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MUSED Literary Magazine.
Non Fiction

The Importance of Being Naked

Helen Peppe

I married my husband in a year when people still strongly believed that marriage was important, a moral prelude to any skin exposure—unless in the act of swimming—above the knee or below the neckline when around the opposite sex. The opposite sex, except for in marriage—at least in my part of Maine—included my brothers who were allowed to go shirtless whenever and however they pleased. Marriage was an integral moral step prefacing any form of intimacy from being alone with the person you loved to kissing the person you loved. We were counseled extensively, words of counsel spat out between gritted teeth that never should we allow boys to put anything of theirs inside of us, including tongues in our mouths, until we were married.

In my childhood home, my mother used the broom to beat slutty-ness out of my five older sisters. Ironically she insisted that her children’s bottoms be bare. I think this is where her training veered from B.F. Skinner’s behavior reward system. The broom doubled as a favorite weapon against smoking, drinking, skipping school, and smelling of pot. She had no qualms of injustice at smacking one teenager repeatedly over her back with her favorite child-rearing tool while her husband sat in his favorite rocking chair smoking. Or seemed to sense no irony or pangs of illogic when she would would yell, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it!” when she took away food or a treasured privilege. My mother loved to catch my sisters in the act so she was constantly on the hunt, sneaking up on them, peering into windows, coming home earlier than she had told them, and sniffing for committed crimes while doing laundry. Sometimes if the broom was occupied for its birthright of sweeping, my mother would show her resourcefulness by substituting the mop.

Most of my sisters married simply to be able to take their clothes off. Two married before they finished high school. Three graduated pregnant. My mother went through a lot of brooms to get these odds. Imagine what might have happened if she had left the broom to do its natural born business. I grew up watching and listening to the physical and vocal tirades against sex and nakedness. Consequently, after I married Eric at 18 I never wanted him to see me fully naked. I always feared my mother was looking in one of our windows even though we lived an hour away from her and in a second story apartment. He begged me to sleep naked, but such a bold act seemed overwhelmingly slutty. And what if there was a fire? I would have no time to get dressed because all the fire literature on the exits warned tenants to take nothing, to just get out as fast as you could. Much like all of us had felt growing up with my mother.

Eventually I gave in and slept naked, taking my clothes off from under the sheets. But as soon as our son was born, I slept in my pajamas every night, using Alex as an excuse. I said, “What if he needs to get in bed with us? What if he has a nightmare? Gets sick? What if I need to hold him?” My mother had breastfed none of us because my father found breast feeding abhorrent. My parents loathed food waste. They had lived straddling the poverty line with nine kids. We had huge gardens, and all the animals they raised were used thoroughly right down to the hooves and tongues. So for my parents to give up free food from a replenishing source? Well, that made it very clear that they were against using anything for its intended purpose, from brooms to breasts.

I breast fed Alex but he gave it up with what looked to be disgust at six months. I tried not to take it personally. I hoped he had more of Eric’s genes than mine. I discovered that kids live with you voluntarily for a long time if you are nice to them. When Alex turned 12 he wanted his bedroom in the finished basement. Eric assumed that now that there was a two-floor-separation I would feel comfortable sleeping naked. He was wrong. Then we had a daughter, which is really weird because my gynecologist had said many years ago I was infertile. I tried to embrace the next nine months of vomiting, but nakedness of any sort anywhere, except the obstetrician’s office, slipped further away.

Eric never stopped asking. Every night. He said how important it was to him. How we were married and how intimacy is the most fundamental part of keeping a marriage healthy. That made it sound like if I slept naked, I’d never be allowed to sleep. It sounded like so much work. He nagged at me until I began to look at the household broom in a way similar to how my mother looked at household floor tools. This new empathy for my mother trumped my naked fear. Plus I had four horses at the time. He worked hard to make me happy. I should do this one thing for him.

After twenty years I finally gave in. Some nights I tried to keep my under garments on or a pajama top because I was cold and I never ceased worrying about fires, especially now that we lived in an eighteenth century house. The older I got the less I wanted firemen to see me even partially naked. But Eric would always notice and give a heavy disappointed sigh or nudge me.

My nakedness led to questions: What did you do to get that bruise on your leg? Where did you get those scratches? Are those bug bites? There’s a bruise and a scrape on your back. Did you fall? Why is there hay everywhere in the bed? Then one morning two years ago he said, “Wait. Hold still.” And he pulled an attached tick off my back where I would never have seen it. I had been bitten by plenty of ticks over the years and didn’t worry overmuch. I am an animal photographer. I have spent my life in the fields and woods. He photographed the bite so I could see it and said, “You should go to the doctor today to get that bite checked.” He put Neosporin on it and then left for work. I didn’t go because by then I had six horses and multiple jobs, and we had just moved to Buxton. I hadn’t even finished unpacking yet. That was October 2016.

I knew that ticks love long grass, rotten leaf beds, and the woods. I was raking and mowing five acres in between all my other obligations. I bought guinea hens who chose to wander across the road and protect my neighbors from ticks. I did tick checks three times a day. I changed my clothes mid-day. Each night and each morning Eric did a tick check on me. The ticks were the tiniest of tiny black dots. He wore his reading glasses to make sure he didn’t miss any. Yet he would and I would. In the morning he would see nymphs crawling. Usually on my back or shoulders where I couldn’t see them.

I wore clothes treated with permethrin, gifts from my mother-in-law who wanted to keep me safe even though she found me annoying. I wore long pants with socks over the bottoms. Long sleeve shirts. I wore my hair tied up and covered. Still I would find ticks on my bare skin. Eric photographed the first bite in all of its stages to the classic erythema migrans. He photographed all subsequent bites and over two years took dozens of ticks off me that were still crawling. The doctor put me on 200 mg of Doxy for 30 days for Lyme Disease even though I tested negative. While on Doxy, other tick bites caused rashes similar to the bull’s eye but each rash was a little different. Each time I went to my primary care provider, he would put me on more Doxy or Cefuroxime. Symptoms would abate and then resurface.

In April of 2017 I got very sick, fever, vomiting, and intense fatigue. Eric and Morgan did not get sick. I had already been bitten by ticks and taken many off my dogs as ticks no longer have a season but are out and about year round. My primary care provider thought maybe my sudden sickness was due to salmonella poisoning as I have guinea hens. Ironically, instead of protecting me, their feces on their eggs or feathers could have made me me sick. For three weeks following those three days, I had a low grade fever at night. That ruled out salmonella.

Over the next six months I had bizarre and scary symptoms: continuous heart palpitations and internal vibrations that were invisible to everyone I asked, including the doctors, high blood pressure, atrial enlargement, and small fiber neuropathy. I had intense sweats, twitching, cramping, and hypno-jerks throughout the day and night, rapid heart rate bursts (tachycardia), patchy tingling in my face, nerve pain down my sides and arms so I didn’t even want clothes touching me (parasthesia), horrifying vivid nightmares when I could sleep and vivid deja vu events when I was awake. But I no longer had a fear of being naked. No qualms. I was taking my shirt off to anyone with a stethoscope. I was undressing constantly in front of Eric asking if he could see the shaking I was feeling. I not only wanted doctors to see me naked, I wanted them to see inside of me, all my organs and soft tissue. There is nothing more naked than that.

It took another six months to find a Lyme specialist who diagnosed Babesiosis and chronic Lyme. By then all the spirochetes had formed into cysts with a biofilm barrier to protect them against antibiotics. I had seen three different infectious disease specialists and four different neurologists before meeting the Lyme doctor who changed my life but who did not accept insurance because insurance companies wouldn’t cover chronic Lyme. One neurologist told me that it was ingenious to photograph all the tick bites as now I had documented evidence when the Lyme and co-infection tests showed false negative. The genius idea was Eric’s yet I am the professional photographer. None of these seven doctors were even close to Lyme literate, except one, my neurologist. The most willfully ignorant and perpetually arrogant were the infectious disease specialists. There are antitrust lawsuits against them regarding tick borne infections going back to 2006. The literature on their walls has been out of date for 10 years. Ticks begin transmitting infection and bacteria as soon as they attach. They can attach within minutes of finding you. Every few months, researchers find new strains of tick transmitted co-infections, some of them deadly.

If you suspect you have a tick borne infection, skip wasting your money and time, unless you are a writer, and call a Lyme specialist. None of the infectious disease specialists ever asked me to take my clothes off for an examination. They were all older and I suspected they came from the same school of thought as my mother. They looked at my pictures and determined I had had Lyme but I no longer did as infectious disease specialists are proud members of the decreasing camp of chronic Lyme naysayers.

The doctor who said my pictures were ingenious was a neurologist. I kept him on as part of my healthcare team. The other doctors told me I had anxiety. Well…duh. Didn’t anxiousness about my health bring me here? They prescribed a beta blocker to lower my blood pressure and Xanax to lower my fears. I wished again, Xanax working its way through my blood stream, for the super power I always wish for when people I hire to help me fail because of their abundant arrogance and condescension. I wished for the ability to give them a night of diarrhea and severe cramping. Vomiting on the way to the bathroom would be good too. B. F. Skinner’s research is widely cited in training books (note the “skin” part of his name). I didn’t ask the universe for infinite power, just a few simple sessions in negative correction that the targeted doctor could connect with the day’s events of not listening to patients, of not having compassion. I now interview doctors before I go to them. They work for me. I should not have to pay for shoddy listening skills and lack of education.

Eric never has to ask me to sleep naked. I rarely leave any part of my day clothes on, even my socks, once I am done caring for eight horses and a donkey at the end of the day (The eighth horse and the donkey just happened.). I change into pajamas, the non sleeping kind. Yes, there is always the risk of being asked to do more work before you can go to sleep naked, but like any exercise you are always glad you did it once it’s over. But also like exercise, it’s never actually over. There is no one, besides your partner, who will give your body the tick check examination you need to have every night before bed. Doctors look at only small parts of you naked with all their robe and johnny requests and paper sheets to lay across your lap. And your kids will ask you to please put some clothes on. Their eyes will roll and they might act superior in their confidence that aging and sagging is something they can and will avoid.

My Lyme specialist, Dr. Aguiar, conjectures that I also have Bartonella. After five weeks of multi-antibiotic therapy, my blood pressure is down, my heart is no longer enlarged, and my brain is coming back to me. I often think if only I had listened to Eric and slept naked sooner…So we are back to Skinner and negative and positive reinforcement. I have learned from my mistakes and fears of being naked.

If you don’t have a partner handy because sometimes they themselves can be too much work—just ask my husband—get mirrors. Make them your friends so you can check yourself from every angle for nearly invisible ticks, weird moles, and for general lumpiness. And if you need something to prop up a mirror or to sweep away ticks that crawl up your walls, use a broom. Nakedness is not just for sex just as brooms are not just for sweeping.