When you google “eczema,” you’re likely to see:

  • red, itchy, and often cracked skin
  • fluid oozing from the skin
  • a yellow crust on the skin surface or small yellowish-white spots appearing in the eczema
  • the skin becoming swollen and sore

This is all the visual elements of the condition perfectly summarized. This is how I have always seen my own condition, which I have had since I was 18 months old.

Eczema is said to be related to gut health, yet food has never seemed an obvious trigger for me.

Countless skin tests, blood tests, steroid creams, antibiotics, dermatologist specialist appointments, light treatment, even methotrexate medication have happened over the years I have lived with eczema.

Now at 31, I have recently started working through a self-journey and being more accepting of myself and my body. From this, I have definitely been able to identify its troubles and difficulties more than ever before, learning how my mental health, hormones, and alcohol affect my skin negatively.

This leads me to my most recent flare-up.

This flare actually began over 2 years ago, when my dermatology specialist recommended that I change my emollient to a different paraffin-based cream, which at the beginning seemed to really help me.

The worst thing about this most recent flare-up was that I didn’t realize how bad it was until I started to feel better, which was May of this year. Only when I started to feel each part of me healing could I appreciate what my body had endured.

It happened so very slowly over time that — unknown to me — my body was reacting, and changes were happening.

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Image provided by author Jemma Deen

There was swelling in my joints: my knees, my hips, my neck, my shoulders, my lower back. My skin became increasingly more sensitive, sore, and itchy. I subconsciously began forever wearing leggings and long sleeves just to be able to get up, especially to leave the house.

At the beginning of this year, it just seemed to escalate. I dreaded sleeping — it caused so much anxiety because I feared how I would feel when I woke.

Not to mention how getting to sleep was such a chore. Not being able to move around, the night sweats, the discomfort of the blanket on my skin. The feeling my body touching another part of my body was intolerable. The mess of my sheets each morning covered in blood and so much dead skin. I felt disgusting.

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Image provided by author Jemma Deen

I felt feverish all day long despite having a normal temperature. I dreaded getting dressed. I sobbed when I bathed and screamed in agony when I showered. I was afraid to eat and drink because the pain of moving my clothes and touching the toilet seat were too much for me to bear. Driving became a task because my whole body, my neck, was so sore, so stiff.

Eventually, it got to the point where I would wake up and get the kids ready and to school before spending the next 6 hours trying not to move too much, willing myself to feel better, and trying to build the strength physically and mentally to be able to collect them again. I felt utterly useless.

On a “good” day, I would manage to get things done and then end up suffering for the next few days. My feet and toes, my hands and fingers started to swell. My skin, from my face to the soles of my feet, was swollen, red, sore, full of puss filled spots and weeping skin. I was absolutely exhausted every day — physically and mentally.

Not only did I look awful, I felt so much worse.

I could not physically touch my husband or hug my children without feeling agony. I started to withdraw more and more into myself. I blamed my mental health for all the symptoms, despite so many amazing things changing and surrounding me I was frustrated that my hope and positive outlook was not helping.

Despite telling myself each day it would be better tomorrow, my anxiety spiraled because my body’s abilities were so limited.

I had so much self-doubt due to my physical and mental struggles, the smallest of tasks became daunting and overwhelming. I was so stressed having to lean on people around me so much, I lacked motivation, and I soon became so very deeply depressed.

I did not connect the dots between the physical and mental symptoms and just blamed myself constantly for not trying hard enough.

Just a few years previously, my dad gifted me a cream to try, a well-known brand that I had been recommended many times, as a savior for my skin.

Changing my creams is a scary experience, but I took a gamble. Starting in a small patch on my leg for a few weeks, I saw no immediate hives or general reaction, so I continued to use it. However, my skin became unbearable within a few short weeks and started to smell. I can only describe it as dying skin. So I stopped, and my skin healed.

This time, as soon as I noticed this same smell coming from my skin, I made the decision to go to the pharmacy and purchased the cream I used to use instead of the new cream. The relief I felt to feel it on my skin again. The relief I felt when each day I felt more like myself. It’s a few months later, and I am still healing mentally and physically from the damage done.

Watching and feeling my body heal from deep within has been invigorating and given me a whole new love and appreciation for it, but it doesn’t mean I am completely healed and eczema free. I am still covered in the broken, sore, rashy skin. It just feels more manageable in this state.

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Artwork by author Jemma Deen

Just a few weeks ago, I went for a walk, and I was excited to feel the wind and sun on my skin, something I realized I had feared and avoided for such a long time because the pain of the elements was unbearable.

I have enjoyed very much these past months reconnecting physically with my family again. I have dipped my feet in the sea, enjoyed so much sun and laughter, made such beautiful memories.

I even treated myself to a haircut and got my nose pierced, got some new clothes, got dressed and actually felt comfortable — dare I say, pretty — and even wore a bit of mascara.

My nails have grown stronger, my hair is growing thicker, I enjoy so much moving my body once again! My body is amazing, and it’s not something I plan to take for granted in the future!

Understanding your options with eczema

If a treatment isn’t working for you, speak with your doctor about making changes. A variety of options exist, including topical creams, oral medications, light therapies, and lifestyle changes to increase skin moisture and avoid allergens or irritants. It may take some trial and error to find the right combination for you.

You’re not alone if your eczema has an effect on your mental health. Working with a mental health professional like a therapist or psychologist can help. There are also options you can access online, like BetterHelp or Talkspace.

You may also find it helpful to find others who can understand your experiences through support groups. The National Eczema Association and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America have resources available.

Jemma Deen lives in South Wales, United Kingdom. She’s a wife and a mother of two humans and a fur baby. She is on a mini-mission to normalize every body through her love of art — because all bodies are beautiful just as they are, and that deserves to be celebrated. Follow her on Instagram at @standtall.bemoreyou.