I first had eczema as a child but really didn’t use anything for it other than Keri lotion since my parents believed it was just something I had and there was no “cure.” Around 8th grade it disappeared. It reappeared when I was 30 and pregnant with my first child. The top of my hands became very itchy. The doctor didn’t want to use topical steroids, so he prescribed Protopic. At first Protopic worked beautifully but after a week, it started to burn and make my skin even redder, so I stopped using it. My hands got better on their own.
2. What was the name of the topical steroids?
3. Were you ever prescribed more potent steroids?
After the birth of my daughter, my eyes became very itchy and red. I saw ophthalmologist after ophthalmologist. They diagnosed me with dry eyes and ocular rosacea. The eye drops (Restasis and over the counter wetting drops) they put me on didn’t work. So I saw a specialist from Yale. He tried the same things the other did…in addition to antibiotics ointments in case it was conjunctivitis. Still my eyes didn’t get better. In fact, they got worse. Finally, the doctor put me on a compounded steroid ointment. Didn’t help. We moved on to steroid drops. This whole eye thing went on for about 2 years. After awhile, he said he didn’t know what to do and that he didn’t want me on the steroid drops any more. I didn’t either, so I stopped.
That’s when the skin rashes started. And I saw dermatologist after dermatologist. And allergists. And gastroenterologists. And naturopaths. And acupuncturists. And neurologists (lupus).
Through it all, I was prescribes topical steroids, oral steroids, and steroid shots. From low potency to high potency, for my face, my scalp, my arms, my hands, my legs, I’d walk in and doctors would say, “Whoa, first we need to get rid of this flare with a steroid shot/round of prednisone, then once we get you back to normal, we’ll get you on some creams.” Of course it would work, until the steroid shots/pills wore off and then it would start all over again. And I kept trying different doctors thinking maybe THIS one will have the answer. Nope.
One day I was googling online and I don’t even remember what I was googling…itchy rash on face/hand/shoulder maybe, and I saw an image of a girl with red circles around her eyes and a “muzzle mouth” just like mine and I thought, “That looks just like me.” When I went to the page, it was the ITSAN site and the more I read, the more I realized that this is exactly what I had…what NO doctor had been able to diagnose me with—even the best-of-the-best-who-other-doctors-referred-me-to-who-didn’t-take-insurance-experts in New York.
When I read the symptoms and the history and saw the pictures of all the other people who were going through this, the similarities were too many to ignore. With every new bit of information or every video, and every study that was linked to that site, I kept saying, “This is me. This is me. This is exactly what happened with me. Oh, my God. I know what I have. I’m addicted to steroids.”
I was actually excited. Excited that I finally figured out what it was after all these years of knowing something wasn’t right but not knowing what it was. Excited that there was a cure. And I was ready to stop steroids that minute.
6. Were you diagnosed by a doctor? Did you have a supportive doctor?
I was never diagnosed by a doctor. I had compiled a book of the past 12 years of medical visits, prescriptions, and pictures of me in various stages of flares and when I took them to my GP she looked at them and listened patiently to what I had to say. She said she didn’t think I was over prescribed or that the doctors did anything wrong, but she believed me and was very supportive in my decision to quit steroids and said that she would support me in any way to help me get through this. This included prescribing a low dose hydroxine for the itch and the insomnia and an anti-depressant if I got too low. The hydroxine didn’t really work for me and I never filled the anti-depressant prescription, but I was so grateful for her time, patience, and response. For the first time I felt like I was being heard and taken seriously.
7. What were your first symptoms?
Itchy eyes and then an itchy rash on my face, my scalp, and all over my body.
Yes, although there were some definite rough patches in my marriage
I think the hardest part is that without an “official” doctor’s diagnosis, the withdrawal is not taken as seriously as it would be otherwise.
Obviously, we are sick…we look sick, but I don’t think people realize just how sick we are—on the inside as well as the outside. They don’t realize how exhausted we are from the damage done to our adrenal system and the lack of sleep; how our confidence is gone because we look and feel horrible; how we are in a physical and mental state of torture because of the itch, and the nerve zings, and the sweats, and the cold chills, and the above things I already mentioned. There is no WebMD site to go to that explains that this is absolutely debilitating and patients need time off work and from family responsibilities to heal.
There’s no rehab center for steroid withdrawal like there is for other drug addictions, or pamphlet to hand to family and friends that explains what to expect.
And I felt guilty that I couldn’t be the wife my husband married, or the mother I used to be. But I also put my foot down and stood up for my health and myself. I demanded the time and the rest and the passes from a lot of things and this created friction. I spent huge amounts of money on dead sea salt and water for daily (sometimes twice daily) baths. But I believed so strongly in this diagnosis and my body’s ability to heal and I knew all I needed was time.
And that’s the second hardest thing about this fight…it takes a long time and that’s hard on spouses who are also losing out on time and life for an illness that is not even recognized by doctors.
But yes, my family was supportive. I hid out mostly from society at the beginning. I was so embarrassed that only my closest friends knew what I was going through. Even after I went public on FB and shared my pictures, my story, and all the links with people so they could share with others, I tended to be less outgoing than I used to be.
But that’s gotten better as my skin has gotten better and more time has passed. Now, I go out all the time even with a flare. Who cares anymore? Judge me, don’t judge me. I’ve been to hell and back; your opinion doesn’t matter to me.
No, I was lucky. I never had to be hospitalized. I kept infection at bay by taking Dead Sea salt, apple cider vinegar baths. And I’ve gotten cold sores since I was a kid, so I have a backup stash of Valtrex to turn to so I never got eczema herpeticum.
10. What was the hardest part of this condition?
Phew. I have to pick one thing? I’d say not having the energy that I used to before I got sick. The brain fog was tough too…I wondered why I didn’t have the mental clarity. I guess the hardest part was not being my best person and feeling like I was missing out on life because of it.
I will start my 28th month on Jan 18th, 2017, so I have 2 years and 3 months behind me. I began November 19, 2014. Every morning I put a big X through the day before as I marked the days off. It gave me strength to see all those crossed off days.
When I discovered RSS, I was on the first day of a 3-day shoot for a popular sleep aid commercial—I was playing the role of the wife of the man who couldn’t sleep. I tried to stop the topical steroids that day, but my skin immediately rashed up and my husband said, “Nina, you can’t do this to these people. They’re paying you to look good. You have to take it for the next three days.” He was right; I had a professional obligation not to show up looking like I fell into a patch of poison ivy, so I sparingly used the topical steroid until the last day of the shoot and then I stopped cold turkey.
Dead sea salt baths have been my oasis. I’ve done 20 min DSS baths since day one and am still doing them. I also did moisture withdrawal up until about 3 months ago. Now I feel my skin is healed enough that I use an essential oil mixture on it: jojoba, geranium, lavender, frankincense, myrrh, carrot seed, pomegranate, Vit E.
I also competed in 2 triathlons during this and I know the swims in the ocean and the pool helped to dry out the ooze. I think yoga helped with the detox and the running helped with the lymphatic system…not to mention all these things helped with my mental state. It gave me some power and control over my limited lifestyle. I itched like crazy during the workouts but I felt stronger afterward.
Rest. When I felt exhausted, I knew my body was going through a big healing push, so I slept. I felt so guilty sleeping during the day, but I knew it’s what my body needed, so I dealt with the guilt. I still got up every day with the kids for school, but sometimes I’d fall right back into bed after they left.
I was a commercial print model and actress so yes, I had to book out with my very-understanding agent this entire time. She’s been a big champion of mine and I’ll return to it when I’m sure I’m better. The good thing about commercial modeling/acting vs. fashion is that you never get too old—you can always do denture, arthritis, and grandmother commercials. ;D
I’m also a writer, so I was able to do that from home—although the brain fog was a real butt-kicker.
Because of having to give up the modeling, I ended up picking back up with a past job of mine, which is teaching hydrofit classes. I’m teaching twice a week at my local Y and loving it. It gets me out of the house, pays me, and gets those endorphins going…all things that are vital for my happiness.
No, but only because several times daily, I turned to the ITSAN and Topical Steroid Withdrawal Facebook pages for comfort. Just hearing about other people going through the same thing I was made me feel less alone during this. Posting on my own FB page helped as well. Social media was my therapy.
Stay strong. Head down and do what you need to do to make yourself comfortable. Eat healthy; sleep as much and as often as you can. Listen to your body, it will tell you what you need. Keep living, but above all, be patient and know that even if you can’t see it, your body is healing every single day—on the inside and then on the outside.
Sorry, I know that’s more than one thing.
Thank you so much, Nina! What a wonderful interview!