Perhaps one of my most vivid memories of my childhood is me with my eczema, standing in the living room, naked and on display, standing impatiently while I waited for my mother to lather my entire body with cream to keep my skin from drying out. I would keep one eye on the television, which kept me distracted while she rubbed and rubbed and one eye on the apartment door, terrified that an unexpected visitor would come knocking and catch me naked in the living room. I was young at the time, probably five or six, but old enough to feel self-conscious – and old enough to feel like a baby for having my mother rubbing cream on me.
I had bad eczema even back then, and I realize now that my mother fought a daily battle for me against the rashes and itch that would take over my body. I couldn’t be trusted to apply the cream myself, to try and keep my eczema under control and so she did it for me, even though I HATED standing naked in the living room. But at least I got to watch television, which is probably why my mother dragged me out there in the first place.
When I became a teenager and started going to high school, I was too old to have my mother apply creams for me, unless it was on my back where I couldn’t reach. She left it to me to keep up the daily routine of moisturizing, using thick, glycerin based creams that were greasy and left a thin film of white on my skin if I wasn’t relentless with my rubbing. I was a lazy teenager, and am still somewhat lazy to this day, and the constant application of this cream, which smelled bad and made my clothes stick to me was too much work for me. More days than not I went without the cream, and it’s pretty much why I spent most of my high school years with an embarassing rash on my arms, neck, ears and back. I remember how dry my skin would get then too – and how it would flake off. There was one boy in a couple of my classes that sat across the aisle from me and he would tease me about my flaky, irritated skin. A couple of times he called me alligator and I, in return, hated him more than I had ever hated anyone else.
My eczema wasn’t 24/7, I didn’t always have the angry red rash that stood out glaringly against my pale white skin. It would go into remission and I’d be fine for weeks or even months, but then it would come back and it would be so severe that I would scratch until I bled. The worst was my back and my ears – I stained a lot of shirts and pajama tops and pillowcases because I couldn’t stop the scratching.
I got more control of it the older I got, became more diligent in moisturizing, using prescribed cortisone cream when I needed it. There was a period in my early to mid twenties when my eczema was in remission for a few years. A lot of it I think had to do with us living in Vancouver, in a mild climate where the air was anything but dry. When we moved to Toronto, it was still relatively controllable, other than when the seasons changed and the air outside was dry and cold and the air pumping from the vents inside was dry and hot. However, I used to get flareups when I would visit Halifax, and I would return home with an angry red rash that I hadn’t arrived with. It was clear then, that my flareups were allergy-based, and the only thing we could figure was that it was either the pets in my parents house or the smoke from my mother’s cigarettes.
They couldn’t get rid of the pets when I came to visit but my mother could do something about the cigarette smoke. She began smoking outdoors when I would come home – or if it was too cold, by a window so that the smoke could escape. I remember my father trying to make me guilty for forcing my mother to smoke outdoors and how pissed off I would get – it got to the point that I threatened to not visit home again – because seeing my family wasn’t worth the discomfort (and pain) of being covered with an angry, bloody rash when I left. My mother told my father to mind his business, that it was her choice and kept smoking on the back stoop. I love her for that.
A few months ago, shortly after Christmas, my eczema started acting up again. I kept applying different types of creams to try and keep my skin moist, applied various topical ointments to the rash that started to creep back. Earlier this month it got really bad – the rash was, again, angry, red and inflamed. Two weeks ago, my entire hands, arms and neck were covered with it. It hurt to move and it started to creep onto the edges of my face.
I managed to get into see a dermatologist late last week, waited in his waiting room for TWO HOURS and he was a complete asshole (saying things like, “You have eczema, you know this right?” and “have you heard of a this big white box called a computer, and on it, there’s something called the internet, and the internet has this thing called GOOGLE, in which you can type “ECZEMA” and get all types of information about it” and “Of course I can fix you, didn’t you see my packed waiting room when you came in?” and, my favorite, “have you considered moving somewhere warm? Like Arizona or Las Vegas?”) but he did give me a brochure (which didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know) and a prescription (for cream that is prescribed when nothing else works) and he mentioned that a lot of dermatologists are using anti-histamines these days to treat eczema.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading about eczema recently, looking online for cures and remedies and was trying anything and everything and one of the things I started seeing a lot was the mention of how severe eczema can cause depression in some people. I’m not sure that I’ve ever been clinically depressed, at least not until this round with my eczema and I spent most of the past weekend either moping around or sleeping. The time that we did spend with friends I was very self-conscious of the rash covering my hands, arms and neck what should have been an enjoyable visit with friends was spent fidgeting.
And it got me wondering this weekend, what I would do if my eczema never went away, if I always had this rash, and I couldn’t wear sleeveless tops because I’d be too self-conscious. I wondered if I was really so vain that I was actually moping around the house and labelling myself as ‘disfigured’ when there are people in this world dealing with afflictions much worse than a topical rash that was probably not as bad as I thought it to be.
But then I thought about what it was like last week when I was chatting with someone and their gaze kept dropping to the rash on my neck and then they would tear their gaze away and look back up, only to look again.I thought about the way it felt to be looked at that way, how freakish I felt and then I considered how it would be ten times worse if it was a stranger looking at me that way instead of a colleague.
It’s been a long couple of weeks of being uncomfortable and not sleeping properly. Of not even wanting my husband to touch me because the lightest touch has been unbearable on my inflamed skin. Of not being able to wear certain clothes because they aggravate my skin, and worrying that maybe what I’m really allergic to is the wool in my sheepskin boots that I got at Christmas, which was around when my eczema flared. I miss my boots, even though the weather is warming up, and it makes me sad to see them lined up next to the front door, being neglected. Of almost dreading the trip to Florida, rather than looking forward to it because I know how selfconscious I would be in summer clothes if I went covered in a rash.
I’ve been spending the past few days constantly moisturizing my skin (morning, noon and night – there’s a jar of cream on my desk at work and in the bathrooms at home and on my nightstand and there’s even one in the fridge – the coldness of the cream actually helps), I’ve been using the prescription cream twice a day and I’m taking an anti-histamine at least every 30 hours or so to help with the itchiness. I’ve figured out how to do a homemade oatmeal bath (regular oatmeal in a knotted stocking, submersed in the water) and I’ve started wearing these funny spa gloves to bed at night to keep me from scratching. I wear cotton as much as possible and cut my nails so short that even when I scratch, they don’t break the skin.
And I don’t know which of these things is making a difference (maybe all of it) but my skin is finally starting to calm down. The redness has faded, my skin’s no longer sore, I’m slowly starting to heal. I can wear shortsleeved shirts in this pleasant weather, without scarves wrapped around my neck to hide my embarassment. My mood has lifted, I’m looking forward to Florida and the cute summer skirts and dresses hanging in my closet.
I get that I have eczema, and that I always will. That there’s no cure for this particular disease and that it’s something I have to live with, even when it gets so bad that I want to cry when I look in the mirror and see it glaring back at me. That part’s unavoidable. But at least now I’ve seen that worse it’s ever been and I don’t know how it could possibly be any worse than what it’s been these past few weeks. I’ve seen the worst and somehow, I fought back and I made it back to the other side.