By Nyssa Beech
My little brother sniffled and looked sad. His hands were cracked, painfully dry, bleeding. Mom was carefully smearing a thick, white cream over the uneven landscape, moving from his hands to his legs, to the crevices behind his knees. I watched somberly, scratching my inner elbow.
Eczema doesn’t necessarily sound like the worst problem in the world: it’s most common in infants and young children, and it often disappears with age. It’s just a rash on the skin. Right?
When I was in elementary school, I began developing eczema, too. As little brother grew out of his, I grew into mine. It was just on my arms at first, in the cracks where they bent. Angry red splotches that were impossible for a twelve-year-old to keep her sharp little nails away from. Soon the splotches were bleeding, and no matter how much blood caked up under my fingernails, I couldn’t seem to stop scratching.
I would cry about how much those spots hurt at night—when I couldn’t fall asleep. When I did sleep, my mind wouldn’t stop scratching—which was annihilating my progress. Sometimes, the skin would get better, leaving weak and yellowish-looking flesh behind as I rubbed away its chance to heal more. Winters were the worst. Mom would buy humidifiers to scatter throughout the house, while Calvin and I each had one in our rooms.
When you have pale skin that is offset by ugly red, it’s a happy thing to be homeschooled. I didn’t have to worry about hiding my arms every day, only when I went out. But when I started seventh grade, things changed. I began going to classes at a school two or three times a week, and I worried more and more about hiding my arms. Still, I couldn’t stop scratching. It would be a hot September day, and I would be sweating in long sleeves, pretending I was somehow comfortable.
My go-to product was hydrocortisone—it helped if I kept up with it and managed not to mess with my skin. Calvin began having more severe problems, and his eczema spread. He got a prescription for a more intense topical cream. Sometimes I would sneak some of his ointment to use on my arms, and it helped even more.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I read the Twilight books for the first time. Call it cheesy and typical of a high school girl, but I fell in love with those books and I read them constantly. I managed to convince myself that if Edward could manage the impossible of not draining Bella’s blood, then I could manage the impossible of keeping mine underneath my skin. Strangely enough, that helped more than anything else. I commanded myself to ignore the itch and refused to even look at my skin. It cleared and I felt wonderful. It was unbelievable to wear tank tops and t-shirts again. Nothing could have been more liberating.
For the next few years, I seemed to be cured, although there is no cure for eczema.
When I started college, life was still good. I had just returned from Europe and the fresh air of the Highlands, and my skin seemed fine. My first two semesters flew by, one in the dorms, one in an adorable little house off of Bixby, and it was after I moved out of that house and into a new apartment that things took a turn for the terrible. My allergies started flaring up, my eyes got itchy and red, and eczema crept back onto my body.
I have always had problems with eczema on my eyelids. The skin is very delicate, easy to aggravate, and impossible to cover up. I was prepared for the eczema on my eyes. What I was not prepared for was how eczema took over my body.
Starting on my neck, red, scaly patches spread to my chest, arms, armpits, shoulders, back, down my legs, behind my knees, onto my wrists, hands, fingers. Worst of all, it traveled to the place I could hide it the least: my face. Clothing was my best friend, and in winter I could bundle up and hide everything, but there was nothing I could to do hide my face. Stinging patches covered my cheeks, jawline, and forehead. The skin of my face—the face I presented to the world—was angry and swollen.
Since the skin on the face is thinner than on the rest of the body, and hydrocortisone thins the skin even more, I had to be very careful about doing anything to calm the rash on my face. To make matters worse, normal hydrocortisone cream no longer helped. I used the same ointment my younger brother once used, and it seemed to help, at least keeping the outbreaks under control at least. But when I went home to visit, my family was shocked, and my mother insisted that I see a doctor.
I stared at the doctor’s overly wide eyes and watched his thick lips tell me exactly what I already knew: eczema has no cure, there is very little treatment, and my only feasible option was a topical steroid cream. So that was the prescription he wrote me. Steroid cream thins the skin even more than hydrocortisone does, though, so I couldn’t use it on my face. I wasn’t supposed to use it for more than fourteen days in a row—otherwise I could cause permanent damage to my skin.
At first the steroid cream worked great. Within about three days, patches began to fade, and much of the swelling was gone. But my face stayed red.
I was no longer able to wear makeup, something that I was okay with on my best days, but these were far from my best days. I hated going out in public with blotches all over my face, and with patches around my eyes, forehead, and mouth drying and becoming flaky and scaly. I felt like everyone was staring at me. My job at the coffee shop became unbearable when my hands began to resemble my face.
I didn’t know what to do. I would spend my spare time Google searching home remedies for my condition and reading countless blogs from despairing mothers agonizing about their children’s painful skin. It always made me feel abnormal. I wasn’t a child anymore, and I should have grown out of this.
One evening stands out in my mind with particular clarity. I had just returned from work, settled down to a bowl of rice with tomatoes, feta, sour cream, and cilantro. I opened up Netflix and relaxed with a sigh. Not five minutes later my face started to feel hot, but I ignored it. The feeling persisted until I couldn’t take it any longer, so I set down my bowl and walked into the bathroom.
My whole face was on fire.
The longer I stared at my reflection in horror, the more grotesquely it morphed. Soon it was an ugly, uneven checkerboard of bright red and pale white patches. I couldn’t look away—and I couldn’t fathom why it had suddenly broken out so badly.
I knew that dairy was terrible for my skin (my brother avoided it and advised me to do the same), but I had been eating that same meal for the last three days. My eyes began to well. Why was this happening to me? What was causing it? And why weren’t there any answers? I rushed into my room and began throwing clothes in a bag. I was going home. I couldn’t be up here where everything had gotten worse. Whatever the source, I just needed to get away. I knew that I would miss all of my classes the next day, but the thought of letting people see my face horrified me. I couldn’t bear to see the questioning eyes, the sympathetic, shocked faces.
Quicker than I thought possible, I was in the car and getting ready to drive the four hours it would take to get me home. I shoveled Benadryl down my throat, hoping to counteract some of the swelling that might be from allergens. The heat of my face had developed into a stinging, burning sensation. Before leaving town I stopped off at my boyfriend’s house to deliver the attack-causing food—at least he could eat it. He brushed my hair off my face, told me I was beautiful, looked sad, and asked when I’d come back.
I told him I didn’t know and left before I started crying, knowing that would just make everything worse.
The drive home gave me a lot of time to think about my life. I thought of my sixteen credits and my two jobs in the food industry. I knew that stress affects eczema negatively, but then again almost anything can cause an eczema outbreak. I thought about my diet: healthy, but also full of the delicious dairy products I loved, and accented with plenty of beer. I thought about my living conditions: my room collected dust with more speed that I seemed willing to keep up with. It was also located directly above a heating and air-conditioning shop, and in the same room with the washer and dryer. Living with roommates meant thinking about two other people. And I couldn’t forget my boyfriend.
I decided that I worried about people a lot more than was necessary—or healthy for that matter.
By the time I reached home, I felt defeated and tired. I walked into my house in Ramsey and was greeted with surprised hellos and what-are-you-doing-here’s. My mom looked at my face and said, “Oh, honey.”
The next day I began the strictest diet I ever attempted. Only raw, organic food entered my stomach. No gluten, no dairy, no sugar, and no alcohol. I threw out my steroid creams, vowing that I would never put that crap on my body again. Mom bought a tube of a natural homeopathic cream she found at the health food store, and I began using it on my face religiously. By the end of five days at home with nothing but raw food, rest, and natural creams, I began to see improvement. My skin looked less angry, and the redness had lessened.
That’s when I knew it was time to leave. I couldn’t hide in Ramsey forever. After promising Mom that I would quit one of my jobs, leave dairy and gluten out of my diet, and try to relax with yoga, I headed back to my home in Bemidji.
After I returned to school, things continued to improve. I went tanning for the first time in my life to catch some UV rays, seeing as the sun was refusing to show its face in a temperature that I could be outside in. I felt ridiculous, but I’d read countless posts about the “sun” helping skin, and a fellow I knew with psoriasis had told me how much it had helped him. I drank about ten large glasses of water a day, and I quit my job at the coffee shop.
Since then, my skin has been good, and it’s been awful. I never know what’s going to make it worse, never know exactly when or what will make it better. A trip to Louisiana and sunshine helped a great deal, but once back in Minnesota, my hands and arms took a drastic turn for the worse.
Eczema is inescapable, but it can be manageable with the right attitude. Having all these issues has taught me a lot about what it means to be a healthy person, to be in tune with my body, and how to show self-restraint. I can’t tell you the last time I wore makeup, but I can tell you that I’m a lot less vain and concerned about how I look than I used to be.
Eczema affects 10%-20% of children and 1%-3% of adults. Although those seem like a relatively small numbers, they represents a host of people that are suffering and self-conscious. Educating people about how to de-stress their lives, eat healthy, and become aware of what their bodies are telling them is worth the effort. I make an effort to make an effort every day.
Skin is human body’s largest organ. It covers our bodies, but it also reflects what’s inside us. If something is wrong inside our bodies, it often shows up as complications outside, on our skin. My skin is the queen of reflection.
Nyssa Beech is graduating from BSU this spring with a degree in creative and professional writing. She enjoys non sequiturs because they don’t make sense and often end up being much more enjoyable than the expected nonsense we usually have to live with.