SKIN DEEP

Elaine McCal­lig tells Joy Or­pen that no one should al­low a skin prob­lem like eczema to de­fine who they are. In­stead, she rec­om­mends that they take full con­trol of their health and go out there to ful­fil their ‘mag­nif­i­cent’ po­ten­tial

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - HEALTH CASE STUDY -

Hav­ing a chronic skin con­di­tion can cause all kinds of emo­tions, rang­ing from acute em­bar­rass­ment to a lack of self-es­teem. But with the right frame of mind and good med­i­cal sup­ports, any­one can lead a com­pletely ful­fill­ing life, even though they have skin is­sues.

Some­one who knows this only too well is 21-year-old Elaine McCal­lig from Dun­gloe in Co Done­gal. She has been liv­ing with eczema since she was a baby. She got her first rash when she was just six weeks old. “I was taken to a der­ma­tol­o­gist who rec­om­mended I be taken off dairy prod­ucts,” says Elaine. “So I was given a non-dairy al­ter­na­tive for­mula in­stead; emol­lient (mois­tur­is­ing) baths were also rec­om­mended.”

Through­out her early child­hood, Elaine de­vel­oped rashes on dif­fer­ent parts of her body. Some­times they were quite se­vere. She re­mem­bers one par­tic­u­larly dra­matic episode when she was about seven years old. “My en­tire face was cov­ered in eczema,” she re­calls. “It was swollen, re­ally sore and itchy. Mum used to put socks on my hands to stop me scratch­ing. I just couldn’t un­der­stand what was go­ing on, or why this was hap­pen­ing to me.”

For­tu­nately, Elaine was al­ways treated with dig­nity by her peers. So much so, that she never felt “dif­fer­ent” or bul­lied be­cause of her con­di­tion.

By the age of eight or nine, it ap­peared she had out­grown the prob­lems al­to­gether. She con­tin­ued to sail through her teenage years with near-per­fect skin. “Strangely, it didn’t re­turn when I was a teenager,” Elaine says. “I didn’t get acne or any­thing like that.”

But when she was 19, her eczema reap­peared. At the time, she was do­ing a de­gree in English, me­dia and cul­tural stud­ies at the In­sti­tute of Art, De­sign and Tech­nol­ogy (IADT) in Dun Laoghaire. She had moved from Done­gal to Dublin and was well sup­ported in the cap­i­tal city by her ex­tended fam­ily and friends.

How­ever, in her sec­ond year at col­lege, she moved into a slightly “damp” shared house, and that’s when the prob­lems re­oc­curred. “A rash ap­peared on my wrists; then it spread all over my hands, to my neck, my arms and even eye­lids. It looked like I’d been cry­ing my heart out,” she re­calls.

Elaine says the eczema was par­tic­u­larly bad on her neck and re­sulted in un­sightly, thick­ened skin. This made it dif­fi­cult for her to move her head; sud­den move­ments could re­sult in tears to the skin. She tried to cover up the eczema by us­ing a lot of makeup and wear­ing scarves. In hind­sight, she thinks this wasn’t a good idea. “The make-up prob­a­bly only high­lighted the prob­lems,” she ex­plains, “while the scarves caused me to sweat, mak­ing the con­di­tion even worse.”

The col­lege doc­tor pre­scribed steroid cream and an­tibi­otics, but all to no avail, so she re­turned to her der­ma­tol­o­gist in Done­gal and was pre­scribed cy­closporine, an oral drug, which sup­presses the im­mune sys­tem. It is only given in se­vere cases, and must be closely mon­i­tored by health pro­fes­sion­als. “It worked re­ally well for the three months I was on it,” says Elaine. “But I had to get my bloods done ev­ery two weeks, as the med­i­ca­tion can be very heavy on your liver. So I couldn’t drink. When we went out, I’d have non-al­co­holic beer, just to fit in. To be hon­est, I didn’t miss al­co­hol at all.”

Dur­ing those few months, Elaine ex­pe­ri­enced what it feels like to have a good night’s sleep. “When my skin con­di­tion is ac­tive, I can be up all night scratch­ing. And when that hap­pens, I’m grumpy dur­ing the day, I can’t con­cen­trate and my col­lege work suf­fers. So it even af­fects the aca­demic side of things,” she says.

Elaine says she missed a good deal of col­lege in her sec­ond and third years, and that was adding to her stress lev­els, which only made her skin con­di­tion worse. Dis­play­ing great strength of char­ac­ter, she de­cided to face her prob­lems full-on. She knew there was no point in be­ing at col­lege if she was go­ing to fail, so she would have to take steps to en­sure that didn’t hap­pen, and if that meant tack­ling a sig­nif­i­cant back­log of stud­ies, no mat­ter how tired, un­com­fort­able, or dispir­ited she felt, then so be it. “I threw my­self into the work,” she says. “And now I feel I’m on top of it.”

Over the years, Elaine has tried all sorts of creams, lo­tions and po­tions, and is now clear about which ones work best for her. She says, hav­ing cut out var­i­ous foods to no real ef­fect, and hav­ing had neg­a­tive re­sults from var­i­ous al­lergy tests, she now be­lieves stress and anx­i­ety play a ma­jor role in her skin con­di­tion.

She finds work­ing out at the gym is re­ally help­ful in mak­ing her feel good. She has also found sup­port and good in­for­ma­tion on the Ir­ish Skin Foun­da­tion’s web­site. They, in con­junc­tion with der­ma­to­log­i­cal skin­care brand, La Roche-Posay, have launched a cam­paign, which in­cludes a web­site, and a book­let, ti­tled,

‘Do not al­low your skin to de­fine you. I used to think of my­self as some kind of flaky, red mon­ster’

What You Need To Know About Eczema.

The cam­paign in­tends to raise aware­ness about eczema, which af­fects one-in-five chil­dren and one-in-12 adults in Ire­land.

When asked what she would say to a 15-year-old boy or girl bat­tling with a chronic con­di­tion like hers, Elaine says, “Do not al­low your skin to de­fine you. I used to think of my­self as some kind of flaky, red mon­ster. In­stead of stand­ing in front of the mir­ror and fo­cussing on all the things you dis­like, pick some­thing you do like, and fo­cus

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