I am differentBy Catherine C. Talavera
Philippine Daily Inquirer
All my life, I have never been quite normal. If you look at me from afar, you’d think that I am just a normal girl, but if you view me up close, then you’d notice how different I am. You’d notice how different my skin is compared to that of a normal person.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had atopic dermatitis, a disease that makes my skin chronically dry and leaves wounds and scars all over my body. My face is red in many places. My hands are like those of an old woman. My arms and legs are covered with scars and wounds. And if you touch me, I’d feel like paper.
When I was young, I didn’t mind having a skin disease. I never tried to cover it and was not ashamed of it. I just tried to live a normal life. What made me different from the other kids in school was that I couldn’t eat anything with chicken, eggs, or chocolate. Whenever it was snack time at school, the cafeteria lady would bring in food for all the kids except me, because I was allergic to a lot of things. But back then I didn’t mind bringing my own food to class. I was even happy that I got to choose what I wanted to bring to class.
The other kids never really noticed that my skin is different from theirs. We were just happy being kids, and were innocent and clueless about a lot of things. But as the years progressed people started to notice my condition, and every time they did I felt more conscious about it.
I started to cover as much of my skin as possible. I wore knee-high socks to school every day, and jeans when I went out. I felt ashamed of my scarred legs, and I started to talk less to people. I rarely spoke in class. I had only a few friends. I was pretty much an outcast, but still no one dared tease me. I think they all just felt sorry for me.
That was how it was in my grade school days. When I entered high school, I tried to socialize more and I did make more friends. But I was a late bloomer, so puberty largely happened when I was in high school and it made my condition a whole lot worse. The hormonal changes caused the dryness and redness to spread on my face, and more people noticed.
Almost everyone that I encountered would inquire about my skin. Whenever I made new friends, it wouldn’t be long till they asked about my condition. It doesn’t really offend me when people I know would ask me about my skin, but I hate it when complete strangers have the audacity to do so. There was a time when I was paying for something at a drugstore. When I handed the cashier my money, she stared at my hand with disgust. She asked me what was the matter with my skin. I explained my condition to her, but I don’t think she understood what I said. She began suggesting what soap I should use. That really offended me.
It’s insulting enough for a complete stranger to ask about my skin, but when he/she presumes to give me suggestions on what to do, that’s adding insult to injury.
But what I hate most is when people say that I would have been beautiful if I didn’t have this disease. I think people with that kind of mentality are shallow. I believe that beauty is not merely defined by physical appearance but, more importantly, by what’s within a person.
I remember a time when I was at my friend’s house and I was playing with her little sister who was about six or seven years old. She touched my hand, then asked me why my skin was different. I wasn’t offended in any way because she was just a little kid and I knew she meant no harm. So I answered her question and said that I have a skin disease. I didn’t expect her to react in any way, but what she said touched me so much. She said it’s okay and that I’m still pretty. I wanted to cry. How could this little girl, who knew so little about life, actually know the right thing to say?
That incident really inspired me. It made me realize that despite all the disgusted and pitying looks that come my way, there are still people out there who will not stare or treat me differently because I have a disease. It motivated me to accept what I am and what I have, and to not be ashamed of it.
A few months after that incident, I began wearing knee-length dresses and made no effort to cover my scarred legs. That was a huge step for me. At first I was uncomfortable because I knew people were staring at my legs. But then a question popped into my head: Why should I even care about what people think of me? I mean, what is my condition to them?
I continued to wear more dresses that exposed more of my skin than I was accustomed to. It now feels so liberating to go out in public and not be ashamed of my condition. I’m tired of trying to hide it, and I now feel happier with myself.
But while I feel more confident about myself now, there still are occasions when I feel insecure. I’m only human. I’m not perfect. I have insecurities and I’m not ashamed of admitting them.
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about my skin disease. It was a bad day. My skin looked worse than usual and people noticed, so it stressed me out a bit. I wrote about how I hated it when people asked about my skin. Much later I received a message on my blog. It was from a girl who said that she had read my post about my skin and that she suffers from the same condition. I felt a sudden burst of happiness. I have never met anyone with the same condition as me. I discovered that I wasn’t alone.
We sent each other messages for the next weeks and exchanged information on our dilemmas. It felt good talking to someone who actually knew how I felt. At one point she told me about how she dreams of wearing shorts but can’t find the confidence to do so. She said she always wears pants to hide her scarred legs because many people teased her about it.
I sensed her sadness and knew exactly how she felt. I wanted to somehow help her, so I told her to stop caring about what other people think because it won’t do her any good. She thanked me and said my message inspired her a lot. That felt so good, being able to inspire someone. It was so fulfilling.
We still send each other messages from time to time. She even sends me updates on how she’s improving, confidence-wise. She says that she is able to wear dresses now, and that she feels happier with herself.
Being acquainted with that girl made me realize something. Maybe inspiring others is one of my purposes in life, one of the perks of having a disease. I’ve learned to accept my condition and be happy with who I am. I may not be totally confident with myself yet, but I’m getting there. Other people with a similar condition should feel this way, too.
I may be physically different from most everyone else, but I’m still a normal person. I am no longer ashamed of how I look but, rather, embrace it because this is what makes me stand out from the rest. This is what makes me who I am. This is what makes me me.
Catherine C. Talavera, 19, is a mass communication student at Emilio Aguinaldo College.
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