Earlier this month I gave birth to a daughter. My first. She was born with midwives but had to go to St. Luke’s for an infection. She had an IV in her hand, and when it wore out after a day, they put it in her other hand. Then her foot. Then her other foot. I watched each part of her 7lb-10-oz body turn scaly as it got wrapped with IV tape and parched by the dry air of the NICU.
I wanted to rub oil onto her extremities. I wanted to touch each dry part and make it moist, but she was connected to wires and away from home, not ready for me yet. Every part of her dried out that first week of her life, her eyes, her small inverted nipples, her fingers. Everything but her lips. Her lips stayed perfect — soft and moist.
I talked to her even when I couldn’t hold her. I told her about myself, about some things I had learned. I told her, one evening, about need. About how important it is to need people, not things. How not needing too many things makes a person portable, able to travel light. I told her things I learned almost a decade ago, from being addicted to chapstick.
Since discovering lip balm at age ten, I put it on my lips between 50 and 100 times a day. These are real numbers, by the way, not fuzzy math. I had to keep it with me at all times: I had vanilla lip balm in my glove compartment; Nivea rose in the pocket of whichever boyfriend I was dating; standard cherry chapstick in my backpack; Body Shop strawberry next to my bed; Rachel Perry banana-coconut in the kitchen; and my favorite of all, Montana huckleberry in my purse – that one I always ordered in bulk in case I ran out.
Jump forward eleven years – I had just graduated from college, and I used the first paycheck of my first writing job to book a trip to NY. I packed clothes for a week, my notebook, toothbrush, and half a dozen tubes of lip balm: plain mint, gooey grape in a tub, Dr. Pepper-flavored, banana-coconut, lemon-lime, Montana huckleberry.
I stayed with my friend Yo-El who was a first year medical student, and spent my first day exploring. When Yo-El finished class, I met her for oysters at a little restaurant near Battery Park. I was telling her about my day when she interrupted me and said: “Hey, Liz, when’s the last time you looked in the mirror?”
“What?” I asked. “I don’t know. This morning, probably. Why?
“Well,” she said, “I was just wondering what’s wrong with your lips.”
She ushered me off to the bathroom to have a look.
Both my top and bottom lip looked as if they had been burned. They had this awful blistery flakiness, and had turned a bright lipstick burgundy. The corners of my mouth had cracked into sore-looking circles, sort of like the red dots on clown-cheeks.
Perhaps, I thought, I needed better lip balm. I dragged Yo-El out of the oyster bar and to a Walgreen’s a few doors down. I bought a new tube of Vaseline lip therapy and thought that by the end of the night, the problem would be solved.
But the next morning, my lips had gotten worse. When I got up for breakfast, Yo-El was sitting at her kitchen table, practicing her sutures on a piece of raw chicken, and still she looked at my mouth and said, “Gross.”
In addition, she began trying to diagnose me, telling me all of the things it “might” be – such as oral cancer. “That’s what it looks like,” she said apologetically. “Oh, I hope it’s not squamous cell carcinoma! Or worse … what if it’s syphilis? If it is syphilis you’d better treat it – untreated syphilis can lead to blindness. Or you might have Steven-Johnson Syndrome. That wouldn’t be too bad – except that it’s untreatable.”
I still thought the problem was as simple as my needing more lip balm, so I went out and bought something stronger, with soothing herbs and lavender.
But this new lip balm didn’t work, either, and my face was getting worse; the cakey redness was spreading down toward my chin and up toward my nose. So I cut my trip short and went home that day. As I took the subway back to my apartment, I noticed tactless people – mostly children and very old people – staring at me. It was disconcerting.
That evening, I had had enough. I had two more weeks before my college health insurance ran out, so I gathered every lip balm I owned and frog-marched myself to University Health Services. I wasn’t sure which floor to go to – was this an Ear, Nose, and Throat Problem, or simply Dermatology? Should I go to Sexual Health, or the Cancer Center? It turned out that all of the different wings closed at 5pm, so any problems afterward were considered Emergency.
So I waited in the Emergency Room, sitting among people with broken arms and legs. And finally I got called back. The doctor looked exhausted, like those interns you see in movies who haven’t slept for 3 days. “Well?” he said. “What is the problem?”
I explained about my mouth.
“Did you try lip balm?” He asked.
“Yes!” I said. “About twenty different kinds!” And I opened my purse, and out spilled plain mint, gooey grape in a tub, Dr. Pepper-flavored, banana-coconut, lemon-lime, Montana huckleberry, and dozens of other kinds that I had tried and that had failed me.
The doctor wanted to know how long I had been using lip balm. I told him eleven years.
Then he asked: “How many times a day would you say you use it?”
I decided to give a conservative answer. “About thirty,” I said, casually. “Give or take.”
“Thirty!” He said. “Jesus.” It dawned on me then that this had to be serious, as the doctor probably wasn’t supposed to say “Jesus” in front of patients.
He put on gloves and examined my mouth. He took a culture. He left the room and returned a few minutes later, and said:
“The problem is that you are addicted to lip balm.”
He went on to say that my lips had stopped producing moisture, and that the only way to fix this was for me to go cold turkey.
I told him that that wasn’t an option. I asked, “Can’t you send me home with, like, a prescription or something? What is normally done in these cases?”
He gave me a scornful look. “We don’t see a lot of lip balm addicts in the emergency room.”
But he disappeared again and returned with a sample tube of steroid cream, the kind you use for athlete’s foot. “You may put the cream on your lips twice a day. No more. If you come back here in a week addicted to this cream, I will refuse to see you.” Then he left the room for good, leaving me in it, surrounded with colored lip balm tubes poking in all different directions.
It was a sad walk home that Saturday night, but I courageously stopped at a trash can in Harvard Square, surrounded by punk teenagers and homeless people, and I began to empty my purse. Down went plain mint, gooey grape in a tub; down went Dr. Pepper flavored, banana-coconut, lemon-lime. Down went all tubes, including Montana huckleberry.
There is an invisible line dividing before and after in most addictions, and even in such a ridiculous one, the line existed.
The things I couldn’t do until my lips healed included kissing (when I tried to kiss my boyfriend, he refused because he said I was “scaly”); eating spicy food; taking big bites of any food; and using lipstick. I learned this last rule a month after the initial flare-up, when I tried to test the doctor’s orders by using moisturizing lipstick – and I ended up, once again, with starchy clown-lips that took another month to heal.
But soon I learned that there were also things I could now do: for example, swimming. I used to have to stick near the sides of the pool or the lake, because even in the water I needed to have fast access to lip balm. But now when I went swimming with friends, I could swim out further. I could also travel more lightly, since I no longer needed to carry a purse to tote around all my lip balms. I could just stick money and keys in my pocket and go.
And it made me wonder: what other things did I think I needed that I could give up?
First on that list was the boyfriend. He was a place-holder, you know the kind of person you date while waiting for someone better to come along, and also I could not get him to stop using the word, “irregardless,” which is not actually a word.
I thought: I don’t need him.
Then I realized how many belongings I had that I didn’t need. That year after college, I started giving them away. It was sort of the beginning of my life as a generous person. If I wasn’t using something well, I felt that the thing should go to somebody who would love it.
I moved into a smaller apartment. I looked at my life and all its commitments – did I truly need to be a member of this club? Was that friend actually a good friend? Did I need this job, or was I just wasting my time and keeping it to feel safe? I reexamined every thing, every person, and every commitment that I had. And I consciously chose to either keep them or let them go. I began traveling lightly in a whole new way, choosing to focus my time and energy only on the things that mattered to me. And it was all because of lip balm.
And that’s how lip balm became a divider between my teens and my twenties, an addiction that I left behind in one decade to move, unaddicted, into the next.
Elisabeth Sharp McKetta is a writer living in Boise, Idaho. Her poetry and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Monkey Puzzle, Anderbo, Luna Station Quarterly, and Talking River; her play “Zelda Speaks of Swans” was performed in two long-standing new works festivals, and she has been the featured storyteller at several events, including Story Story Night, where she first ’fessed up publicly to her chapstick addiction.