Life With Vitiligo: My White Skin Cells Started to Attack Each Other

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31 Jul 2015

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Life was never going to be easy for someone like me. Born with Vitiligo, a skin condition where white skin cells stop forming or begin attacking each other, causing white patches on the skin, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out I had little chance of escaping taunts, stares and inquisitive questions.

Being mixed race my patches were albino like and very distinctive. Vitiligo is a condition that can spread at an alarming rate. Those affected may end up with a few small patches, whilst for some it can spread across their entire body. For me, it started as a tiny spot on my hand which eventually spread covering 80% of my body. I had it all over my arms, legs and worst of all my face.

Being so young, I was none the wiser about being different. For all I knew, everyone was born with Vitiligo. My parents kept things normal and chose not to cover my skin. They would dress me in girly dresses, shorts and t-shirts, allowing everyone to see my skin and for me to feel like I was the same as everyone else. The time when I realised I was different was when the name calling started. In the school playground I’d get called penguin, zebra or anything that had black and white skin. Kids made their own assumptions. Some thought I was contagious and were cautious about touching me, others thought I’d been burnt in a fire.

When I turned 5, I started going to Great Ormond Street Hospital for treatment. Back then (1980’s) there wasn’t a known cure and so it was hard to slow down the development of more patches. Dermatologists were frequently developing new treatments which my parents actively put me forward for. I was prescribed with steroid creams, tablets, homeopathy – but nothing seemed to work. I could be trying a new treatment for six months without it making the slightest bit of difference. The steroid cream which was incredibly strong, scarred my skin however cleared the patches on my face much to my relief. Nonetheless, after several failed attempts at being treated, we decided to abandon treatment and let nature take its cause.

I was overtly shy and very introverted during my primary school years. I had a small group of close friends with whom I did everything with. Because of this, the kids who had more confidence saw me as an easy target. I recall a girl in my class calling me spiteful names as she eyed me up and down in disgust. She would deliberately sit next to me in class and then within seconds would jump up and shout “I can’t sit next to Natalie, in case I catch the disease she has”. It would upset me, especially as I was too shy to say anything back. I would just look up in embarrassment and then carry on with what I was doing.

Things got worse when I entered my teenage years. I despised who I was and passed a lot of the blame onto my Mum, which put her under a lot of pressure. I was convinced she had done something detrimental whilst carrying me, especially as my sister was born without any imperfections. It was bad enough having to deal with exam pressures, boys and puberty, so to have to contend with a skin condition that only I had, left me in a depressive state.

Having Vitiligo stopped me from expressing myself. I loved fashion, but couldn’t dress freely. I daren’t wear skirts or t-shirts and became obsessed with covering up. I hated summer and wished it was December all year round so I didn’t feel so out of place. I’d wear anything that covered my skin as I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone catching a glimpse of my Vitiligo and only wore dark colours, making my outward appearance very bland.

My skin got worse in my early twenties. Stress is a contributing factor in making Vitiligo worse. I don’t recall going through a stressful period, but I recall watching as my skin went whiter and spottier over the course of six months. It shattered my confidence further and made it difficult for me to even contemplate being in a relationship with anyone.

Being the only person in my school and in my family with Vitiligo, often meant I felt very alone as no one could relate to how I was feeling. I’d heard of the Vitiligo Society through going to hospital and decided to join as I wanted to meet people suffering with the same condition as me. It was a massive relief to be around people I had something in common with. I felt inspired and humbled listening to other peoples stories in particular how they coped day to day. I started to feel more positive and felt a sense of comfort knowing there were people going through exactly what I was experiencing.

In 2014, I decided to have one last shot at treatment and got approval from the hospital to have Phototherapy, a type of treatment that uses UVB light to stimulate pigment cells in order to produce melanocytes. After 14 months of treatment the results were miraculous. I am now only 25% covered in white patches and have gained a level of confidence and self-esteem I didn’t know existed within.

Recently, Chantelle Winnie, who has a very prominent form of Vitiligo, made it onto America’s Next Top Model. I was overwhelmed at seeing someone with Vitiligo being praised for her natural beauty. Aside from building awareness internationally, Chantelle became an inspiration to people like me and proved that those who are different are just as beautiful.

Everyone takes a journey in life and whilst times were hard, I wouldn’t change what I went through. I finally feel like I’ve reached the stage of acceptance and am more comfortable with who I am. If I were to speak to my ‘younger self’ now, I would say accept who you are and embrace what you were born with. See what you have as a blessing, there is a reason why you are unique and sometimes that makes for a slightly more interesting life! Don’t spend time worrying about those that try to make you feel inferior. People will stare and will ask questions, but don’t feel as though you have something to hide. Show others that it doesn’t bother you, hence why you decided to wear that short sleeved t-shirt in your favourite colour or shorts in 30 degree heat. It’s not about people accepting you, it’s about you accepting yourself first and once you do, you’ll walk with an air of confidence that tells the world ‘you just don’t care’.

Natalie Ambersley

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