No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge – Khalil Gibran
I generally avoid trying to explain what living with hyperhidrosis is like to others. It’s hard enough for me to find the words to describe it, let alone the look I see slip across people’s faces that I know means they think I’m being far too dramatic about the whole thing. But now that I’m talking to someone who knows what I do, who has felt as I have, there’s no need for pretense. Finally, I can just say exactly what I feel. No more hiding.
I’m fully aware of how there are so many worse problems I could be stuck with. Even beyond the possibility of things going wrong within the fine balance of my own life that would be far worse than hyperhidrosis, the world outside the confines of ‘me and mine’ seems plagued by an endless number of catastrophes that could just as easily be my own. That’s always made me feel a bit silly and self-indulgent for even acknowledging that I’m so hobbled, so utterly trapped, by what most people would struggle to comprehend as a legitimate problem. But it is what it is.
As grateful as I am for life and all the things that actually dogo my way, I can’t really pretend that this is nothing. In its own subtle way, it’s been challenging to the point of being life-altering. I get that in looking at the bigger picture, this isn’t actually all that bad, but unfortunately, as far the little world of ‘me’ goes, this isa very big deal. I so wish it wasn’t. I wish I didn’t have so much to say about it. But it is and I do.
Whether they say it or not, I think a lot of people assume that I’ve blown this whole thing way out of proportion in my own mind. I fully understand why they think that. But you and I know the reality of it. The reality is that this is not one of those things that is ‘just in your head’and not something that ‘people probably won’t even notice.’
When I have to shake someone’s hand and they feel my wet palms, there’s no way they won’t notice. This is not a slightly clammy, dead-fish handshake I’m talking about. This is a handshake so soaking wet, it crosses the line into bizarre. This is the kind of handshake that makes people look around hoping to see rain to explain away what they just touched. Shock, curiosity, concern, confusion, disgust. If I’m being realistic, it’s one of these reactions, not indifference, that people have on feeling my unexpectedly wet palms. How am I meant to smoothly recover from that? By pretending like I didn’t know how wet my own palm was?
Sure, people being mostly polite, often just act like they didn’t notice and move right on, but sometimes people are so genuinely caught off-guard that they immediately ask those questions I’m hoping never to hear. And of course, there’s been enough times where people are more ruthless and I know they only ask those questions to see me squirming like a worm on a hook.
The bottom line is that when my palms get as wet as I know they can and I then shake someone’s hand, there is simply no way it doesn’t get them saying - even if only to themselves – ‘ugggh… what the fuck was that?!’
A very brief recap
About seventeen years ago, I first became painfully aware of the dripping mess my palms could turn into at a moment’s notice. Being acutely aware that I had this strange new problem to deal with quickly snowballed into living and planning my entire life around what I soon learned was an unavoidable outcome.
It will probably be unsurprising to you that this new way of living taught me to fear the most innocuous of things – a simple handshake. The simple handshake quickly became the biggest day-to-day focus I had, a mental land-mine for me to spot from a mile away. Initially, the fear would only spiral out of control right before I was faced with a handshake, but soon it would reach the point of no return even if that next handshake was hours away. Eventually, it got to where my palms would be soaking wet anywhere and everywhere, for no apparent reason.
I told a few people about it, just family and close friends, so I didn’t feel like I was all alone. When I did, I always felt like I was being listened to and I could tell that they definitely wanted to do what they could to help. But what was also very clear was that they all seemed quite certain that helping me meant convincing me that I was blowing things out of proportion. In the end, even after telling people about it, I felt pretty alone in facing it.
I took the obvious next step to find some solidarity – I went to the internet. Without looking too hard online, I found stories where people just like you and I laid themselves bare. Even if their sweating was to do with something other than their palms, it seemed like we were all united by a near identical torment of crafting a life that had become above all, about tiptoeing around this…thing…we couldn’t control. All the despair and helplessness I read about rang true as if it were my own. We even seemed united in having no clear idea of what this this thing, this hyperhidrosis, actually was and why it was happening to us.
I read all the information talking about overactive sweat glands, overactive nervous systems, overactive this, that and the other, but it all amounted to nothing more than vague statements of the obvious that something was not firing quite right. All the websites online seemed clear only in saying that primary hyperhidrosis – the kind that has nothing to do with an underlying illness – meant that you would sweat more than could ever be needed, at exactly the times when it wasn’t wanted. Beyond that, no one seemed to know what exactly caused hyperhidrosis.
Thankfully, a lack of concrete answers to explain this excessive, unwanted and uncontrollable sweat was sort of irrelevant anyway. What mattered was that I was no longer alone. This was a real thing that was happening to me and a whole bunch of people just like me and what was most pressing for us all was to find ways to make life manageable again. So as much time as I spent online trying to figure out what hyperhidrosis actually was, I focused more on what I could do about it.
No real answers as to the cause meant that all the suggested treatments went right for the symptom - the sweat. This approach of trying to kill off the sweat seemed to go either too far, with things like invasive surgeries to sever nerves in the thoracic cavity. Or it didn’t go far enough, with suggestions like antiperspirants applied right to the palms.
There were other innovative approaches like Botox to the palms and iontophoresis, but like the other remedies, they seemed to offer mixed results at best. I myself only went as far as iontophoresis, with surgery and Botox seeming too extreme. My own experience, which I’ll speak more of later, was that iontophoresis certainly helped, with my palms staying drier for much longer stretches. But in situations where I knew I would have to shake a bunch of hands, things still fell apart, exactly as I knew they would.
It became very clear, very early, that all I could really do was minimize how often I put myself in situations where I had to shake people’s hands. All these years later, there are still no real answers. To this day, there are only band-aid solutions aimed at the symptom, which go too far or not far enough.
Just like that, it’s mostly been seventeen years of hiding my palms from people and hiding myself from situations where my palms can’t be hidden. I’ve become quite good at it too. Most people who know me have no idea how much time I’ve spent on any given day thinking about everything coming my way that could end in a handshake, or how hard I try to avoid just about everyone and everything I can get away with avoiding.
It’s so much a part of my routine now that on a day to day basis, even Ibarely notice how much I’m planning things around my palms. Even I sometimes find it hard to see how drastically different this new reality I’m stuck in is, compared to a reality where I wouldn’t have to deal with hyperhidrosis. But if I look closer for even a second, it’s very clear that this has me trapped behind an invisible membrane that keeps me from breaking through and running my hands freely through my own life.
If complete freedom means to never think twice about throwing yourself and all your abilities right back at everything life throws your way, then this cannot be freedom because I’m always forced to pick and choose what I allow myself to face and once I’m facing it, is it really possible to say the best, most undistracted version of myself showed up? Or is it often the version of myself that I know the sweating reduces me to that shows up – the version just waiting to be done the damn thing? I hate that version of myself, the version that hyperhidrosis built. The version that people see far too often.
I think you know exactly what it feels like be forced to be an ‘avoider,’ even though it's not really who you are. I think you know exactly what it feels like to have no control over the appearance of the version of yourself that hyperhidrosis built. I think you know exactly what it feels like to be forcedto do, see and be… less. If you’re anything like me, then you know that this is not complete freedom in your own skin.
Here and now
Now… I know I said that it’s mostly been seventeen years of running and hiding from this problem, but I haven’t been completely honest with you. The key here is the word ‘mostly.’ Even now, thinking about my palms sweating is something I have to manage on a daily basis. Even now, it’s true that I feel like this keeps me from being completely fearless in my own skin. But right here and right now, things are very, very different for me within that broader truth. Let me tell you a bit more about when this change began.
A little over six years ago, I proposed to the woman who is now my wife. For all the excitement I felt that day, what was also present in equal measure was dull, but building terror at the thought of going through our wedding while putting my wet hands in hers and eventually going to each one of our guests to offer them my soaking palms as they congratulated me.
I already knew the reality was that they would all definitely notice. How could I possibly handle dealing with all those people who would want to wash their hands clean of me as soon as I touched them? With the spotlight on me and my palms brighter than ever, surely at least some of them would talk to each other about what my palms felt like? What would they think of me after that? Melting coward? Nervous wreck?
And of course, it wouldn’t be just me in the spotlight. It would be me andmy wife, which would have a huge impact on the lens through which people would be looking at things and the questions that would jump to their mind because of that. Questions to do with my worthiness of her would come up in some fashion or another, wouldn’t they?
And what about her? What would she read into my soaking palms? She knew I worried about them sweating and loved me all the same, so that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that as much as I told her all about it, I didn’t tell her allabout it. As much as I wanted to share everything with the person I love the most, I also wanted her to see me at my best. Maybe that’s not a reasonable way to have felt, but it’s the plain and simple truth so there it is. Throughout our relationship, besides the comfort level that made the sweating mostly a non-issue, I was always careful to move or hide my palms whenever I felt them spiraling out of control. So for everything I told her, I was sure that even for her, there would be some surprise in seeing how bad it could really get.
In my mind at least, something big would be at stake at our wedding because of the sweating. I felt like I had no choice but to do my best to sort it out so that on the day, I would be fully present, undistracted and not worried about being humiliated the way I’d always dreamed of one day waking up to be. What better occasion to rise to the challenge I still hadn’t fully given up on – the challenge of somehow beating hyperhidrosis? With that goal, I forced myself into what was for me, some unusual positivity.
Positivity was easier at the time anyway since the wedding was still almost a year away. The safety of time separating me from the day of an inescapable handshake never fails to make me more optimistic, but with time ticking down, optimism usually gives way to accepting the inevitable. I knew I had to act fast to find an answer – an answer that I wasn’t even sure existed - before positivity started to evaporate the way it always did.
I read everything that I thought might help. It was probably the mindset of almost naïve hope that I had forced myself into, but suddenly everything I read seemed to hold parallels I could draw from. Suddenly, hope seemed to be hiding in everything I chose to look at. At the same time, my body started to seem more willing to cooperate with me in those moments where I usually felt the sweat starting to take over.
I’m not saying that there was some immediate miracle. The sweat was still breaking through onto my palms as it always had, but a window had started to appear, where on feeling that familiar tingle in my palms, the sweat that always followed the tingle didn’t seem as inevitable as it always had.
Let me explain what I mean by the ‘tingle.’ Something I’ve noticed over years of sweating is that there is a feeling of… knowing, after enough painful experience, that hope is ultimately hopeless. As time ticks down to a handshake, this feeling of knowing exactly how things will play out builds into an insurmountable force. It’s almost a physical sensation, this… knowing. It’s that feeling of knots starting to form in your gut that simply can’t be untangled, that tingling of your palms, that tightening of every imaginary screw in your body to speed you on the journey towards a rigid, sweaty mess.
If I had to describe this dreadful feeling of knowing impending doom has arrived as one physical sensation above all, it would be that tingle in my palms. Maybe you wouldn’t even call it a tingle. Maybe you’d call it a crackle, or a prickling, or your blood running hot before abruptly running cold. A sense of feelingwithout even looking, that a thin film of sweat has already appeared on your palms. However, you’d describe it, you know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you?
In the months, weeks and days leading up to the wedding, my own sense – both mental and physical - of knowing impending doom was about to strike started to feel less so. As I said, there was no miracle fix. The sweating continued, but it was starting to feel less and less like an inevitable outcome. Control of the sweat spiral, something that I had never thought would be possible in the face of a roomful of handshakes, suddenly felt like it might be within reach.
When the day finally came around, the diminishing sense of inevitability, the increasing sense of control over my own body, reached a peak. Not only did I not sweat, but the night before, I knewI wouldn’t sweat. The next morning, I was entirely present in mind and body in a way I could only have dreamed of, taking my vows as I held my wife’s hand with my focus on nothing but her.
When the ceremony was done and we left the church to stand outside and greet all our guests who followed us out, my normal routine that would have had me sneakily drying and wiping for every bit of contact was replaced by an impossibly carefree handing out of warm handshakes. What was even more surprising was that I was not in the least bit impressed about my hands being warm, despite it being this unicorn I’d been chasing for years. I was lost in all the warmth being thrown my way by friends and family and I wanted to do nothing but throw it right back.
Later at dinner, my palms which would normally have been my one and only concern, were again a non-issue. To be clear, it’s not like worrying about sweating had disappeared completely because it hadn’t. It was still there, bubbling below the surface as that familiar tingle persisted, but I just never let it carry me away into the spiral.
I wanted to do nothing more than be exactly where I was, steady and strong in my own skin. No running, no hiding, no sneaking out to dry off. Fully present and undistracted by my palms, the invisible membrane between me and my life was gone. It really was like magic and it was every bit as delicious as I always imagined it would be.
Why I wrote this
So? What did you think of that little walk down memory lane?
Believe me when I say that I can imagine you called bullshit at my casually taking you through a story of how I ‘mind-over-mattered’ hyperhidrosis. Except, I wouldn’t quite call it mind over matter. I’m not really sure what I’d call it to be honest.
After the wedding, there were a few weeks where the sweating seemed like a long-dead problem. It was completelygone. But it eventually made a re-emergence. Because I didn’t really know what exactly I did right leading up the wedding, the further in the rearview mirror it fell, the more it seemed like it was all a big fluke of some sort. But I couldn’t just write it off as a fluke because I now had concrete experience of control over this thingthat I was not supposed to be able to control.
When I say ‘control,’ I’m talking about more than that precarious, wobbly feeling of being dry while knowing the sweat is about to burst through the tingle at any second, like a plate teetering on the edge of a table where a door slammed hard enough, or even someone breathing heavily enough, will bring it crashing down. On that one day,steady and stable control was proved possible.
In the months after the sweat re-appeared, that steady and stable control showed itself over and over again, just not as consistently as I’d have liked. Despite finding success repeatedly, I seemed to have equal measures of failure and those failures were demoralizing in a way that’s hard to describe. It made all the days of control before them seem as if they never happened at all. This kind of sometimes-but-not-always control was not true freedom.
It was as if there was a mountain before me, at the top of which lay this elusive ‘steady and stable’ control I sought. I’d already proved to myself, repeatedly, that I actually could climb this mountain and that the control at the top was very real. Unfortunately, the climb wasn’t exactly a once in a lifetime recreational activity where doing it once meant that I could say it had been done, never to be taken away from me.
This particular ‘climb’ of keeping control over my body in the face of a sweat spiral was a daily one, it was an hourly one, it was one that needed to be made from minute to minute for me to be truly free in my own skin. All too often, I’d find myself making this climb having experienced what treasure was waiting at the top, only to have the ground crumble below my feet, bringing me sliding all the way back to the bottom. Making my way back up was harder each time I’d hit bottom.
Which brings me to why I wrote this. I wrote this because I wanted to understand how to turn sometimes-but-not-always control intoconsistentcontrol. I wrote this to find a path up the ‘mountain’ that I could walk every minute of every day trusting that it wouldn’t crumble below my feet.
How I wrote this
As I set out to fully re-explore my problem in the search for a solution I could consistently apply, imagining myself being heard by someone who could understand exactly where I was coming from was the only way I could free myself to say the things I was often afraid to say, even to myself.
So the entire time I wrote this, I kept my eye on an empty glass bottle sitting at the edge of my desk, fully expecting that when I was done, I would roll up the pages and put them in that bottle before setting it loose with the tide. Naïve as you must already think I am, I never doubted that once on the tide, it would find its way to you, the person I imagined myself writing to.
What you hold now, the pages I finally bottled and surrendered to the tide are simply what I wish I could have read all those years ago when I first started dealing with this. You holding this now means that I found a path to consistently reach the ever-elusive control. While sweating is something that remains on my mind, that way of thinking and living is now a soft echo, something destined to fade into silence. I believe that you too will find some value in reading this.
What you’ll read here has three parts. In the Part One, I go right to the heart of the ‘new normal’ of living with hyperhidrosis.
I start by imagining myself stuck behind the wheel in a carful of passengers, followed by walking into a roomful of handshakes with dripping hands. I know that in reality, these kinds of experiences are a squeamish blur, with not nearly the amount of drama and consciously articulated thought you’ll see on paper in the coming pages, but that was the point here. To peel back the layers of these experiences in a way that is impossible when actually in the midst of them. Going from these specific experiences, I then explored how things first snowballed into the ‘new normal’ of hyperhidrosis-living.
The whole of Part One was an exercise in visualizing my ‘mountain,’ with every treacherous twist and turn, before actually contemplating the climb. Through the entirety of Part One, except its last chapter, I use what I wrote, exactly as I wrote it back when I first started this in 2014. As I’ve refined my own control and the way I experience the sweating, what I wrote in 2014 remains the most honest account of how I viewed the mountain I sought to climb when I started to write this.
I want you to put yourself in the driver’s seat as you read Part One. Put yourself in a place where you are comfortable seeing the whole messy picture of your experience. Feel free to mentally adjust my words to bring the picture I present closer to the picture you see through your eyes. Give yourself a clear and possibly uncomfortable view of what you are experiencing. Get a good hard look at the mountain youare trying to climb.
In Part Two, we can then look at how it is possible to be stuck sweating even when there’s no need for it, followed by considering why such a strange phenomenon chose only a very specific group of us.
And finally, in Part Three, we can look at a path up the ‘mountain.’
In parts Two and Three, what you’ll read is written in the language of where I am here and now as compared to Part One which is a snapshot of my thinking from 2014. Parts Two and Three are the final cut of all my exploratory notes, the outcome of everything I learned through writing this these past years and what I wish I could have told myself seventeen years ago.
I suppose this all sounds either too good to be true or too stupid to be real. Your doubt is the right and honest reaction. Here I am, someone you’ve never met, asking for your time and trust in guiding you up what’s always been an impossible mountain to climb.
For what it’s worth, I believe that through this experience we are kin in some strange sense, and I have no snake-oil I want to sell you, now or ever. All I ask is that if you’ve ever read a hyperhidrosis story and heard it mirror your own despair the way I so often have, then please read on for another story where I want to offer more than just despair.
This is my hyperhidrosis story.
18 June 2019