As a teenager, being ostracized for eczema is all too easy. For us, eczema goes hand-in-hand with self-image issues and can lead to more serious mental health disorders. As teenagers, the desire to be self-sufficient and prideful often makes it hard to ask for help from friends, family members and even doctors.
I would like to assure readers that everything I have written below is solely meant to describe what I have experienced, with the goal to raise awareness of the potentially extreme effects that eczema can have on mental health. It’s not my intention to generate sympathy for what has happened to me in the past. With all of that said, this is my story.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse
I’ve been diagnosed with atopic dermatitis since birth. Of course, I have no recollection of back then, but from what my mother has told me of my infantile eczema, (patches of large rashes over my body and face, my constant crying due to irritated skin), I’ve concluded that it’s been an uphill battle since then.
Elementary school and middle school gave me my first experiences on how others reacted to my eczema. Trying to meet new people and other students often led to them staring at my exposed, inflamed skin and asking questions such as, “Is your skin contagious?” or “Have you seen a doctor?” This was bearable, however.
I would constantly explain to anyone who asked about my atopic dermatitis how it isn’t like the eczema your sister or uncle has, how I have a literal bucket of moisturizers and prescribed creams that I’ve tried using, how I’ve tried allergy shots, etc.
Of course, after the span of eight years leading up to high school, I had acknowledged the fact that I would have to explain my skin condition to anyone who asked. Aside from actually having to suffer through rashes, I naively believed that this was the worst it could get. I was wrong.
High school was a rude awakening
Walking into my high school on the first day of freshman year was the first time I felt the effects of social anxiety. In addition to a large campus, everyone was wearing up-to-date clothes, and almost all of them had clear skin.
Having my eczema exposed in the early fall while wearing shorts was a nightmare for me, especially when it flared up. I felt suffocated under the glances thrown at me by my classmates and upperclassmen in the hallway, unsure whether the glances were judgmental or out of curiosity.
My self-confidence level dropped, and I started suppressing the hurt I felt when others looked at my skin or tried to offer me advice. It felt as if my skin was a barrier for not being able to connect with others. Therefore, the majority of the few friends I had either knew someone suffering with eczema or were social outcasts like me.
Sophomore year hit me like a truck. My class load was extremely hard with classes like Honors Pre-Calculus and Honors Chemistry. This is when I found out that stress was worse than any allergen that I’ve been exposed to.
Unbeknownst to me, this stress was the beginning of a viscous cycle. Because of this stress, my skin would flare up causing an inability to pay attention in school. Coupled with the glances of my peers at my constantly inflamed skin, the self-loathing I had for myself increased, as well as my anxiety around others.
My grades dropped to low B’s and C’s, despite the hours I put into studying. As a student raised in an Asian household, I felt as if I had failed not only myself, but also my parents.
I had my first depressive episodes and anxiety attacks at school, which worsened with my insomnia. From worrying about my grades to nightly skin flare ups, my mental health deteriorated quickly, and I started pushing away the people trying to help me.
The day that would change everything
Then, a month before the fall semester ended, I had my first skin infection. I looked horrible. Skin was peeling off every part of my legs, arms, face and body, and clear liquid oozed out of the places that would peel out. Small things such as eating and sitting became extremely painful due to the infection on my mouth and rear.
I was stuck at home for three weeks, trying any type of medicine: western prescriptions, eastern herbs, homeopathic mixes, chiropractic massages, but nothing worked. In the end, I showed up to my fall final exam in pajamas and a hoodie, covering up as much of my infection as possible.
This first skin infection lasted from November of 2017 to the end of January 2018. Then, as my antibiotics ran out before my infection was completely gone, I had a secondary infection.
The secondary infection started as a small 1×2 inch patch on my hip then spread to my waist, thighs and arms. Although it wasn’t as bad as my first infection, it was still extremely painful. Going to school while hiding my infection again made me very anxious.
At this point, I still tried hard in my classes, but I couldn’t process what I learned because my infected areas made it uncomfortable to sit still. My grades kept dropping along with my self-esteem, and I found myself in a depression for the entire months of January and February.
On Feb. 28, 2018, after months of dealing with skin infections and falling grades, my self-esteem lowered to the point that I attempted to take my own life. The emotional pain of not being good enough in my studies and my social isolation combined with the extreme pain of my skin infection had driven me to the breaking point.
I can remember vividly the weeks leading up to that day with students staring at my discolored, crusted skin and the looks of disappointment on my teachers’ and parents’ faces. I would drag myself home, force myself to study for hours without success, and stay up late because it was too uncomfortable to sleep.
I hated everything about myself then. I hated my grades and the social isolation I felt at school. Most of all, I hated the feelings of not being good enough. Everything was a blur after that.
Taking responsibility for my eczema
I spent days at the center recovering from my suicide attempt, and I remember eventually realizing that my perceptions on negative things, such as my failing grades and my eczema, were the main cause of my depressive spiral.
I learned to admit that I didn’t have everything in control; Murphy’s Law stated as much. My skin infection had also begun to clear after an extremely strong prescription of antibiotics.
After being released from the center, things slowly began to change for me. I started accepting the fact that I have eczema, and that regardless of how well I took care of my skin, there was always a chance for it to flare up for no reason.
I stopped caring about hiding my eczema as well. I walked into my school wearing a short-sleeved shirt and wore the patches of healing infected skin and scars proudly.
I realized that everyone had their own set of problems to take responsibility for, and I began taking responsibility for my eczema. I no longer let people staring at my skin affect me negatively. I accepted the fact that until the day that I “outgrow my eczema” (if that were to ever happen) suffering through rashes would be a daily routine.
After accepting this, my outlook on life began to change positively. I became more involved in my school and community, and I stopped being afraid of exposing my skin. With the barrier of my pride removed, I learned to lean on others for support, learned to be humble, and learned to accept myself for who I am.
With this new outlook towards mental health and eczema, I decided to get more involved in the eczema community. I wanted to learn more about eczema and skin disease. That is how I stumbled upon the National Eczema Association, which quickly became my most reliable source for all things eczema related.
Whether it was a new skincare product or a new treatment, Nationaleczema.org became the first place that I checked.
At Eczema Expo 2018, I had the pleasure of meeting my fellow eczema warriors who gave me strength to advocate for eczema at my school and community. Hearing stories from others that struggled with eczema showed me that I wasn’t alone even during my worse flare-ups.
It was at this time that I realized that my eczema wasn’t a fight that I was fighting alone. There are millions of others who struggle with eczema the same way I do. And we’re doing all we can do to suppress our next flare-up to the best of our abilities.
Alan Wang is an eczema warrior currently attending his senior year of high school in Johns Creek, Georgia.
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