Two people came in an ambulance together. He was twenty-eight, she was twenty-six. They were put in the same room and had been instructed to undress and put on gowns. They both told the intake nurse they had things crawling out of their bodies. He focused mostly on his skin but she also had “things” coming out of her eyes, ears, nose, mouth and vagina.
When I entered the room, he was sitting quietly on the gurney while she was agitated and walking around the room. Usually, I start by talking to patients to find out what their symptoms and history are. Then I do an examination. It was not possible to do that in this situation because, as soon as I walked in the door, the young woman started to talk and, boy, did I get an earful! She came to me and started showing “them” to me. She had an LED flashlight and a magnifying mirror. She held the mirror up to her face, shined the flashlight onto her eyelid and said something like, “See that!”
When I asked her what I was supposed to be seeing, she gave me an exasperated look, turned the light and mirror to her lip and asked me, again, to look with her at what was crawling out. When I told her I didn’t see anything, she loudly voiced her indignation, pointed to her skin and said, “See! There it is right there! Are you telling me you don’t see anything?”
Patients with mental problems causing them to believe their skin is infested often have sores where they have been digging at themselves. They point to these sores as evidence of their disease. In this woman’s case, there was not a scratch or sore anywhere she pointed, just normal skin.
As soon as she detected that I didn’t believe she was infested, she got really upset. She started referring to others who had seen “them” and asked me what I thought the others had seen, if there was really nothing there. The most specific I could get her to be when referring to other witnesses was “the doctor at the shelter,” but she was too agitated to tell me if she had been previously seen by another doctor and what, if anything, had been done for her.
When I continued to be unconvinced she had something coming out of her various body parts, she suddenly turned her attention to her partner. She pointed to his skin, which was marked by multiple sores which looked like he had been picking at himself. He was not nearly as animated as she was but he sat there, patiently trying to help her identify things crawling out of him. He was no more successful in showing me what they were looking for than she was.
When I tried to get specifics about how long this had been going on, what these things looked like, how big they were, what color they were and where they went after they crawled out, it only made them more indignant, unhappy and agitated.
At this point, I turned to an approach I developed years ago to deal with patients who are convinced they have a problem when I am sure they don’t.
I told them I recognized that they knew they were infested with something and I acknowledged how upsetting this must be. I told them I also knew they were not infested. I told them they had a mental disorder and named it: delusional parasitosis. I said I understood that they didn’t believe me. I also told them I was firm in my opinion and they were not going to convince me otherwise. In concluding, I said something like, “So, it is time for you to leave. I will give you the telephone number for our Mental Health Urgent Care clinic as well as a number to get a Primary Care Physician in a clinic.”
I have found that this sort of firmness is necessary because truly delusional people can’t be convinced. The more you try to get them to see logic, the more they get upset that they are not convincing you. I just have to tell them I am sorry, recommend they get psychiatric follow up and send them out, almost always upset and unhappy with me.
In this case, things just went from bad to worse when I followed this time-tested approach. The woman got even more agitated. She paced around the room, hollering about the lack of care they were being provided. She demanded to see my boss and the head of the hospital so something could be done. She was so agitated that the nurses called security and soon there were three uniformed officers outside the room. It got so bad that a Sherriff’s officer, there with a prisoner from the county jail, came to the room to see what was going on.
My two patients refused to get dressed. Refused to leave. Refused to take their discharge papers. They said they were not going anywhere until something was done for them. Finally, after the Sherriff threatened to arrest them, they got dressed and stomped out, the woman hollering and cursing.
Over the years, I have seen many cases of delusional parasitosis and its companion condition called Morgellon’s Disease, where people think they have fibers coming out of their skin. Each case has been a little different. Some patients are calm and, in every other way, reasonable. They talk logically of their complaints. They are pleasant in taking recommendations to follow up with their doctor but they remain convinced they are infested. On the other end of the spectrum, some patients act truly crazy, as with the woman described above.
Sometimes people connect their infestation to their environment. I once saw a man who was certain something was crawling out of a mat he had to stand on at work. No matter how many times the mat was changed and the area cleaned, as soon as he went back to work, he got them again.
I had a patient who was sure she was infested with bedbugs. No matter how I tried to help her understand that bedbugs just crawl out of your bedding at night, suck your blood and then crawl back to the bedding to wait for another night, she was sure she had bedbugs under her skin. She could not be convinced otherwise.
Another time, I saw a twenty-five-year-old woman who was convinced she had lice in her hair. The fact that no lice or nits could be produced had no effect on her beliefs. She had been treated multiple times for lice and, yet, she was sure they persisted. She constantly dug at her hair with a pencil until she had a huge ball of tangled hair on the back of her head. Even as she talked with me, she dug and dug in her hair, trying to get a bug out to show me.
Once, I had a couple come in wanting papers they could use to force their landlord to do something about the bug infestations they had from their apartment. Their place had been fumigated multiple times and the landlord and pest people told them there were no bugs. My patients were unable to provide a bug as evidence. Yet, they wanted a doctor’s note saying they were, indeed, infested so they could force the landlord to do something about it. When two people are equally involved in a delusion, it is called folie a deux.
I have seen many patients with delusions over the years. This case was amazing for two reasons. It was a fascinating case of folie a deux. Also the woman had absolutely the worst case of delusional parasitosis I have ever seen. She had things coming out of every part of her body. She was agitated and aggressive. She was threatening and refused to put her clothes on and leave when she was dismissed. It is an amazing example of how your brain can play really nasty tricks on you.
If you are interested, read more at my favorite medical reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delusional_parasitosis