Imagine waking up one morning and discovering that your hands were covered in tiny, painful blisters. You’d probably feel alarmed and more than a little freaked out. Now, imagine that alongside giant itchy red blotches on your face, chest and arms. These blisters and blotches become dry and flaky in the summer and get irritated by everything from dust mites to moisturisers. In the winter, your hands become inflamed and your fingers crack and bleed at the joints. Your skin is so angry and irritated, you think it would just be easier to bathe in a huge pool of antihistamine laced hand cream. This is my life with chronic eczema and it absolutely sucks.
I’ve suffered from atopic dermatitis (the medical name for my eczema) for most of my life. My parents have mountains of baby pictures of me where my cheeks are flushed bright red with irritation. When I was 4, I got impetigo which meant my hands practically had to be sewed into mittens so I didn’t constantly scratch myself (which made for some great ‘furious toddler Christina’ moments.) In the pictures I have of my 21st birthday celebrations, I’m wearing a tonne of foundation because I’d used a face mask which made my skin flare up. Possibly the worst moment (or best if you’re amused by gigantic bodily appendages) came when I was in my last year of university. I was trying to write my dissertation when one of the cracks in my skin became infected. This caused my right hand to swell up to three times its normal size, leak pus everywhere and was swiftly proceeded by a trip to King’s College Hospital’s A&E department.
At the moment, I am suffering from a particularly nasty case of perioral (mouth), peri-ocular (eye area) and atopic (hands & chest) eczema. My skin looks like a giant red dot-to-dot puzzle, my eyelids are two masses of dry skin and my lips are constantly chapped. My hands are usually sore from blisters and skin wounds and my entire body boils and itches. At one point, I was forced to cover my hands in an evil smelling petroleum ointment and sleep with cotton gloves on so I didn’t claw at myself during the night. I only stopped when a private dermatologist informed me that I’d been given incorrect advice on how to apply it and that using it without the aid of a special spatula would actually cause more eczema.
I have become addicted to reading skin care blogs, hoping that one of them will lead me to some magical product which will make me feel human again. While I feel like I’ve tried every wonder cure going, that’s still not stopped me spending an eye watering amount of money on various emollients, steroid creams, face masks and other skin soothing lotions and potions. At one point, I was caught by a rather concerned looking SpaceNK assistant holding up a bottle of expensive face oil and whispering to it please fix my skin. I just want to feel pretty and when you’ve got a face covered in scaly red blotches, it can be very hard to feel pretty.
Living with such visible eczema makes you incredibly self conscious. On bad days, I look in the mirror and see nothing but wrinkles and cracks, all covered in a patina of dry white flakes. In a world where women are frequently praised for their fresh, bouncy, line-free skin, I feel like I’m failing somehow. I drink lots of water, I double cleanse, I use a really-fucking-expensive serum, so why am I not glowing like a sunbeam?
I win daily battles with my skin – fighting the infections, soothing the soreness, lathering myself in steroids, powdering over the blotches – but it is relentless. I am at war with my body, and it feels like I am losing. I’ve lost count of the amount of hours I’ve spent in doctors and dermatologists offices this year crying because nothing is alleviating my symptoms. Earlier this month, I went back on antidepressants with one of the triggers being how depressed and anxious I felt about my skin. While I’m no longer waking up in the middle of the night with panic attacks, that hasn’t stopped the slow, insistent creep of blisters across my palms.
While I may moan on here and on Twitter, I know that I am lucky. I have an understanding partner who supports and comforts me when I feel at my wits end. I have an employer who provides me with private health insurance meaning that I can see a private dermatologist. I earn enough money to pay for all the various treatments my skin needs. I have been referred for patch testing – an exhausting and stinky process which will require frequent trips to the hospital and not being able to wash for seven days – which means I may finally be able to discover what triggers my eczema (alongside the cold, the heat, soap, exfoliants and myriad other factors.)
I want to say that I have learned to live with my eczema, but I don’t think I ever will. It will always be a part of my life. I just don’t want it to be my life.