"Eczema is a disease that no one can understand fully unless they have experienced it themselves. For 15 years of my life, I have battled this disease by myself. But I’m starting to realize I don’t have to endure this fight all alone."
Published On: Nov 4, 2020
Last Updated On: Nov 18, 2021
Last summer, when my brother returned home from camp, I asked him how his day was.
“It was great, Jack!” he replied. “One of my counselors even remembers who you are.”
“Really? What was his name?”
“Oh, I think his name was Ryan. He asked if you were the kid with really bad skin,” my brother responded.
Well then. Somehow a fellow camper I spent my summer with nearly eight years ago had remembered me because my skin was red and itchy. Yet for millions of other children and adults, this experience isn’t unheard of.
Those battling eczema like myself find that people sometimes remember them not for their humor, intellect or kindness, but the scaly, dry patches of inflamed skin covering their body.
As a toddler, while I was waging war between my toy dinosaurs on the kitchen table, my body was beginning a war of its own: 35 billion skin cells vs. Jack’s favorite foods: pizza, ice cream and chicken fingers.
Of course, at the time, my family didn’t know this. What we did know was that I was hardly getting any sleep from constantly scratching in bed, and my skin was becoming increasingly dryer and redder.
Upon being diagnosed with eczema, my dermatologist recommended cortisone as a suitable treatment.
I’ll credit my dermatologist for relieving my constant itchiness, but nonetheless, my parents recognized this treatment was simply a “band-aid” solution to cover up the internal cause for my eczema — leaky gut syndrome.
That meant that certain foods were “leaking” through my intestinal wall, leading to inflammation on the surface of my skin.
My eczema worsened throughout elementary school. Like most children with eczema, I endured occasional insults from classmates. I distinctly remember being called “a sun-dried tomato” in 4th grade.
Looking back, that comment was probably an accurate reflection of how my legs and arms looked. But I never let these comments get under my skin. During this time, my beacon of hope was that I would outgrow my eczema like many other children. Unfortunately, that time never came.
The effectiveness of cortisone treatments began to weaken, and I had already tried ridiculous and ineffective methods of coping with my itching, including wrapping my body in Italian skin gauze at night. (Trust me, I have no clue what that was even supposed to do.)
It was recommended that I transition into receiving oral steroids — a suggestion my parents vehemently refused given the possible health risks.
Instead, we began to work with a dietician who focused on healing my intestines. By going against the grain and ignoring the recommendations of the Western medicine system, the greatest successes for me were discovered.
For three years, I endured a three-day rotation diet that eliminated gluten and dairy from my diet. That meant on certain days I could only eat certain foods. For example, one day might be eggs for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and chicken for dinner.
As you can probably guess, this was extremely challenging given I was only a kid who loved nothing more than ice cream on a hot, summer day and a juicy hamburger for dinner.
The goal, however, was to only consume mundane foods — meats, fruits and vegetables, primarily — and eliminate any sugary or processed ingredients.
Incredibly, by the end of middle school, my skin had transitioned from patches of red, scaly and oozing skin all over my body to more moderate, manageable symptoms of eczema.
Although I still have to avoid gluten and dairy from my diet, the limitations my eczema once imposed on my daily activities no longer exist.
I can confidently smile in pictures and share a meal out with friends. Wearing a T-shirt in the summer isn’t something that intimidates me anymore, and saltwater no longer stings like it once did.
Yet, I understand the success I experienced in overcoming my eczema isn’t shared by some other children. I can relate to your fearfulness at the prospect of having to change in the school locker room or taking off your shirt before you swim in a pool.
But, if there was one thing I learned from these moments of discomfort, it was that people expected you to stifle any sort of a response and remain helpless when they poked fun at the appearance of your skin.
My response, instead, was to courageously explain why my skin looked the way it did. I fervently told them: “It’s eczema. It isn’t contagious; it just makes my skin red and itchy.”
Most of the time, it worked. Kids weren’t expecting me to react with such an intense defense of my physical “irregularity,” and they backed off.
A unique medical condition demands a unique response. Toxic medications weren’t the answer to healing my skin. Rather, a more homeopathic approach to attacking my eczema at the source is what truly eliminated restless nights of itching and constant inflammation.
Likewise, I defended myself from humiliation by boldly and proudly declaring that I had eczema.
These tough situations I, myself, and many of you face will undoubtedly make you stronger and more resilient. If anyone expresses curiosity or gazes at you unusually at the pool or beach, don’t be afraid to tell them that the only way their skin will turn red is if they forget their sunblock!
In times of struggle, I remind you what my mom always reminded me, citing a popular adage: “Be patient. Sometimes you have to go through the worst to get the best.”
NEA Ambassador Jack Viscuso is a teen living with eczema in Northport, New York. He is currently a senior in high school preparing for the next four years of life at college, where he hopes to study business.