October was Eczema Awareness Month, and as someone who has continuously struggled with it since birth, I have been quite literally itching to talk about it.
Skin issues run in the family; my brother and sister had eczema, my aunt had skin rashes as a kid, and my nephews deal with it as well. Until my first nephew, my eczema was the worst my immediate family had ever seen. The raw blistering rashes plagued my face, neck, stomach, elbows, legs — my whole body. At such a young age, I was exposed to countless steroidal creams, moisturizers, and even oral steroidal medicine to subdue the pain. Of course, time was only the most consistent and effective remedy.
Growing up was difficult, with the trauma extending far past my skin, leaving scars that couldn’t be seen in the physical keloids on the inside of my elbows. As a young child, I couldn’t understand why it was so itchy, or why my mom would get mad when I succumbed to the temptation to scratch. Obviously, it was because I was literally tearing away at my skin and putting myself in more pain, and she didn’t want that. What mother would just sit back while her daughter ruined her body, even if it was involuntary? We tried everything past the medicine: wearing gloves or socks on my hands–yet the friction of the fabric would always find a way to relieve the itch— or placing warm damp towels on my rashes. Sure, the itch was overpowered by the pain of the temperature and water, but the water would just make it itchier. I even resorted to hitting it instead of itching. Nonetheless, the itching persisted.
It wasn’t until I started going to school that I finally realized that this wasn’t normal. I thought every kid was like this. Don’t get me wrong, many kids are; the countless “Oh you have eczema? I had that when I was younger, but I grew out of it”s got redundant quickly. The point is that no one around me was like that. Every other kid I knew swam in the ocean without the salt water torturing him or her. Every other kid I knew wore spaghetti strap tank tops without glaring red patches on his or her shoulders. Every other kid I knew didn’t stutter and feel isolated when someone pointed on his or her arms asking, “What’s that?”
I don’t think I ever consciously started linking all of this to my skin until about third grade when I transferred to a different school because of its Gifted and Talented program. My first year the school still had uniforms, so I was able to hide behind long sleeved white collar shirts until it got to late Spring, when it was too hot to function. I remember one instance so vividly; it was one of the first times I stopped caring about hiding because it was compromising my comfort—as if eczema itself doesn’t do that. One of my close friends pointed at my rashes during lunch and asked me, “Why don’t you hide it?” I have no idea what I said to play it off, but that was one of my earliest memories of actually feeling bad about not having skin like other kids’.
As I progressed through elementary school, my physical appearance stopped being a top priority; hello chapped lips and awkwardly shaped glasses. By pushing back how badly I felt about my skin, I was able to find who I was in something else: my grades. I grew up as the “smart kid” – the stereotypical Asian girl who had glasses, played some musical instrument, and got 100s. Who cared about my skin if everything else about me was perfect? I didn’t. By distracting myself—and hopefully everyone else around me—from my skin, I created an obsession for perfection in every other part of me. Looking back on it now, it was one of the biggest roots of my continuous struggle of accepting that I’m “good enough.” I know a 97 is good, but a 100 is great, and a 105 is even better. While I’ve recently identified this perfectionism as compromising to my mental health, it is still an uphill climb.
Even after fifth grade graduation, sixth grade at my zone school, and seventh and eighth grade at BSGE, my skin was still quite bad. I wasn’t blistering on every inch of my skin, sure, but I was still in constant and excruciating pain. Even simply stretching out my arm would be unbearable. Even with mounds of moisturizer to soothe it, the skin was so raw and dry that it would crack the moment it was taut. Everyday tasks such as taking a shower were made ten times harder. I would have to cup the back of my legs with my hands and bend my elbows while doing this, which resulted in an awkward crouching position, in the shower to make my skin slowly accustomed to the water, which sent sharp and sudden pain when making the slightest contact with any of my rashes. Even when my skin became accustomed to it, washing it with soap was a whole other story.
It was just so frustrating. I knew it was bad for me, so why couldn’t I stop? Why did I consciously relieve the itch temporarily just to bring myself to exponentially greater pain later on? I knew what was wrong with me: I had eczema. But what was wrong with me? I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just use that information to stop and be normal. Even to this day, I mentally yell at myself for scratching. It’s something that I should be able to stop doing, yet I just can’t.
In addition to the obsessive perfectionism and internal self-punishment, the insecurities regarding my skin still linger. Eczema still plagues me, even if it’s just on the back of my neck, inside my legs, and inside my elbows, with the seasonal rashes on my upper chest, back, and shoulders. The steroids have left their permanent marks on my body, from the keloids on my skin to my lack of a growth spurt; all thanks to the medicine I ingested a child. There are so many outfits I wish I had the confidence to wear, had my skin not decided to be so ugly. There are days I wish I could wear makeup without the skin under my eyebrows and my eyelids being flaky. This isn’t even mentioning the number of future situations I’m afraid that I’ll deal with – what if a boy stops liking me because of my skin? Sure, it sounds stupid written down, but I’d like to tell myself that it is a valid fear after 16 years of “Is that contagious?” and “You can always cover it up!” and “You’re still pretty!”.
While a lot of my problems were internalized and self-inflicted, so many of my insecurities and issues with myself were rooted in how other people had viewed me during crucial developmental points of my life. I’m not saying that we’re ever going to stop curious children from trying to learn more about people whose skin doesn’t look like theirs, but by late elementary school and even middle school, you’d think this ignorance would have been expelled already.
The stigma around eczema specifically ranges from being associated with bad hygiene to being the basis of jokes and roasts. It’s something that leaves so many children and teens with long-lasting problems linked to body dysmorphia and other mental illnesses. From simple things such as having a more inquisitive tone as opposed to a disgusted one when asking someone about their eczema, or to larger ways such as supporting eczema cure research, we could minimize these effects. If you’re ever interested in learning more, there are some interesting articles on nationaleczema.org that range from basic information to physical self-care and mental self-help.
How could you do this if you’re someone who deals with eczema? In my opinion, reaching out to other people you see struggling is one of the most effective ways. I will never forget the one time a freshman—at the time—direct messaged me on Instagram when I was in seventh grade, telling me how she understood how I felt and that it does get better with time and treatment. This is almost my way of repaying the universe for bringing her to me; now it’s your turn.