Psoriaisis: Learning to love your skin again

KIM KARDASHIAN tweeted a photograph of her ‘heart-shaped’ patch of psoriasis, and was filmed rubbing her sister’s breast milk on her legs to ‘cure’ it, but most sufferers are more discreet about the condition.

Now that it’s summer, the 125,000 (3% of the population) psoriasis sufferers in Ireland will be self-conscious wearing seasonal clothing.

“Summer is the worst. I have to pick my fashion to suit my psoriasis,” says Lisa O’Connor, 33.

“I wouldn’t wear a short skirt, and would only wear tights if I use camouflage make-up under them. I’d usually wear leggings under dresses or three-quarter length pants.” Although the sun, in general, is the best thing for psoriasis, agrees Lisa, she prefers not to use fake tan as it “grabs onto the psoriasis” and darkens the patches.

Psoriasis accelerates skin-cell renewal and builds up itchy red or silvery patches on the body. Often triggered by stress or injury, it is not contagious and can be treated with creams, light therapy and medication.

“Untreated, moderate to severe psoriasis can make people’s lives miserable,” says consultant dermatologist at St Vincent’s University Hospital, Professor Brian Kirby. “It’s sore and uncomfortable. People describe walking around and leaving a trail of scales and having skin-bleeds. It’s limiting in the things you can do, from a physical aspect and also from a mental aspect.”

“If my arms were bad, I’d get over it. I’d be very conscious of my chest area, because I don’t feel a bit feminine with it,” says O’Connor, who developed psoriasis after being in a car crash when she was aged four.

Within a few weeks of the crash, O’Connor developed skin rashes, and by primary school she had a nightly schedule of tar creams to treat them. “I was plagued with psoriasis, with big, huge patches on my arms, knees and elbows. My mum put the creams on my body and hair every night,” says O’Connor, who describes the creams as smelling “like a new road after being laid.”

At school, she avoided PE and never changed in front of the other girls. She wore jeans to school one day, as the heavy green tights under her uniform had ripped the previous day. A nun spotted her and forced her to change back into her skirt, with bare legs and socks.

“I bawled and asked to go home. I thought, ‘my legs, nobody ever sees my legs’. The nun said ‘get over yourself’ and it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says O’Connor, who was also overweight.

During her late teens, O’Connor neglected her nightly medical regime, in favour of socialising with her friends.

“The last time I was bad all over was at 18. I was out drinking and socialising, and not looking after my skin. It got so uncontrollable that I was covered from head to toe, and my face looked as if it had been dipped in a vat of oil,” she says.

Admitted to hospital, she had light treatment, and restructured her routine at home.

“At home, I went back to getting my mum to cover me. She covered me in ointment, and in a gauze body suit or cling film. I got back on track and I knew I’d have to look after myself and really work hard at it,” says O’Connor.

“Light treatment made such an unbelievable difference. I did it three days a week and it cleared the psoriasis on my body, but my legs are stubborn. I went to my new GP, and we worked out a new schedule and my legs are very good at the moment.”

Married in her twenties (“It never put guys off. My husband never took any notice of it”), it wasn’t until O’Connor brought her young children to a swimming pool that she first experienced hostility towards her skin condition.

“A woman in the dressing room stared at me and spoke loudly into her phone saying ‘I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s ringworm’,” says O’Connor, who stopped swimming for the next two years.

“I bit the bullet a few months ago and went back swimming. It took an awful lot of courage. I always tell my daughter not to stare at someone, but instead to ask them ‘why do you have that?’ I’d rather be asked than stared at,” she says.

Despite having two hip replacements due to psoriatic arthritis (caused by psoriasis), and despite feelings of self-consciousness, O’Connor recently modelled in a fashion show for people with psoriasis, established a psoriasis support group, and has appeared on television, radio and print media to spread a positive message about the disease.

“I’m glad I’ve had it from a young age, because, physically and mentally, I’m able to cope with it. I want people to talk about psoriasis. You’re not your psoriasis and it doesn’t have to be your life,” she says.

Professor Kirby agrees. “My number one tip is to talk to a doctor about it. In 2013, with modern management, there’s no reason that somebody’s skin can’t be controlled properly,” he says.

* A psoriasis support group meeting will take place in Cork on June 5, Ballyphehane Community Centre, 7:30-9pm. Call 086-2084857.


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