My 16 years of hell
Torment of Ulster woman who can't stop scratching
Published 03/09/2007 | 10:47
An Ulster woman who has been scratching her arms and legs for 16 years today spoke of how she feels trapped in a mental and physical "hell on earth" that she feels no-one can rescue her from.
Patricia Hagans, a 53-year-old from north Belfast, has suffered from a skin condition called neurodermatitis since the breakdown of her first marriage in 1991.
The illness, which can be caused by stress, causes her to scratch constantly at her skin - causing bleeding, scarring, leathery skin, scratch marks and painful welts.
The mother-of-two said she is in "constant agony" from the injuries she inflicts on herself - and also in mental turmoil because she can't recover from it. She has been receiving regular treatment from both a dermatologist and a psychiatrist - but says her condition rarely eases.
"I know that the itchiness is all in my head but I can't stop myself. The urge to scratch is constantly there until it overpowers me. It's a vicious circle," she said.
"It's almost as if my head is cut in two. One half of it is telling me that I need to scratch and the other half is trying to remind me of the damage I am doing by constantly scratching."
The New Lodge woman said she can't sleep at night.
"I walk the floors at night thinking about scratching and trying to stop myself. When I do manage to get over, I wake up covered in blood because I start scratching in my sleep. I have a bin liner full of blood-stained clothing and duvets."
Ms Hagans said the condition began after the breakdown of her first marriage.
"I have basically been itching and scratching for 16 years. There are times that it is better than others. I take antibiotics and they do help and I am bandaged up quite a lot to try to stop me," she added.
"But there is always another cycle around the corner. I have never had a full month free from it in all that time. My confidence is rock bottom."
Ms Hagans, who remarried in June but has since split with her new husband, said the situation became so unbearable last week that she considered taking her own life.
She contacted the Pips Project, a suicide prevention and awareness group in Belfast, who supported her.
"I was told during a trip to see my GP that I either needed a medical bed for my skin condition or a psychiatric bed but that there were none available," she said.
"So I went home and felt very alone and down. I just felt 'that's it for me, I don't think I can go on with this anymore'.
"A home care team was sent out to me at home that night and I told them I was going to commit suicide."
Ms Hagans has nothing but praise for the health professionals who deal with her, including her dermatologist, her psychiatrist and her social worker.
"They're all fantastic in their own area. But I feel that I'm falling between the cracks because no-one can look at the whole picture. The dermatologist can't help because it's psychological, and the psychiatrist can't fix a skin problem. I am absolutely demented by this. It is hell on earth and it seems no-one can help me break free of it."
A spokeswoman for the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust said Ms Hagans was receiving appropriate treatment for her condition through hospital care.
"We are continuing to provide the appropriate care for this patient. The patient has two hospital appointments scheduled for this week," she said.
According to the Skin Care Physicians website, neurodermatitis is "an itch so intense that no amount of scratching brings relief".