I’d been cleaning earlier in the day, and maybe the bleach I’d used had over-sensitized the nerves in my hands. Maybe it would have happened anyway, even if I hadn’t exposed my ungloved hands to bleach. Whatever the cause, I was in pain before the day was done.
That evening, I went over to the infoshop to help cook for Food Not Bombs. We made a potato dish and spiced it up with jalapeños from the box of produce Whole Foods had donated. I took on the task of chopping the peppers.
I’d chopped a lot of green bell peppers in my day. Before chopping, I always pulled out the membrane and the seeds because–well, that’s the way my mom did it. I figured jalapeños and bell peppers were basically the same, so I pulled the membrand and the seeds out of the jalapeños just the way I did to bell peppers. Wearing gloves to prep peppers never even crossed my mind.
By the time the meal was cooked, my hands were tingling in the way my lips might tingle if I ate spicy food. It was unusual and noticeable, but not altogether unpleasant.
I don’t remember if I helped serve food to hungry people that night, but as the evening progressed, the tingling in my hands increased to burning. The feeling did become unpleasant, then painful. After a couple hours at home, I tried to go to bed, but the feeling that my hands were on fire from the inside kept me from sleeping.
I still hadn’t connected the burning in my hands with the chopping of jalapeño peppers. I thought maybe it was the bleach from earlier in the day that was affecting me. In any case, the pain was in the form of a throbbing burn and seemed to be intensifying.
I’d already washed my hands with soap and water, which hadn’t helped one bit. I decided to soak my hands in ice water, which helped a lot–until I removed my hands from the liquid. When I took my hands out of the icy water, the relief I’d been feeling was replaced by pain worse than what had caused me to submerge them in the first place.
I didn’t know what to do. Not only was I in intense pain, but I couldn’t pinpoint the cause of it. I was starting to feel like I’d lose my mind if the burning didn’t stop.
I wanted to call my mother. I was still young enough to rely on my mother’s advice when times were hard. However, my mother was a fundamentalist Christian who was not thrilled by my pants-wearing, hair-cutting, alcohol-drinking, sex-before-marriag-having ways. I was honestly afraid my mom would tell me the fire I felt in my hands was the devil inside of me. Finally, the pain got the better of me, and I called my mom.
I told her about the bleach and the peppers (which I’d finally begun to suspect as the culprit). Thankfully, she didn’t mention the devil. She thought the peppers were the cause of my distress. The same thing had happened to her, she said. Now she wore gloves whenever she chopped peppers. The solution, she said, was to soak my hands in milk.
I was ready to try anything, so I thanked her very much and set out to implement the plan.
At the time (to control my weight and to save money), I drank reconstituted powdered milk. I didn’t know if the milk made from powder would have enough fat to relieve the burning in my hands. I was tired of messing around with remedies that didn’t work. I decided I needed whole milk.
I didn’t have a car, so I got on my bike and rode six blocks through the big city night to the Walgreens open until midnight. I bought a gallon of whole milk and transported it home in the basket on the side of my bike.
Once home, I poured milk into a big bowl and submerged my hands. I felt instant relief, but feared an increase in pain when I pulled my hands out, as happened when I took my hands out of the cold water. I kept my hands in the milk for a long time before I tentatively removed one from the bowl. Not only did the pain not increase, I feld a marked decrease in the burning I’d felt before. I returned my hand to the bowl and continued to soak both of them until the burning had decreased to a slight tingle. I rinsed the milk from my hands and went to bed.
In the morning, my hands were back to normal. Maybe the burning would have decreased naturally, but I was glad the milk had helped the process along so I’d been able to get some sleep.
After this incident, I was more careful when using bleach, and for years I wore latex gloves when chopping hot peppers. Even though I knew the cure, I wasn’t too keen on feeling such a fire burning inside me ever again.