One woman opens up about her lifelong struggle with eczema, which was especially challenging during her middle school years.

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I was five years old when the first patches of eczema started appearing on my skin, but it would be another five years before I was officially diagnosed. At first, no one knew what the rash was.Even the doctors weren't much help; they prescribed me all kinds of creams, but nothing worked.When I look back now, I’m not sure if the doctors were stumped, or if they simply were having trouble communicating with my mother (at the time, her English wasn't very strong).

When the medications didn't work, my momtried home remedies. She would rub aloe vera on my skin, and I vaguely remember drinking something that was made of seeds. Neither worked. It wasn't until I was 10 years old—at which point the patches had spread to my arms, legs, and face—that I saw a dermatologist, who gave me a shot. I can’t remember what the shot was; the memory is kind of fuzzy, but I do recall that my skin got better afterward. I also left with a prescription for cortisone cream and the name of the condition that had been plaguing me for years: eczema.

The "flare up" years

My eczema was bad when I was young, but my middle-school years were much worse. There were times during my childhood when my skin would calm down and the condition would seem to be dormant. But once I entered fifth grade, it was constant. Cortisone cream helped the itch, but it couldn't stop the redness from spreading.I was young and active, and I’d sweat in the hot California temperatures, which further aggravated my skin.

My classmates didn't help, either.I tried to wear pants as much as possible, but they still noticed my eczema and made fun of me.Girls would even try to fight me. I stuck up for myself, but it was exhausting, and by the time I entered 8th grade, I couldn't take it anymore. Instead of going to class, I started skipping school to go to the beach alone.I didn't tell anyone, not even my foster parents. I had probably missed about a semester’s worth of days when I was finally caught—a social worker came to visit me at school and realized I wasn't there.

The guidance counselor called me into her office. I knew she wasn't happy with me, but I was shocked at her lack of compassion. When I told her I was skipping school because kids were teasing me about my skin, she refused to believe it. She also didn't believe that I was alone all day, and kept asking, Where were you, really? Who were you with? I knew she was trying to imply that I was doing something wrong. Then she asked me what was around my mouth. Eczema, I told her.Again, she didn't believe me. It was only when my foster mother came to the school and confirmed it that she finally backed down.

The turning point

Once I got to high school, my situation improved. I transferred to a different school and joined the track team, which gave me a sense of unity. I was a little worried about wearing shorts at first, but my teammates were nice about it. When they saw my skin, they were worried about me! They were like, Are you okay? They were more curious than anything.

At one competition I went to, I ran into a girl I used to go to middle school with. The first thing she said when she saw me was, Oh wow, your skin looks so much better.

Dealing with eczema today

I'm now 32 and work in public relations. It’s kind of stressful at times, because a big part of my job involves shaking hands with people and socializing. There’s a constant battle going on in my head whenever I meet someone new. I think, Are they going to notice my skin? Will they think I’m contagious?

These days, I'm able to disguise my eczema pretty well, but I still have the occasional flare-up. Last year, in fact, I had a lot going on at work, and had just returned from the Dominican Republic when I noticed patches of redness on my fingers. I didn't even realize it was eczema at first. The skin was peeling off, and it looked different from what was on my arms and legs—almost like ringworm. My doctor ran some tests, but when the results came back negative, he looked at my medical history and concluded that it was hand eczema.

Now, I try to be extra cautious. Stress is a big trigger for me, so I try to manage it the best I can. And things are different now that I’m older. As a kid, I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about my skin, but now that I’m an adult, I can share my feelings with my close friends. It makes everything better when you talk about it with others.

As told to Maria Masters