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Skin Deep

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. 

In The Hot Seat

Everyone has that one friend who always says how well they’d do on a game show.

That’s not me.

My general knowledge definitely isn’t my pride and joy, and the pressures of being on camera and in front of a live audience has been known to get me on the very real verge of self-combustion.

But after seeing a friend win $200,000 on Millionaire: Hot Seat, I thought: ‘Hey, I could really go $200,000 right about now’, and just went for it.

I instantly went online and filled out the application, which involved a very quick and quite easy five questions, as well as your general name, age, education etc questions. It was all done and sent off within five minutes, and I didn’t really think much more of it.

About a month later I was reminded of it when I received an email reply telling me to come on down for an audition at the University of Melbourne, which turned out to be less of an audition and more of a qualifying test of my question-answering ability, which I promptly failed.

In a full lecture auditorium, thirty questions in the traditional Millionaire format were put on screen, and we all had to answer them on a scrap piece of paper. They involved a drastic mix of stupidly easy questions and absurdly hard ones, and by the end of it, I was already assuming my short-term Millionaire dream was well and truly over.

And I was half right.

We found out that the cut-off limit to move onto the next stage of auditions was 20 answers out of 30, and in my typical ‘close but not good enough’ tradition, I got 19 of those darn things right. Filled with a mixture of amusement and embarrassment, I slowly trudged out of the auditorium in my own special version of a walk of shame.

But in an M Night Shyamalan-esque twist, I was quickly pulled aside by a staff member, and told to stick around for a ‘survey’. After seeing all the others that were also plucked out of the depths of despair, it became obvious that the survey didn’t actually exist.

After being by far the odd one out in a room filled with middle-aged and older individuals, I was now surrounded by other youngsters, and a handful of adorable oldies. We were the unique ones, the different ones, at least by Millionaire’s standards.

I was finally being rewarded for giving in to my game-show greed at a relatively young age.

We were whisked away to a smaller room and told they we had a second chance, and then instructed fill out a multitude of papers with the expected questions: ‘what are your hobbies?’, ‘‘what’s your most interesting story?’, ‘do you know any famous people’, and, of course, ‘what would you do if you won a millionaire dollars?’.

This was the first time that I’d actually even considered this question, and I genuinely had absolutely no idea what to answer. I still can’t remember what I actually wrote down, and I don’t know the answer to this day, but apparently it involved fixing a fence in my backyard so alpacas stop invading.

We then did a quick interview to camera, telling one interesting story that Eddie could talk about on the show, and we were all done. Leaving this audition felt quite similar to the online one, I quickly returned to the real world and didn’t really think much more of it. It all felt like some sort of hilarious imaginary land that never really led to anywhere.

It was a much longer wait this time, but one day in a tute at uni I got a call from the show organiser, who happily informed me that I was scheduled to appear on the show in two weeks time, and a confusing mix of absolute fear and pure excitement filled my body.

The night before the shooting consisted of thoughts of ‘oh god why did I do this I’m so nervous I’ll probably sweat so much Eddie will slip over and hit his head and then I’ll be the sweaty guy that ruined Eddie’s career’, and of trying to repress and notion at all of actually winning any money at all.

I was instructed to bring three different outfits, which was a definite struggle, and to wash my hair within 48 hours (also a struggle). I decided to do a bit of studying beforehand, mostly to settle the nerves, with the odds of actually looking at something that gets asks about as likely me getting on Deal Or No Deal. I looked at Australia’s Wikipedia page, because no-one wants to be that guy that gets a basic history question wrong about his country, as well as the ologies, a list of phobias, and past Australian and American leaders. Ultimately it did more to distract me than actually prepare me for the next day, but this was probably just as useful.

I steeled myself all day that I’d be happy if I just got one question right, any question at all, so I could have that claim to fame forever. But as with most things in life, deep down, you think of all the possibilities, the glorious ‘what ifs’.

When there’s the opportunity, however hilariously minuscule, to change your life in the space of half an hour, it’s sure as hell going to be the only thing on my mind. It’s not every day you have your chance, but there it was, and you can’t help but dream.

Where would my first holiday destination be? Should I cry on national TV? Will they let me hug Eddie? How will I get out of all these joke deals I’ve made with people to give them a cut of the winnings?

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With a 8am start time, the actual filming day was all a bit of a blur. After signing all the paperwork and going through the basics of how to answer questions and the like (you’d be surprised how much footage they have of people doing it wrong) we were put through a mock-up version of the filming, with a fake Eddie to boot.

Apparently the hardest part of the filming is right at the beginning, where the camera focuses on you for about 15 seconds and you have to awkwardly smile and wave at it, although by the end of the day I’d probably say the hardest bit is answering the questions.

Mercifully, I was in the first group to be filmed, and didn’t have to stew in my overwhelming nerves for too long. After my first experience with make-up and having most of my carefully planned outfits rejected, I was finally on set as Eddie McGuire strode happily in.

I got onto the hot seat for the $1,000 question. I’d be training myself for this moment, thinking about what I’d say, how I’d look, make sure to laugh at Eddie’s jokes. And the moment finally came. “It’s time for an ad break.” Well shit.

After the painful break, it was finally time to get going, and the first question was relatively simply. “Where on your body to you get a bunion?”. I could relax a little. This was an easy one.

At least I thought it was.

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It really is true, what they say about second guessing yourself with the pressure. Although I was immediately positive that you get them on your feet, a thousand thoughts crept rudely into my mind, playing with my confidence and suddenly there was only a few seconds left. Thankfully, I locked in B, and got the question right. Cool, there it is, that’s all I want to do right? But it doesn’t work like that.

Watching back, I honestly don’t remember saying that I’d never had a bunion on national TV, but hey there it is.

It’s at this point that advised everyone I know to stop watching, that was the highpoint, the peak of my short-lived television career. And it was about the glamorous world of bunions.

The next question was about a company that I’m still not quite sure exists, so I quickly jumped in with my new-found ability to pass, and got the hell out of there. After watching a lot of the people I’d met throughout the day drop out or pass as well, I got back in the hot seat with only three questions left.

I quickly sank back into the surprisingly uncomfortable hot seat. Eddie smiles at me like we’re longtime friends. The lights dim. I quickly tried to work out what the odds were of me completely guessing three questions right. I couldn’t do it. Hopefully it wasn’t a maths question.

“What is the name for a reddish-brown horse?”

Whelp.

Horses are definitely not my strong suit. I rode one once for a primary school birthday party and had a minor skin reaction and nearly fell off twice so I’m not really all that endeared to the animals. And now I hate them.

I had absolutely no clear. I couldn’t even answer whether they were all, in fact, names for horses. But hey, it’s still a one in four chance right?

After some brilliant deduction, where I actually knocked an option out because I didn’t like the sound of it (Piebald does sound pretty stupid), I rushed it and locked in C, Pinto. In reality, I thought it kinda sounded like red wine which worked in with reddish-brown, but on TV I was much less eloquent, merely saying that I liked the sound of that one.

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Eddie was merciful and quickly told me it was wrong, I stood up, shook his hand, walked off to the side of the studio, and it was all over. It was a confounding mix of relief, and a dawning sense of disappointment, a waste of what was, in all likelihood, a once in a lifetime chance.

But I’m still glad I did it. I got to meet Eddie, confirmed that I cannot spontaneously combust from sheer nerves, and it’s a damn good conversation starter.

I think the biggest thing that I took out of the whole experience was a newfound sense of courage and impulse, to try out new things and just see where they lead, and that it’s not always bad to take myself so far outside of my comfort zone that I can’t see my happy place (a couch, TV snacks, and Police Ten 7).

And an intense dislike for horses.