Jewelry can draw attention to the parts of us that we love most. When we set a necklace on our collar, frame each side of our face with earrings, or pull a bracelet onto our wrist, we are adorning our bodies and telling ourselves that we are worthy.
However, when I walk past advertisements for watches, bracelets, and rings, a soft wave of sadness washes over me. When someone’s quintessential wedding ring picture appears on my Facebook timeline – two picture-perfect hands intertwined with each other in high-definition – a tinge of dread clouds my ability to appreciate their beauty.
I am 24 years old and I have had eczema for as long as I can remember. Eczema is a chronic inflammatory condition, characterized by dry skin, with patches that are red and itchy. There are many types of eczema, with different causes, and varying severities. My skin barrier is mildly compromised and sensitive all over my body, but the eczema manifests most severely on my hands, where the skin is almost perpetually broken and inflamed, to varying degrees. Some nights, I cannot fall asleep because of how itchy and uncomfortable my hands are. On the worst nights, the itchiness wakes me up, and I end up scratching myself to sleep, waking up to small blood stains on the sheets.
The physical pain and sleeplessness are elements of eczema that I have learned to withstand. What agonizes me more is dealing with how this condition impacts my life.
I remember moments in school, trying to listen to a teacher’s lesson, but not being able to because all my willpower was directed to restraining myself from scratching an intense itch in public. Because the skin on my hands is dry and has compromised integrity, sudden or repetitive stretches can tear it, splitting the natural crevices of my hands and fingers. For example, I will almost certainly hurt myself by lifting a heavy grocery bag. Common materials can also irritate or dry the skin. When my body contacts water, what little natural oils I have are washed away, leaving the area completely dry within a matter of seconds. It doesn’t take much – even the condensation from a cold drink will do it.
Equally painful are the looks that I have gotten from strangers, acquaintances, and friends. One classic response is burned into my memory – when I am speaking to someone and raise my hands to gesture, their eyes will suddenly dart downwards from fixating on my eyes, to my hands. Maybe they do not notice that I have noticed. I pretend that I am not hurt by the fact that they have chosen to break eye contact and steal glances at my hands instead. I force myself to speak without pausing, even as they continue to stare, in order to avoid any awkwardness. But what I really want to say: I’m here. My eyes are here. I am trying to talk to you. I know my skin is abnormal but your lack of subtlety and effort to make eye contact aren’t helping.
I can deal with the eczema. But it is the threat to the things that define me, that has been most painful: wanting to be independent, to live in the moment, and to be appreciated for who I am.
Physical healing comes slowly. “Very difficult to treat,” my family physician would say every year, matter-of-factly, as he turned my dry hands in his. “Oof,” the generalist at a university’s clinic sighed, pushing his palms into his knees, furrowing his brow at the cracks and wounds on my hands. “Ahh,” the triage nurse at a walk-in clinic said, as she held my hands, frowning at the tens of weeping, needle-like wounds spotting my fingers and palms.
Over the years, I’ve been prescribed various topical corticosteroids, other topical medications and oral antihistamines. I’ve seen generalists, dermatologists, and family physicians with a plus one in dermatology. I’ve consulted a naturopath. I’ve tried changing my lifestyle, my environment, my diet, and even my thought patterns. They were all a part of my ten-year journey to try and get the itch, the cracks, the bleeds under control.
Then one day, I wondered to myself: how many other young adults are, like me, trying to hide their struggles with a chronic illness? Do they also struggle to deal with it at work or at school? Have they struggled to find a good physician? Have they found a treatment that works for them? I wondered if they felt stigmatized because most young people are assumed to be healthy. How can we expect to find others who can empathize with us?
And then: What if I could be the one to find them, and talk to them?
So when I started my Master’s at McGill University, I also started Thrive Club – a group discussion initiative for young adults in the community living with a chronic physical or mental condition. The goal was simple: to provide social support for one another in hopes that we could not only survive day-to-day with these illnesses, but thrive. A few months of recruitment and planning later, we started holding get-togethers of anywhere from three to fourteen people. We were complete strangers. But we talked about experiences and emotions that frankly, I had never spoken to anyone else about – not my friends, family, nor my physicians. Despite founding this initiative, I probably learned more from them than they did from me.
I learned that these people are keeping track of their own health to advocate for themselves at the doctors’ office, at work, and at school. That some are taking the time they need off school and not being apologetic about it. That they are researching and trying therapy after therapy. That they are learning how to be gentle with themselves. That they are teaching friends and family to ask, “How can I best help you?” And even if things don’t work out the first, second, tenth, or thirtieth time, they keep trying.
I’m unsure if meeting more women than men through Thrive Club is due to the vulnerable nature of our discussion groups, or due to chronic illness prevalence being higher in women (firm statistics are difficult to come by), but seeing firsthand their ability to hold space for others, and to be strong when the world wants them to be otherwise, I have become convinced that this quiet, potent energy that they hold can move mountains. It is not that they do not feel the pain of their hardships – in fact, to ignore that part of their lives would be doing a huge disservice to their experience. But they’ve managed to so elegantly embrace the sour parts of life that others only know how to recoil from. Young people with chronic illnesses are the most resilient and kind people I know.
I will probably be on my own healing journey for the rest of my life. I have become better at accepting the fact that people stare because sometimes, they just can’t help it. It does not change the fact that it hurts in the moment, but at least I can protect my self-esteem in the long run. I am more comfortable speaking to my family and friends about it. Furthermore, my eczema does not usually stop me from doing what I want to do – I simply take into consideration how much pain I am willing to endure in order to accomplish it. I would even like to think that this mindset is an act of faith in my body – that even if I injure it now, it will continue, as it has for over a decade, to try and heal again the next day.
Today, I am still reluctant to draw attention to my hands with accessories. They reflect nothing of the version of femininity normalized by mainstream media: wrinkle-less, nails painted, cuticles clipped. Smooth, thin fingers adorned with rings. Sometimes I wonder if I’m guilty for judging myself too; by being reluctant to accessorize, am I telling myself that this part of my body is so unattractive, that it doesn’t deserve to be adorned? At the same time, if people preach that beauty comes from within; should I not be proud of my hands and fingers for being able to hold a pencil with precision and purpose to create beautiful drawings? To skip across the black and white keys of a piano to make music? To hold the hands of others? And shouldn’t others “see past” my skin and appreciate this as well?
Perhaps the answer is a little more complicated. Perhaps, rather than wanting to hide, I am longing to be seen for everything that I am – I don’t want others to steal glances, nor to uncomfortably pretend that it doesn’t exist – I want people to see it, unflinchingly, and accept it as part of who I am. I want to be able to wear a ring and a bracelet, to paint my nails – to show, and to be seen for, everything that I am, eczema and all.
Story by Nancy Wu, Toronto, Canada