Two inches from my anus. I noticed it for the first time when I sat down and felt a little twinge of pain. Somehow, I knew it was back. Despite the fact that years had gone by without a return occurrence, I had never forgotten my disgusting pus lump and the mental torment of self-diagnosis.
I took off my pants and bent over in front of my full-length mirror. Upside down, I dizzily inspected my butt crack, feeling carefully with my fingertips and dreading the result. Sure enough, there was a tiny red spot, hot to the touch and already distended.
“It resolved itself last time,” I thought, “so I’ll just wait it out.”
Every day I drenched it in antibiotic cream and bandaged it against the abrasion of my jeans. I washed my hands, towels, sheets, and underwear in scalding hot water. I bent over to check its progress. This time, the red lump came to a head and turned white with pus. I Googled. And I came down with a fever so high, I started hallucinating that it was raining in my living room and the plants had been taken over by ants. The walls bulged.
I was finally convinced that I needed to get myself to a doctor with my crappy retail worker insurance. I got ready to go to the urgent care clinic, but first pulled my pants and underwear down and bent over one more time in front of the mirror. I had to see what I was dragging in.
As I bent over, I felt my skin tighten and I heard a muffled pop. The pain stopped. The sound of viscous body fluid hitting the rug was one I’ll never erase from my brain. The lump had popped, and out of it came the thickest, yellowest, smelliest pus I could possibly imagine. Like when you leave a head of romaine in your vegetable drawer and then study abroad for a semester. And mix it with peanut butter. And then it comes out of your butt.
I cleaned myself up the best I could and got on the subway. Choking back tears, I explained to the urgent care receptionist, nurse, doctor, and the resident shadowing him what had happened. They had me lie down on the examining table and spread my ass cheeks to show them the open wound near my anus.
To their credit, they were kind to my poor, embarrassed, sick self. The doctor swabbed it to see if he could get a culture and bandaged me up. I swallowed my mortification and asked if he could tell me what was wrong, but until a culture came back, they wouldn’t really know. He did warn me to stop trying to shave the hair outside my butthole, as “no good can come of that.” Noted.
I picked up a prescription for antibiotics and a cheeseburger. I ate it outside in the cold and washed down the antibiotics with a chocolate milkshake while I contemplated my ass sore. How had I gotten here, and what would it take to prevent it from happening again?
The culture came back negative, and the doctor explained that all the bacteria had probably been cleared out when it popped. He told me just to be careful in the future, and to try not to worry so much.
I let it go, until it happened again this winter. I had just been dumped and had let myself go a little bit while I coped with the depression of being alone and constantly cold. A little sore showed up on my hip again. This time, I completely ignored it. It went away after a few weeks, leaving a little purple dot.
This horrifying story from the ER brought this all into fresh relief for me. What if, under that little lump, was an unholy terror of rotten flesh and stink? What if my insides are riddled with infection, waiting to seep out of the smallest compromised pore?
No one knows the horrors their body can unleash on them until they spray it all over a stranger. Or their Ikea rug.