Let’s say you are my wife, and we are making the bed together, as husbands and wives so often do in idyllic wifely fantasies and nowhere else. But let’s just say. So, you have placed the top sheet on the bed, and then, because you like things to be nice, you begin to smooth it out with the flat of your palm. You hear me whimpering. When you look up, I am licking and gnawing at the heels of my hands, trying to relieve the sensation that they are being sandpapered, abraded down to the bone. To end the agony, I bolt from the room.
This happens to me every time I see someone rub a palm against fabric. Even the idea of that friction drives me bonkers; I’m squirming in discomfort as I type this. In the early years of my marriage — before my wife understood just how deeply it distressed me — she would jubilantly use the palm maneuver as a tactical weapon to end an argument or avenge a domestic infraction. My kids always called my quirk “Dad’s sheet obsession,” which, when misheard, sounds even worse than it is.
Embarrassment has kept me from writing about this before, because it seems less like an endearing idiosyncrasy and more like something requiring inpatient care. You’re getting it today because I have recently discovered that I am not alone. Bizarre tactile heebie-jeebies are much more common than one would think, a fact I learned when the subject came up during an online chat with readers.
At the sight or sound of someone shredding a cotton ball, one reader collapses on the ground in a fetal position. Another cannot bear to touch dry concrete when climbing out of a swimming pool, and must first splash water on it. A third doesn’t read books because of how upsetting it is to feel the edges of each page. Three readers say they cannot endure the feel of anything wooden in the mouth, such as a Popsicle stick.
It all made me feel better about my disability, but worse about the mental state of the world. For reassurance, I called my editor, Tom the Butcher. Tom is quirk deprived. If he’d lived in the Middle Ages, he would have been known as Tom the Sane. I asked him if he had any tactile heebie-jeebies, and he said, of course, no. Good.
Then he called back. “Okay, there’s this thing. ... ”
Tom wasn’t ready to confess, exactly. He did it obliquely, asking me why makers of shirts put the laundry label inside at the nape of the neck, forcing people to cut them off.
“You cut them off?”
He does. If he doesn’t, he feels the label against his skin, tormenting him, a fiendish malevolence that must be amputated — every single fiber — so he can again know peace of mind.
Is there anyone who isn’t crazy? I e-mailed my colleagues asking for their heebie-jeebies and got a deluge of replies, which I compile below. I need to emphasize that these are all high-functioning individuals, at the top of their profession:
* “Looking directly at the pointed ends of a collection of pins or needles spurs a nearly uncontrollable urge to scratch my eyeballs.”
* “If twine or yarn touches my teeth I totally freak out.”
* “I can’t lick cake batter off a rubber spatula because I simply must bite the spatula, and do.”
* “When two pieces of Styrofoam rub together, I feel daggers shooting up my spine.”
* “The sound of feet or a sponge rubbing against carpet causes an itching sensation on my teeth.”
* “Velvet! Auggh!”
* “I can’t stand the thought, sight or touch of an Achilles tendon, both mine and other people’s.”
* “I can’t eat or think about fresh peaches, or really even talk about them. The fuzz makes the hair on my arms stand up. My wife sometimes tortures me by touching me with a peach.”
Brain scientists suspect these quirks are all a common and benign form of mental disorder. This seems a little harsh, except in the case of Tom.