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The Skin You're In: Life With Patches

April 9, 2019

 Illustrations by Bridget Bright

 

I stand in my bathroom hidden inside the fog-like steam. Droplets of water drip down my back and my thighs. My hair clings to my neck and my shoulders.

 

I stare at the hazy reflection where the only detail I can make out is the shape of my body. It is fair in color, with dusty rose highlights where my shoulders and chest remained warm from the hot water.

 

My broad shoulders extend past the length of my hips. My arms and legs are long and pointed. As I have grown, my body has retained these traits. The dimensions are familiar, that is me.

 

The pit of my stomach turns as I stand with my hair dripping onto the bath mat. What I will see in the reflection is unknown to me. I have a couple of surgical scars under my breasts that I angle my head in a way so that I avoid seeing them. The mist fades off of the mirror from top to bottom.

 

I check my face to see if my acne calmed in the shower. It didn’t.

I check my breasts to see if my scars disappeared. They didn’t.

I check my neck to see if my psoriasis healed. It didn’t.

I check my elbow to see if my eczema patches cleared. They didn’t. 

 

These are just nuisances on my body.  I have been treating my acne, eczema, and psoriasis for about eight years or so. They never fully go away. I have tried countless medications for my eczema and psoriasis but it always resurfaces to sometimes painfully itchy patches that I am embarrassed to have seen by others. I say that I am an open book, but these are daily struggles I have that only my mother and my doctor have fully heard about. This has just become a part of my life that I have learned to accept.

 

What I can’t accept is the part of my skin that takes up 25% of my skin’s surface.

 

It is my Vitiligo.

 

Vitiligo is a skin condition where a person’s skin loses partial pigment on their skin and hair. This makes it more visible on people with dark completions and hair, but it affects people of all races and ethnicities.

 

It was spring when I first discovered my vitiligo. I was about fourteen. I noticed that the entire forearm of my left arm was a stark white color in comparison to the pinky-beige skin that swirled around it.

 

I am in an extremely privileged position when it comes to having vitiligo. I am white and embarrassingly pale, so my patches are easily missed in the winter months when I haven’t been exposed to the sun.

 

People of darker complexions don’t have that luxury. I have read too many accounts of women in South Asia particularly, but unfortunately this likely happens across many different communities throughout the world, where women with vitiligo are abused and discriminated against for these uncontrollable changes in their pigmentation.

 

When I went to a local dermatologist. She inspected my arm for a while and then she brought out what looks like a handheld blacklight.

 

“What could this be for?” I thought.

 

She told me that there were two potential diagnoses.

 

“There is one that would be okay, and I will only explain the second possibility if your skin glows,” she said.

 

I chuckled and thought to myself, “I think I would know if I had a superpower of glowing in the dark.”

 

The dermatologist then flicked the lights off and the black light flickered on. She ran it over her arm and hand to show me that it wouldn’t hurt and to show me how her healthy skin would look under the light.

 

“I’m going to put it over your arm now, ready?” she said. I nodded.

 

She moved the light to hover over my arm and it became bright and reflective. My arm was glowing.

 

She explained that this was vitiligo, asking if I had noticed a lack of pigment on other parts of my skin and on my hair. At the time, I was only aware of the singular, large white patch on my forearm. She explained that it will likely grow, that there is no known cause and therefore there is no known cure. She said “be sure to use extra sunscreen this summer” and then sent me out the door with a brochure titled “Vitiligo."

 

The initial diagnosis didn’t phase me. It was just another thing added to my list of skin ailments.

 

Now, looking back through my “vitiligo journey,” it hasn’t been easy.

 

Vitiligo typically starts in one small area and then spreads to other parts of a person’s body. Mine started on my left forearm, but it has now stretched all the way through my left arm, shoulders, chest, torso, waist, and other random patches (it typically spreads to where I have had patches of eczema).  

 

For a while, I hid it behind bracelets and long sleeves. Throughout high school, I would wear high waisted swim shorts instead of bikini bottoms because I was afraid people would be disgusted or confused by the way my skin broke out into patches of white.

 

I never posted a picture on social media where my vitiligo is identifiable before this past summer, five years after my diagnosis.

 

With the first two people I dated, I refused to take off my shirt and my pants when I was around them. They obviously both knew about it because it was visible on my arms and shoulders, but in my head, it made me less attractive, especially on my chest, hips and butt.

 

To this day I am still not fully comfortable with it, as it spreads on my body every single day.

 

When I think about my vitiligo or see it while I’m showering, it consumes my thoughts.

 

So, I get out of the shower and stand in front of the mirror. Water dripping off of my body. I wait for the haze to melt off of the mirror and I look at the white patches. I have mental notes of where I saw the lines last. I think I have my body memorized.

I think I know where the white lines end. But I never really do. They are always growing, spreading across my body.



 

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