Your Body

Long Sleeves In 100 Degrees: A Lifetime Spent Hiding My Skin Condition

By November 15, 2015 1

“Reptile, Crusty Girl, Ashy Chick”

Even now at the age of 24, if I hear any of those words, I still cringe, fearing that someone is talking about me. Physically and mentally, all of my childhood scars are because of eczema. Since I was 6 years old, I have been plagued with severe eczema. It was my struggle, my secret, my shame. Living with (and for years hiding) my eczema made me an insecure habitual liar, whose worst fear was others finding out exactly how bad it was. I was constantly anxious and guarded around my closest friends and family. Sharing this now, I am still fearful, but at long last hopeful that someone can hear my journey and understand either first or second hand how hard it can be for anyone to be ashamed of their appearance. Here is my story:

Many people experience bouts of light to moderate eczema, where there are patches of dry skin that can be annoying throughout the winter. Let’s not be mistaken. I’ve have/had eczema on my arms. hands, palms, legs, face, neck, stomach, legs, and feet. My skin for the past 20 years has resembled that of a crocodile, covered in dry mud. Have you ever had an itch that’s in the middle of your back, which you just can’t reach it, so you ask someone to get it, or you rub against a wall because it’s aggravating? Yeah? Well imagine your entire body feeling like that times ten for 23 hours a day (yes I scratch in my sleep). It used to cause me physical pain if I did not scratch, but then afterward, the open wounds would get infected and felt even worse.

1930734_1040353084209_3260_n-300x199 Photo of me in the Fifth Grade

Let me identify and explain the worst locations.

My arms: There the eczema was united. Not little patches but an entire block of bleeding, cracked skin. I would have flakes of dead skin in my inner sleeves and blood spots on all of my laundry.

My lips: I definitely lied about when I got my first kiss. My eczema on my lips was the only type I couldn’t hide. I had a constant ring around my mouth and cracked scaly lips. I was mocked the most for having “crusty” lips until I was about 15, then I found a medicinal solution which healed it. Even still, if I feel an allergic reaction or flare comin on, I immediately cry and panic, rushing to my dermatologist.

My hands: Only place I still have eczema. It became terrible when I was 19 and started to bartend. When you bartend your hands are constantly wet, damp skin heightens eczema.

How I Hid It

I like most children, had my wardrobe picked out from K-5. Although my mother had kick-ass style, most of my clothes exposed my eczema. In elementary school, having eczema was no big deal. Most of my classmates grew accustomed  to seeing my arms. Young children are not  really wrapped up in or concerned about other people’s appearances. I mean, the biggest conflict was who was the fastest racing on the monkey bars or what place we got on Field Day. But the older I got, the more people were inquisitive or said negative things about my condition.

“Don’t touch me I don’t want to get it.”

“Ew your arm is bleeding again.”

Towards the Fifth grade, I realized boys that I liked thought I was pretty but didn’t like the “thing” that was on my arm. Facing middle school I knew there would be new kids, which meant more people to make fun of me. I wanted to be cool and popular but knew I could not be either as long as I was the “crusty” girl. It was on the eve of beginning middle school that I made the life-changing decision to never wear short sleeves ever again. My eczema was only to be remembered by those in elementary school who would soon forget I ever had it.

During the school year I always was anxious during the beginnings and ends of the year because of the warmer weather.  I remember for one month my mother noticed I was wearing my winter clothes in 80 degrees. She would make me leave the house in short sleeves. I would then go in my backpack and put on a sweatshirt and wear it throughout the day at school.  My friends, who had no idea why I would wear a hoodie with everything would constantly question why I would’t just wear the cute t-shirt I had under my zip up.

“Take off that sweatshirt…you’re making me hot just looking at you!”

Thank goodness my parents partially raised me as a Jehovah Witness. It was my go-to excuse for the reason I didn’t participate in much during middle school. By the time I was in the sixth grade my parents didn’t care if I went to a birthday party or celebrated Christmas with my best friend’s family. But for some reason whenever an event or activity required me to wear short sleeves, I suddenly would pretend to be the most devout Jehovah Witness of all.

Wearing Long Sleeves at the Beach Age 17: Wearing Long Sleeves at the Beach with friends

I avoided sports (cheerleading, track, softball), school plays and anything that required a bathing suit, fearing that I would have to wear short sleeves. Short sleeves would expose everyone to my secret. Often people would wonder why I had blood spots on my sleeves or why I constantly canceled going places for no real reason. After a while I began to wear quartered-sleeves in the summer and slowly people stopped realizing that I was hiding something. My closest friends had no idea about any of it.

My Unveiling 

From 10 to 17 years old I covered my arms every day of my life. No matter the weather or the location, I refused to be exposed, I was unable to live with the shame. At night, I would sometimes plead with god to take my eczema away. I never understood why I had to have it.  I was always the “nice one”. Eczema made me empathetic to anyone with any physical abnormality that they couldn’t hide.

“Lesson learned, God, don’t judge, I get it, now can I please have my skin back?”

Something that seems minor now was really something that was always above and underneath the surface of how I valued myself. How could I love myself if touching my own arms disgusted me?

Junior prom, I wore gloves to hide my arms. I remember confessing to my best friend and her sister in the dressing room trying on prom dresses that I had eczema. Of course she was completely supportive and didn’t think it was a big deal, but I still was not ready to show anyone else. After prom I realized senior year I could not wear gloves two years in a row. Senior prom I would be exposed. The end of my junior year and beginning of my Senior year I worked vigorously to get rid of my eczema.

First time in short sleeves Me on the right at Senior Prom 2008

I went to my dermatologist’s office 3 days a week for months to do narrow band ultraviolet phototherapy. I took topical and oral medication every day. I visited an allergist and stayed away from dairy products to prevent a reaction. Senior prom came around and I was ready. It was the first time I wore short sleeve in 7 years. I remember being so nervous and feeling so uncomfortable. When I took photos I turned my arm outward and put a little cover up on some of my scarring.

Overnight I began wearing short-sleeves again. My eczema on my arms was completely healed. I felt normal. I felt free. I felt brave.

Understanding and Accepting Eczema

In order to recover from eczema you have to first identify the causing factors.  What attributed to my severe eczema were 20% allergies, 10% weather, and 70% anxiety. After visiting doctors for years and years, a family friend suggested that I visit an allergist. It was there that I discovered a dairy allergy which contributed to many of my past flare ups.

This year I experienced an spiritual awakening. During my journey I was able to be linked to my therapist/life coach Dave Asomaning. During one of the first sessions when I began to detail my experience with eczema throughout my life, he had me first state the ages my eczema was at its worst, and then drew a parallel to what was going on in my life at that time. We realized those ages were times of extreme change or turmoil. If I’m uncomfortable and unhappy I tend to itch more. Realizing this has made me more aware of my itching and how it relates to my anxiety. I now make sure that I am relaxed, well slept, and I meditate. There are several forms of prayer and meditation that have helped me to be able to ease my anxiety.

Years later, I still have a hard time looking at photos of my skin from my childhood. My fear now is that I will never be completely comfortable with the skin I am in. I have programmed myself to hate and hide my body from such a young age that I’m realizing only now that for the majority of my life, I have been ashamed of who I am. In a quest to accept my eczema, I’ve had to reprogram who I am and how I treat my body. Eczema has taught me to be empathetic to others and value love and acceptance above all else.

Do childhood wounds ever heal? I believe so. I have to embrace my story. Rather than look back at it shamefully, I am choosing to value how much I’ve learned from my experiences and in this chapter of my life, use it as a tool to help others.

Love yourself.