Up until the age of 30, I’d have described myself as a ‘Sun Worshipper.’ I’d crave holidays where I could lie on a beach and sunbathe for hours; hopeful to get a good tan, but mostly just because it felt amazing.
When I wasn’t on holiday, I noted that the sunshine just made everything easier. I could wear cooler, lighter clothes. I would naturally wake up earlier. I was drawn to eating salads and drinking water and exercising. Being happier was just easier, and doing things that increased this feeling were easier too.
So you can imagine my horror and upset, when at 30 years old, the Dermatology told me that the little white patches that I’d noticed appearing on my legs were in fact Vitiligo.
If you weren’t aware, Vitiligo is an incurable skin disease of unknown origin, which causes loss of pigmentation in the skin.
My white patches grew and spread, and at 34 now, I’m hard-pressed to find a place that it hasn’t reached. I’ve had to accept that an even tan just isn’t going to happen for me again.
At first, I felt pretty angry and upset about this. Why me?! I focused on the fact that I would no longer enjoy days sunbathing by the pool, because this would only make the patches worse and getting burnt was too big of a risk. I’d spent my lifetime looking forward to holidays in the sun and sunny days – now I didn’t even have that. I became upset when people looked at my hands and arms, wondering what they were wondering. I looked in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw.
And then a couple of things happened.
Firstly, I broke my leg in a Jiu Jitsu competition and was house-bound for 10 weeks, then forced to have a ‘phased return’ at work. As someone who is prone to being both a workaholic and a control freak, this was a real shock to the system. It forced me to give up my need to control everything, as well as making me incredibly grateful for things that I took for granted (like walking, bending and showering with two legs instead of one.)
Some time later, one of my dear friends found out he had lung cancer and died 6 months later. My own mum battled and survived bowel cancer, as well as living the last forty years of her life with diabetes.
And so I woke up!
I realised that it wasn’t contagious and it was damaging to my health. Plus, it didn’t require any real effort other than ensuring my factor 50 was on if I was out in the sun. It also means that I finally have an excuse of wear glamorous sun hats and large sunglasses. Another step towards being a hat person!
I also realised that I was getting pretty bored of beach/pool holidays where my only goal was to lie down in the sun. I’d actually only longed for them because I was so unhappy in my usual daily life. When I began creating a life that I didn’t need to escape from, I decided that actually camping might be rather fun. And I stopped fighting against Mr. G’s suggestions that we took some cultural city breaks, feeling that they were too much hard work. As a result, I’ve had some fantastic trips and holidays in the last few years – parts of my heart are currently scattered in locations around Barcelona and Amsterdam.
I realised that while my legs may be patchy, they’re still pretty awesome. They’re both working brilliantly – despite one of them having plate and pins – and they allow me to do Jiu Jitsu and yoga and all manner of exciting things!
I realised that I could choose to see my ever-changing skin as beautiful. Sometimes I think it looks like my skin is forming a map to a new world; a world that is never-still, always moving and part of me.
I realised that I couldn’t control what people thought about it, or where they looked, but if I was happy in my own skin then this wouldn’t matter anyway.
Of course, as I work with kids, I do get asked about it – always by kids and never by adults! – but I’ve found that because of this I’m now really comfortable in talking about it. I feel that my self-acceptance is a great message for these kids to receive and I’m delighted that I can do this through Vitiligo.
Yet again, I’m reminded that we cannot control what life throws at us. But we absolutely can control how we choose to see this.
A curse can become a gift with the right mindset. And an ‘ugly’ skin condition can become a beautiful world-map, leading you to places both inside and outside of yourself; places that you’d have never thought to go before.