“What’s That On Your Hand?”: What’s It Like to Live with a Permanent Skin Disorder

First Person

“What’s That On Your Hand?”: What’s It Like to Live with a Permanent Skin Disorder

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

When Tennyson wrote, “Men may come and men may go, but I go on forever” to describe the journey of the brook, little would he have realised that his lines would encapsulate a woman’s complex relationship with her psoriasis.

I was all of 17 and on a perfectly fine day, my eagle-eyed mother noticed a discoloration on my right knee –  my skirt rode up as I stretched out my legs. And just like that my skin condition arrived, unannounced. Very soon, the lesion had spread to my other knee and elbows and panic had spread within the family. Doctors were not too aware of this chronic condition; we are talking of the ’80s. They put me on valium, but my parents were afraid of its addictive nature. I was taken across the city of Hyderabad to meet a homeopath who was the “best in town”. The good-looking doctor couldn’t cure me but I didn’t mind going there to make sheep’s eyes at him.

Allopathy to ayurveda, homeopathy to home remedies, I gave them all a try hoping for a miracle. But the itchy patches on my skin were stubborn. As my visits to doctors continued and I got conscious of my looks like every angsty teen does, my wardrobe underwent a makeover. As hormones rage on, hemlines shrink; mine, of course, followed a reverse trend. Skirts or sleeveless clothes were out. I had traded them for three-fourth or full sleeve dresses and wore jeans even during the stifling summers of Hyderabad. I must have looked like those awfully overdressed heroes of the Telugu film world who danced and slept in their three-piece suit and shoes. I was living in permanent discomfort.

Perfect strangers would ask me what I had on my elbows, leaving me mortified. I refused to take a seat on public transport because I didn’t want people to avoid sitting next to me, or worse get up if my skin showed. Eventually, I found my own defence mechanism to deal with my condition – I hoped to make people’s eyes not wander by making them focus on my face, keeping them entertained (hopefully) by talking… a lot.

My psoriasis has been my travel companion and a faithful shadow.

I could make conversations about anything and my psoriasis came with a lesson in patience. It helped me realise that I could possibly teach and thus I became a teacher to little hawk-eyed students who’d invariably ask me, “Miss, what’s that in your hand?” I did brush it off bravely but my heart would sink each time my attention was drawn to my elbows. Knees were kept safely behind jeans, salwars, and most of all saris – that miraculous drape could hide multitudes of ugliness as far as I was concerned. Through it all, I was careful with my blouses. The neckline would go deeper but my sleeves never went shorter.

As one year went into next, my parents were worried that this condition would affect my marriage prospects. Though I went in for an arranged marriage, I was clear about the fact that I wouldn’t resort to any subterfuge. Eventually, I found a man who said, “Your honesty was what attracted me to you!”

Three plus decades later, my psoriasis and I have turned into frenemies. I have moved from my childhood home in Hyderabad and lived in as many as five cities in India and Indonesia. My psoriasis has been my travel companion and a faithful shadow. We have what one would call a workable relationship now. I ignore it most times unless it decides to misbehave particularly during winters and catches the curiosity of strangers. Like a neighbourhood beggar who told me how his brother got cured of it. It wasn’t my only uncomfortable encounter. I’ll never forget a man from a couple of years ago, gesticulating, chasing me down a heavy traffic road only to weave his way through more traffic to stop right by my side at the signals.  Both of us were riding our two-wheeler. This Good Samaritan with his Pinocchio-like nose was missing the “social niceties bone”.  He informed me urgently before the light turned amber that there was this very good doctor who specialises in “skin diseases”.

Such incidents used to leave me crushed but not anymore; I mostly thank these curious folks and move on. I haven’t let my condition turn me into a recluse – I teach, travel, volunteer, meet people, some more insensitive than the other. I go to doctors when the condition aggravates and at other times, I make peace with my psoriasis.

Yet I know there are a few things, I can’t do – like dive into a pool or run with reckless abandon into the waves crashing on the beach in a simple swimsuit. Unless I opt for a burkini. Are they even in fashion these days?