I’m sure you know how it is. When you have an itch it can be really hard to concentrate on anything else, especially if that itch is at a funny spot, like on the nose. Then not only can’t you concentrate on whatever else is going on around you, but you look a little silly rubbing your nose every two minutes. People might look at you funny. My name is Ted and that’s what I was thinking as I listened to the woman talk about vertical markets. I was itchy and couldn’t really focus on what the woman was saying. All I could think about was the itch and how it wouldn’t go away unless I scratched it.

I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by scratching it. The guy sitting to my right had given me his entire résumé by way of greeting, which I found a little weird. But I didn’t want him to think I was less qualified because I couldn’t curb the urge to scratch my nose. And the woman to my left had taken one look at me after I’d sat down and seemed to decide she couldn’t possibly be in the same stratum as I. I didn’t want to do anything that would confirm her assumption.

I decided to sit still and busy myself with something else, maybe it would take my mind off the itch and hopefully it would go away. I’d tried that before when the itch came to torment me and it hadn’t really worked, but I thought I might as well give it a go. I started to think about my electricity bill, which I hadn’t paid. That probably meant I’d be sitting in darkness tonight if I didn’t get it sorted before I got home. Then there was the dry cleaning I needed to pick up for my cousin’s wedding on the weekend, which was in two days. The dry cleaners closed at 16:00; I wasn’t sure I’d make it in time after the workshop. I should have just picked it up earlier in the week instead of procrastinating. Why was life never easy?

After a few minutes ruminating I realised I wasn’t itchy anymore. That would’ve been wonderful, except I’d now also missed the last few minutes of the woman’s presentation which looked like it was concluding. And now the lady wanted us to go into group discussions. What exactly was I going to discuss when I’d only really heard the first fifteen minutes of the forty-five minute presentation?

I’d wing it and hope that I wouldn’t be in the same group as the two holier-than-thou souls sitting on either side of me. The session broke and I realised I didn’t even know which group I was supposed to join. I decided I’d join the group closest to me in the hope that it was the right one and that no one would notice if it wasn’t. It turned out it was indeed the right one, but the group was being led by one of those get-everyone-involved types. And just my luck, my two neighbours from the plenary presentation were in the group with me.

The group leader insisted that everyone give their thoughts on the presentation they’d just had, and guess who was picked to give their thoughts first. I said something succinct with smart-sounding words and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw nods. I sat back as the rest of the group shared their thoughts. Halfway into the third person’s verbal thesis on marketing approaches in horizontal markets versus in vertical markets I started to feel the itch again.

This happened often. I always chased the itch away and it never seemed to get the hint that it wasn’t wanted. Maybe that was because it knew scratching it away felt so good. And the itch was on my right elbow now, which meant I could be more clandestine with my scratching. But there was still a problem with that. Besides the scratching potentially distracting me from the group session it only brought relief from the itch for a moment. The itch would be back with a vengeance. Then the scratching would turn into a vicious cycle.

I wanted to pay attention to the group session and the itch was starting to distract me.But I couldn’t not scratch. I slowly brought my left hand to my right arm, as if holding it at the elbow, and began to scratch. I paused and changed the position of my hand every few seconds, otherwise it would look weird if I kept rubbing and scratching my arm for minutes on end.

Then my former neighbour, Ms. Of-All-The-People-Here-Why-Would-You-Sit-Next-To-Me, put her hand up, interrupting someone’s soliloquy, and I froze. Had she seen me scratching?

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but this man (pointing at me) keeps scratching his arm,” she said, “I think it’s rude for him to keep scratching himself in front of everyone and draw our attention away from what we’re doing here.”

“I noticed it too,” my other former neighbour, Mr. Overqualified, said. “You could have excused yourself and left the room.”

There was silence for a few seconds and then the group leader spoke, “Please refrain from anything that would distract or offend other people here,” she said. “Otherwise I’ll have to ask you to leave the group and go handle your business privately.”

I was mortified. Everyone in the group was now looking at me with disapproving looks. I mumbled an apology and sunk into my seat, wishing the ground would open up and swallow me.

Now all I could think about was what the people in the group were thinking of me. They probably thought I was indisciplined and irresponsible. They must have been wondering what I was doing at the workshop anyway. What kind of man scratched himself to the point he couldn’t focus on the things at hand? And in public?

I hung my head and got lost in thought as the other group members continued the discussion. It wasn’t like I did it because I wanted to. And I’d tried before to kick the habit. I’d tried different things: picking up new hobbies, exercise, meditation. Nothing had seemed to work. I couldn’t stop, and I wondered if I even wanted to, even though I knew I needed to. 

It had started as something that felt good, that gave me relief when I was stressed or overwhelmed. Then I started itching and I’d scratch to satiate the itch. But as is wont with itches it kept coming back, so I kept scratching. It became a daily thing, part of my routine. It wasn’t hurting anything, or anyone, so I didn’t pay much mind to it.

Until the itch started to come on often and relentlessly, at odd times and in odd places. It started distracting me from things that needed my attention and making me late to things because I needed to take care of the itch before doing anything else. And sometimes it wasn’t that I had an itch that needed scratching, I just liked the feeling scratching gave me and did it compulsively.

The group session concluded and I walked back to my seat. Another general session began, and I tried to pay attention. But the shame of what had happened in the group session wouldn’t leave me. I needed to do something about that itch before it embarrassed me further. I needed to wrest back control of my life, but I didn’t know how and didn’t think I even had the strength to do so. It had been so long since I hadn’t given in to the itch and its demands. And, undeterred by shame or guilt, it had started to gnaw at me again as I sat back down in my chair.