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Navigating through school with a severe skin condition

By Jenzelle Salazar, December 12 2021—

Navigating through school with a medical condition poses any sort of difficulty and, in my case, that condition was eczema. For those who are unaware, eczema or atopic dermatitis (AD) is a chronic inflammatory condition that causes red, itchy and rash-like skin. I was diagnosed with a very severe and aggressive form of eczema since I was young and did not know that I would have dealt with it throughout the entirety of my academic career.

However, despite it having such a drastic effect on my physical and mental health, I felt as if my experiences were invisible in the eyes of my instructors and peers. For years, I experienced the burden of feeling unacknowledged, as I felt that my medical condition was not seen as a valid concern in my academic community. 

Earlier this year, I began the process of undergoing a very aggressive form of treatment for my eczema, as I am required to take medicine that is used to treat severe medical conditions such as cancer, arthritis and psoriasis.

Since beginning my treatment, the insecurities that I had regarding my health and physical appearance began to worsen and I felt more isolated in my experience of dealing with eczema than I have ever been. Although I am fully aware of the severity of my condition, I often relapse into the thought that eczema is not as equal of a concern compared to other illnesses, physical injuries or mental health-related issues. Truthfully, I found myself excessively wanting to hide what I was going through due to shame and fear of being judged by others.

On the worst of days, I would wake up in discomfort and irritation as my skin would flare up and my sense of focus would be completely inhibited in class due to my skin constantly itching and feeling as if it were on fire. Although skin conditions like mine are common, affecting almost 17 per cent of the population in Canada, academic institutions are often ill-equipped to provide students with adequate help and resources.

They simply lack research on skin conditions that would garner any sort of empathy or understanding for our experiences. Sadly, this is why these conditions are not treated as a priority when it comes to addressing health concerns. In college, the program that I was enrolled in at the time had a heavy course load and was strict in terms of adhering to deadlines. As a result, unless we had a medical condition that made it impossible to complete the course, it was likely that we would not be granted any accommodations on projects and assignments.

I felt conflicted at the time because my condition did not fit this criteria and felt compelled to hide my eczema from my instructors as I felt that my flare ups did not deserve any accommodation in their eyes.

Personally, I also wish that I had seen more compassion and acknowledgment from the community and I believe that it would have greatly benefited me as a student if my instructors had encouraged us to share our experiences — despite their severity. I wish I had a safe space to find solace on the days when living felt unbearable.

At one point in school, I had several peers approach me to ask if I had injured myself — as they believed that the rashes on my face were bruises. After correcting them, however, they were quick to shut me down and denied what I had to say — they did not believe that eczema could ever get that severe and take on the appearance of bruising.

Having to constantly explain what my condition was to people soon became a tiring ritual and eventually felt invasive. I came to realize that if I didn’t serve as an educator for people with eczema, then I would be letting whatever form of authority I had over my experience go to waste.

When I began to undergo my treatment earlier this year, I swore to myself that I would break my silence and open up the possibilities of having the necessary conversations needed to acknowledge that skin conditions do exist and that they deserve the same amount of respect that any other condition would. 

My experiences reinforce that most people simply aren’t able to understand how debilitating a skin condition can be. I am not the only one to fall victim to this — other conditions such as psoriasis, rosacea and cystic acne garner the same kind of nonchalant and indifferent response that I hear all the time. I am told that my insecurities are just a product of vanity and told to love myself despite the physical appearance of my skin. 

After dealing with it for so long, I’ve come to accept that eczema will always be a part of me, however, it does not define me and I refuse to let it get in the way of living a normal life. It is so important to recognize the validity of your experience and that your condition deserves the same amount of respect and recognition that any other condition would.

Dealing with eczema for the rest of my life will continue to be challenging but I always look forward to the day where I can find freedom in just being myself. Until then, if I can play any role in creating a mutual understanding in my community and serve as a catalyst for change, then that equates to more than I could ever hope for.

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