I used to be scared of looking in the mirror.
I used to duck under it when I washed my hands. Sometimes I would close my eyes.
It wasn’t for metaphorical reasons after committing an awful crime as a toddler, and it wasn’t because of underlying vanity or superficiality.
It was because I couldn’t stand to see just how bad it had gotten.
From I very young age I suffered from eczema.
For most eczema is either an inconsequential joke, or a go-to phrase for any skin ailment that may befall them.
For me, eczema was years of pain, discomfort, hospitalizations and awkward staring.
For something that is commonly regarded as a joke, it can be a very serious and life-affecting issue for some, and one that needs to be addressed more in general society.
For most of my childhood I was itchy. As a young and careful little rascal I didn’t have much control over my impulses. So I scratched.
Eczema can be a debilitating problem, and for much of my childhood I was unable to wear shorts or short-sleeved shorts, for both comfort reasons, and for fear of displaying my condition for all to see.
This proved especially problematic during the hot Summer months at school. During a particularly bad spell in Year 11 that happened to coincide with a typical Melbourne heatwave of a week of 40+ degree days, I persistently had to wear long pants and a long sleeved white shirt underneath my school uniform. After the excuse of “Oh I just lost my shorts” started to wear thin, I adopted the “Oh I’m so sunburnt I can’t even show my skin to the cruel mother earth” line whenever I was questioned about being dressed like an apiarist during these sweltering conditions. And that was a lot.
I got used to strange looks, almost of fear, during school, especially during the earlier years. Nobody except for the bravest of kids would ask about my skin, which would sometimes resemble a bright red, bumpy desert, but most of them would stare.
I became well acquainted with all the various brands of creams and ointments, with most proving to be only mildly soothing and not at all helpful in the long run. We even ventured into experimental leaf treatment (at least that’s how eleven year old me remembers it), and had to endure numerous news stories proclaiming to have apparently found the “ultimate cure” to eczema.
My family was always incredibly supportive, putting up with the traumatic ointment times and never once treating me as the disgusting outcast that I sometimes felt like.
At times we tried a “wet dressing” technique, which basically involved mummifying me with ointment and wet bandages at night time, ensuring I wouldn’t scratch myself to pieces in my sleep. A valiant cause, but one that mostly resulted in my lying awake at night, trying to pretend I was a cool Egyptian mummy, but mostly just resisting the urge to rip those damn bandages off and get that brief relief through scratching.
There were also the oil baths, which mostly saw me staying in a slimy bath for extended periods of time, often too afraid to get out. This mostly resulted in me resembling Betty White with much worse skin.
I eventually gained high priority status with my dermatologist, a useful perk that meant I could get an appointment pretty much whenever, when other commoners would have to wait up to a year.
After being put on some serious big boy medication I got to first name basis with the blood testing lady at my local clinic. Leaving school for a couple of hours and returning with a bit of tape on my elbow was a regular occurrence.
At the worst times, I struggled to move. It would prove to be almost impossible to move my neck and other joints, so at times I would just curl up into a ball on the couch, trying to hide from the outside world.
With this came infection, and with infection come hospitalization, sometimes for weeks on end. The nights spent in the hospital were probably my darkest, covered in oily ointment, surrounded by children that were obviously much worse off than me.
I didn’t feel like I belonged there. I was young, otherwise healthy, and after all, didn’t I just have a measly skin condition?
Around three per cent of the population have eczema in some form or another, but its still regarded mostly as a novelty. The butt of jokes or a way to describe a heat rash. Children suffering it will continue to endure hurtful stares and comments until it is properly identified as a serious problem.
I’ve been virtually eczema free for about three years now.
All I’ve got to show for these younger years are a few, barely distinguishable scars and an ingrained ability to resist scratching mossie bites.
I’ll always be appreciative of being able to get out of the shower and just put my clothes on, without having to entirely cover my body with creams and subsequently ruin my clothes.
I’ll always be appreciative of being able to wear shorts and a t-shirt during Summer, of being able to wear the right uniform when playing sports, and of being able to go to sleep without being turned into a mummy.
And I’ll never again be afraid to look in the mirror.
Originally published in Catalyst Magazine.