Living with a skin condition at university

Credit: Unsplash

Rachel Campbell
Writer

How does managing a skin condition affect your university life?

I started university buzzing with the prospect of studying something I enjoyed, gaining independence, and meeting new people who had similar interests and goals. I got a part-time job, studied, partied, and had a great first semester at the University of Glasgow. However, by the start of my second semester, it seemed these parts of my life – which had become so integral to my identity – were being stripped from me one by one. My skin condition, eczema, had a severe flare-up which left me rarely able to leave my flat, and even as I started to get treatment, I became aware of the toll eczema and other skin conditions have on typical university life. In fact, being at university whilst dealing with these effects made it more difficult to recover in my experience.

Physically, the effects of skin conditions like eczema can be exhausting. You can tell yourself all day not to scratch and make it worse, only to wake up to blood-stained sheets (that being on the occasion that the stinging doesn’t keep you up all night). This only perpetuates the problem, as a lack of sleep leads to more stress, which fuels the burning on your skin. I had to quit my part-time job as a waitress, as 10-hour shifts largely spent in a hot kitchen or running around led to sweating, which subsequently led to more pain. Not to mention the eczema on my face, which had gotten visibly worse. I could no longer use makeup to hide the red blotches and cracked skin, as this only aggravated it. I felt as though people would be disgusted by me, as though they would take exception to being served food by someone with some disease, which was not exactly appetising to look at. Whether this was the case or not, it was affecting both my physical and mental health to carry on working.

This worry over how others viewed me began to extend past customers: in seminars, I found it hard to balance the fear of bringing attention to myself when I felt so unhappy with how I looked but also contributing so as to not affect my grades. I was constantly aware of how people might be silently judging the dandruff on my shoulders whenever I wore dark colours, or the spots, scratches and scars on my limbs were I not to cover them in long sleeves and tights. My social life became non-existent. At the very worst point, I was in too much pain to go and meet friends anyway, and as I slowly started to recover, going out drinking (which is often intertwined with social life as a student), posed many obstacles. Hot, sweaty rooms were only going to worsen my condition and alcohol can trigger flare-ups. Plus, my self-consciousness over my inability to cover my eczema made clubs and bars seem like seas of beautiful people ready to judge me.

This obsessing over others’ perceptions of me grew over the long period I underwent UV light treatment, which I had to attend three times a week for 15 weeks. Travelling to the hospital often took time away from my studies and I struggled to stick to deadlines, as even when I did try to sit down and write, the burning on my skin distracted me from my point, and essays seemed to take twice as long to finish. It seems unsurprising then that skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and acne have been linked to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. The lack of sleep, impact on work/school, persistent pain, and even isolation, which comes with conditions like these, can have a deteriorating effect on mental health. When my eczema was at its worst, I really only left my flat to attend hospital appointments. I had extensions for essays, I had quit my job, and I never saw my friends. I became isolated and disheartened. I felt as though I had worked so hard since coming to university to build a life and identity for myself, and it had all fallen apart. I was left desperately trying to pick up the pieces.

However, I did pick them up. I recovered from the severe flare up, passed first year, got a new job, and regained a social life. I now wear clothes that leave my eczema scars visible, I try to work on my fear of what people may think, and realise that most people really aren’t that interested in how my skin looks. The physical and mental effects which skin conditions can have on a person are real and severe. I work every day on preventing my eczema from reaching the physical severity it did earlier this year. I also work every day so that, were I to have a flare-up so drastic again, I would be able to deal with it better mentally and, if you’ll pardon the pun, feel good in my own skin.