‘At the end of the day, we can endure more than we think we can’–Frida Kahlo
‘Be easy, take your time. You are coming home to yourself’—Nayyirah Waheed
1.When did you start using topical steroids? And why?
I think it started when I was about 6. I was definitely in elementary school at the time. I developed regular eczema when I started a new school, and my parents took me to the dermatologist. That’s when they started to give me ‘rash medicine’ as my family always called it. I never went to bed without putting “medicine” on my skin.
2. What was the name of the topical steroid?
I don’t remember the first potency they gave me, but I do remember they kept prescribing more potent ones as my body became ‘immune’ to the less potent ones. That’s what the doctors always said was happening…*eye roll*. I remember having tubes of all types of steroids all over the house, especially the tiny tester ones. Doctors would always give me handfuls of those.
3. Were you ever prescribed more potent steroids?
Yes, I used every topical steroid under the sun until they prescribed Clobetasol when I was 14. During the summer before high school, my family moved to a new town, and I remember my skin getting better. Between high school and college, eczema was never an issue. I may have put dabs of steroids on my skin every now and then, but it definitely burned out as doctors said it would. However, during the summers between college, I started working at a summer camp in my old hometown. Within 3 weeks, my eczema came back. But then, when I would fly back to Massachusetts where I went to school, the eczema would go away. By my fourth summer at the summer camp, my eczema returned ferociously. I went to the dermatologist where they immediately gave me Clobetasol and Protopic. They said use the Protopic regularly, and the Clobetasol occasionally. Well, the Protopic didn’t work…so I used Clobetasol…and boy did that work wonders. I am pretty positive that’s when my addiction started. After that summer, I moved to NYC. It was September 2011. My skin was still a major struggle, but I didn’t let it stop me. I had my tube of Clobetasol just in case. For the record, I used it as prescribed….”twice a day (morning and night) for 2 weeks”. Usually I would only need it for a week, then my skin would clear up! But, as the story goes, when that week or 2 weeks of using the cream ended, my “eczema” would come back with a vengeance within 2 to 4 weeks. I thought I was allergic to the city, but I loved it too much to leave. From 2011 to the beginning of 2015, that was my struggle. My right palm suffered the most, but I would also get small patches on my arms, my torso, and legs. I knew I shouldn’t be using steroids long term, so I tried to avoid it. I would only use it when my skin became unbearable. The relief was always worth it even if it only lasted a month, 2 weeks, or less.
4. How did you find out about RSS?
Back in January 2015, I used topical steroids for the last time, and my “eczema” came back within a week and started to spread to places I had never seen it before… and it was spreading fast—the backs of my hands, big patches on my legs and arms, my left palm. That was a huge wake up call. I decided to take control of my “eczema”, and went on the autoimmune protocol diet for 6 weeks. I was promised that I would see great healing after a month, but my skin only got worse and worse. As I was doing research on ways to heal eczema naturally, I kept coming across ITSAN. When I initially learned about it, I was in denial. I was convinced that if I kept up with my diet, I would heal. Well that didn’t work. I stayed on a pretty strict diet for 5 months, and my skin only got worse.
5. What made you feel you had RSS?
As I continued my research, ITSAN kept popping up on Google. Once I actually looked at the pictures closely, I knew instantly that my skin looked EXACTLY the same. I also remember looking at Briana’s blog, and her pictures looked like my skin! It was surreal. I thought I was looking at my own hands, my own legs, my own arms. Then I distinctly remember watching the animated videos that ITSAN made…that story was my story….I stopped breathing and burst into tears. I felt a huge weight lift off of my shoulders. I remember watching Dr. Rapaport’s interview immediately after and felt a huge sense of relief. I WAS GOING TO BE ECZEMA FREE. The journey would be hard, but I WOULD HEAL.
6. Were you diagnosed by a doctor? Did you have a supportive doctor?
Nope and nope. I diagnosed myself.
7. What were your first symptoms?
Spreading red rashes that began to cover my hands…and I mean my whole hands. Also, within 3-4 weeks, I had the infamous red sleeves and pant legs.
8. Is your family supportive? Friends?
I don’t live near my parents, so they didn’t have any control. They were emotionally supportive from afar, but I do think they would have questioned my choice if they actually witnessed what I was going through. Now that I have made a ton of progress, they are very supportive of my decision. My friends were supportive, but I kept very quiet about it for the first 4 months. I didn’t start owning the condition until month 5 or 6. Even while I was suffering during the worst of it, I was so disconnected from my body, that I wasn’t feeling anything. I covered everything up and numbed myself as I continued with my life9. Have you ever been to a hospital for this?
9. Have you ever been to a hospital for this? Why?
Oh yes. Back in May of this year, 2016, I was 15 months or so in. I was still suffering terribly from my anniversary flare. It had spread full body, which was a lot worse than my initial flare. At the very end of April, I suddenly felt a strong pain on my right side…right under my armpit. Within, 2 hours I got a fever of probably 102. I went home, tried to sleep it off for the next two days, but my fever wasn’t breaking and the pain kept spreading. On May 1st, I went to urgent care. They took my vitals and said I had to be rushed to the hospital. I was going into septic shock. They took a ton of blood, hooked me up to antibiotics and fluids. I don’t remember the chronology, but essentially within a day or two, they found strep and staph in my blood. My lungs were filling up with fluid, and my right breast was infected with mastitis. They also gave me a hydrocortisone IV, which I was very hesitant at first…but at that point, I just wanted them to save my life. My skin cleared up for a week! Woohoo! It looked strong and beautiful. Looking back, I’m grateful that I agreed to it because the nurses were taking my blood multiple times a day. That would have been even more of a nightmare if my skin was still flaming red. However, after the first week of clear skin, the redness and rashes started to creep up on me and grow, which proves that it was the steroids that caused all of my problems. Anyways, I was in the hospital for a total of 17 days. I had reoccurring fevers for most of the two weeks because my body was still trying to fight the infection. I’ve made a full recovery though!!
10. What has been the hardest part of this condition?
The rebound flare definitely. By January of 2016, I thought in my deepest heart that my skin was only going to get better. By February, my anniversary flare started to spread. By April, I was in an almost full body flare. I didn’t struggle with that at all during my initial one. The days when you wake up and know it’s only getting worse are the hardest. You never know when you’ve reached the abyss before you turn a corner and start to heal. You just have to breathe, suck it up, and do whatever you can to stay comfortable.
11. How long have you been in withdrawal?
I’ve been at it for almost 21 months. Unfortunately, now I am struggling with the fact that since I got the hydrocortisone IV in the hospital, I’m technically not 21 months into my withdrawal. I’m almost 6 months steroid free. But, I’ve been suffering for 21. I started my initial withdrawal unknowingly in mid January of 2015, and I’m doing really well right now.
12. What do you use as comfort measures during this?
Anything to make me laugh. Last year, I re-watched all 10 seasons of Friends. The Office is also another comfort show. I also realized how important my close friends are to me, and I recognized that they are the ones that make me feel human. That was also a major psychological struggle during this journey. Since you’re physical self is such a mess, you feel inhuman. Your body doesn’t feel like yours. For the past 2 years, my limbs have felt like these other disgusting creatures that I have to nurture. They’re not mine….they’re not mine…
13. Are you employed? Has this affected your job status?
No, fortunately this hasn’t affected my job status, except when I was in the hospital. I’m a nanny, and the family was very understanding and allowed me to care for their child however it suited my needs. Fortunately, my face was never severely affected, so I was able to hide my condition under long sleeves and gloves.
14. Have you gone to therapy/wish to go to therapy because of this condition?
No…but I need to. I’ve done this completely alone. No caregivers. I’ve had friends to talk to and cry to…but I’ve been able to pretend that I’m fine. I talk about it as if it hasn’t affected me…but it has…and it’s been really fucking hard to face it.
15. If there is one thing you could say to another sufferer, what would it be?
It’s a gift. Fucking trust me. Your quality of life will transform. It will develop on its own time. Healing is not linear. It’s not it’s not its not. This, my love, will only make you stronger. YOU. ARE. A. WARRIOR.
Just be. Listen to your body. Don’t beat yourself up about anything. There’s no right way to heal. You have to trust your gut and take action on your own time. Everyone’s journey is drastically different, and we can’t compare. The only things that remain true amongst all of us are…and I mean all of us…the story, the symptoms, and the moment you realize you have RSS are all the same. And it’s one of the most empowering discoveries you’ll ever experience.
Oh and take pictures, especially at your worst. You won’t regret it. You’ll forget how much pain you were in, and the pictures are a reminder that you are a fucking warrior. Don’t ever underestimate that.
Last, but not least….
You are loved.
You are certainly loved, Stephanie! Thank you for a lovely interview!