Only Skin Deep
Posted by Mark
I’ve mentioned a few times that I dread the dermatologist, and that I think my negative attitude toward the profession deserves a blog post of its own. Don’t worry, there will be no dermatological horror pictures in this post. That photo up above is skin cells, and it’s as close as we’re getting.
First, you need to understand that I am descended from two families with bad skin. My mother had really problematic acne when she was young, and my dad’s family is full of recurring rashes and psoriasis and allergic reactions. So no one should have expected that they might get together and have children with beautiful skin. It just wasn’t in the cards.
When Austin and I were first talking about adoption, we both joked (is it still a joke if you’re actually completely serious?) that since we wouldn’t be genetically related to our children, there was actually a chance we could end up with some good-looking kids who would grow up to be traditionally attractive adults! And it does seem to have worked out that way. Our kids are pretty good-looking, and they might end up with that social advantage.
My first experience with bad skin came in the sixth grade. Every couple of weeks, our class would receive a visit from a science enrichment teacher. She’d go around the elementary schools in the district doing little extra science projects with classes. And one week, we made molds of our teeth. But instead of using whatever it is that dentists use to take impressions, we used Play-Doh. Actually, it wasn’t even Play-Doh, it was a generic version. So we had these little plastic trays, and we put Play-Doh in them, and then bit down on the Play-Doh.
It turns out that I am allergic to whatever red dye is used in generic Play-Doh. So once the molds were on the shelf to dry, and we’d moved on to math, I started to itch. A lot. And pretty soon I was in the nurse’s office, covered in hives. Sixth graders, I would like to take this opportunity to point out, are really sympathetic when that effeminate boy with no friends is covered head to toe in a rash.
Recurrences of hives were pretty rare, since 12-year-olds don’t spend a lot of time with red Play-Doh in their mouths. But it wouldn’t be long before my skin would find new ways to torture me.
In junior high, I started to get acne, just like everyone else. Mine was maybe a little worse, but we were all teenagers and we all had acne. What we didn’t all have was the weird thing that started happening with my hands.
In the late fall of seventh grade, one day my hands started to itch. For a couple of days, they were just itchy. Then, the itch turned into a rash. The rash turned … pretty gross, and pretty soon my hands were covered in a rash of little fluid-filled bumps. They itched, and they hurt. Holding a pen or turning the pages of a book was really uncomfortable.
Of course, my parents brought me to the doctor. They prescribed creams, and put me on steroids. My parents wanted to know what was making my hands do this. Was I allergic to something? The answer from my pediatrician and the dermatologist was clear — this was caused by stress and anxiety.
I believed the doctors. And I believed that it was, then, entirely my own fault. My parents wanted to know what, at thirteen, could be causing me stress or anxiety. Here I was, a kid who didn’t have any friends at school, who was tormented on the school, who was getting spit on during the bus ride home, and who often arrived home from school only to burst into the tears I had been holding back so my peers wouldn’t see me cry. I couldn’t tell my mom, “Well, everyone hates me because I’m gay,” so I didn’t say anything. I knew that I was alone in this.
Soon, the gross rash would start to go away. The little fluid lumps dried out and popped, and then all of the skin on my hands would dry up, get hard, and fall off. My hands were cracked and bleeding, the skin was tender and raw. I had thought that the rash was bad, but the rash going away was even worse. And I was pretty convinced it was all because I was gay. If I could just stop being gay, people would like me, and I wouldn’t be stressed, and this wouldn’t have happened.
It took about a month, and then my hands were fine again. The skin was maybe a little bit delicate, but I was kind of a delicate kid. It didn’t hurt anymore, at least.
Until the spring, when it happened again. Exactly as before. First a rash, then the bubbles, then the cracked and bleeding hands. About a month, and then it was like it had never happened.
It began to repeat like clockwork. Once in the fall, once in the spring. Every year. I called it “my hand thing,” because none of the dermatologists I saw seemed to have any name for what was happening to my hands. But over the course of the next few years, and a few different dermatologists, the answer was always the same. Whatever was wrong with my hands, it was caused by stress and anxiety.
And how could I say that they were wrong? I was literally a puddle of stress and anxiety. I did begin saying to dermatologists that it seemed strange to me that I was stressed and anxious all the time, but my hands only reacted to stress and anxiety at the end of fall and the beginning of spring. More than one dermatologist basically told me I was imagining a connection between the seasons changing and my hands exploding. The only connection, they assured me, was stress and anxiety.
In some ways, it was reassuring, because as I went through high school, things started to get a little bit better. I started to have a small circle of friends. I came out of the closet, and my deep secret shame didn’t feel as secret or shameful anymore. But my hands were the same.
So for twenty years I put up with this awful hand thing. Every fall. Every spring. I could pinpoint exactly when it was going to happen. The first really cold week in the fall. Bam. The first unseasonably warm week in the spring. Bam. I stopped bothering with dermatologists, because the steroids and the creams didn’t seem to do anything.
Then I happened to have my annual physical, at the age of 33, at the same time as my hands were doing their thing. My physician asked about it, and I told him the basic outline, like I’ve told countless dermatologists and physicians over the years.
“Well that’s ridiculous,” he said. “These fluid-filled bubbles on your hands are a histamine reaction. Do me a favor. In the fall, when it usually happens, try taking claritin for a few weeks. See if that has any impact.”
And it turns out that if I take a claritin every morning when it first gets cold in the fall, my hands are fine. Twenty years. Twice a year, every year. Painful, bleeding hands for a month. Fixed by a claritin.
So you’ll forgive me if I’m a little distrustful of dermatologists. But I did call this morning and make an appointment with one. Hopefully they’re better at treating acne in 34-year-olds than they are at treating acne and painful skin conditions in teenagers.