“The angry red streak running from his nose to his cheek, the rash of little whitish pustules that sloughed off like dandruff…the bright red patch, extending from the bridge of his nose almost down to his mouth and up to his eyes.”
I developed seborrheic dermatitis for the first time as an adult when I returned home from my honeymoon in Barcelona, freshly diagnosed with type-1 diabetes. It was a rough time. The dermatitis seemed to know this; it stuck around for the better part of two years, a glaring symbol of my new life with illness. I tried everything: Elidel, steroid lotions, EFT. It just got worse. When it finally spread to my face, I went into Whole Foods and spent nearly $100 on a natural skin care regime from MyChelle Dermacueticals. It cleared, finally. When I met the founder and creator of MyChelle, Myra Michelle Eby, a year later at a Natural Products Expo in D.C., I burst into tears.
“Thank you! Thank you!” I said, embracing her.
(I still think MyChelle is the best skin care line in the world, although, as you will see my seborrheic dermatitis cure involves a hands-off approach to skin care ).
Unfortunately, in my experience, seborrheic dermatitis shares a distinctive feature of many autoimmune illnesses: it comes and goes, sometimes independent of treatment; and often each relapse requires a new, novel form of treatment. The rash returned last winter. I was in Asheville at the time, at my residency session for my MFA program. I was living in a dorm. I was especially sensitive to my appearance at the time because James Franco had just enrolled in the program. I remember walking into the a reception the very first night of the residency. I had taken a Percocet (the beginning of residency was always an especially anxious time.) I saw James. Jesus, I thought, that guy is handsome. Later I walked into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Jesus, I thought, investigating my dermatitis, I'm ugly.
One night we had a long face to face discussion. We talked about Emily Dickinson, kissing Sean Penn, and my skin problems. James, a perfect gentleman, stopped the conversation twice to say, “Dude, I don’t even notice it.”
Equating my dermatitis with Harry Osborn’s horribly burnt face in Spiderman III, I asked James what it was like for a handsome man to appear so disfigured on screen.
“Dude,” he said. “It was Spiderman.”
Last winter's outbreak was minor. I came home from Asheville and took hydrocortisone (a steroid cream). The dermatitis cleared up in a week.
This recent outbreak was different. When I first noticed it, in early October, I again tried the hydrocortisone. It worked, at first, but then, it seemed to start spreading. I looked in the mirror and felt ugly. I thought: It will never go away. I complained, unfairly, to my wife (who herself suffers much more severe skin problems). As the days and weeks went by, I started to lose a bit of my winning optimism; my integrity eroded. I ignored my typically reliable faith in natural healing and went in search of strong pharmaceuticals. I tried a stronger steroid, Desonide. It worked, at first, but then it got WAY worse: Hemingway proportions. Apparently, if steroids are used too long, you develop two or three additional skin problems. I learned the hard way.
Throughout this time, in the immemorial fashion of frantic sick people, I searched the internet for a “cure.” The internet is a terrible place to look for a “cure.” Balanced perspectives on skin problems are shockingly rare. Message boards are crammed with pessimistic complaints; thousands of sites suggest miracle cures that simply do not work; and drug companies pay massively for advertising.
Still, inspired by my internet findings, I washed my face with Selsun Blue. That helped a bit. I actually tried tanning! (In an electronic ballast tanning booth; finding the booth was an incredible hassle.) That helped a bit, until I developed a secondary rash on my stomach. I went to my family doctor. He told me simply quitting the steroid lotion would resolve the problem. I thought, bullshit. I urged him to prescribe another pharmaceutical treatment, one that I had assiduously researched: Nizoral foam. Nizoral is a potent anti-fungal. When ingested, it has been associated with hepatic toxicity, including some deaths. The foam worked, a bit. Then, once again, it got worse.
In his life-changing, soul-changing book, Re-Visioning Pscyhology, James Hillman writes, “We owe our symptoms an immense debt. The soul can exist without its therapists, but not without its afflictions.”
I’m reminded of this quote when I suffer illness. I’m reminded of my sulking; my complaints. And I’m shocked, almost appalled, by my behavior. Sometimes, in the midst of it, I actually do realize that my suffering can be a good thing: for my growth and maturity and anti-narcissism. But still, it bums me out. I mean I wake up after a restless night of sleep (I never, ever sleep well and typically I wake six-ten times a night to pee), check my blood sugar (the first test of ten or twelve tests for the day), and look in the mirror, only to discover I’m much uglier than my dreams had led me to believe!
And this is the exact moment I lose my integrity.
I start to think: You know what, I have a fucking lot of illnesses for a 33 year old guy; every person, every fucking single person in the world, sometimes hits the point where enough is enough, and, well, I’m entitled to say, “Enough is fucking enough,” because of my illnesses, because I’ve been through so much illness so early, and no one, exactly no one, I know, understands what it’s like to be a 33 year old guy living with type-1 diabetes, ulcerative colitis, Raynaud’s disease, and some fucking skin rash, not to mention I’m allergic to shellfish and have never even known the pleasure of slurping a fresh oyster!
This is me, losing my integrity.
It's funny, though. Standing in front of the mirror, I drive myself to this point—this point of extreme dejection—and then something small happens. In my complaining, I catch a glimpse of myself as a child, a child throwing a tantrum. It’s laughable, actually. So I smile, in spite of myself. Then I smile, again, just to see what it looks like. I start making faces: ugly faces, happy faces, stupid faces. The dermatitis is still there, of course. But, suddenly, instead of complaining, I'm making fun or myself. And I suppose this is when my heart starts floating, just a bit, it sort of just bounces up, and I’m aware, however briefly, of the possibility of change.
***Change. In terms of my recent battle with seborrheic dermatitis, change means relaxing; it means re-finding my integrity. It means taking a deep breath and considering the blindingly obvious.
I’ve successfully treated seborrheic dermatitis on my scalp for ten years. I’ve performed the same routine, two times a week, every week, for ten years. What I do is simple: I wash my hair. I apply about 1 tablespoon of extra virgin coconut oil. I leave it on for a few hours. I wash it out. Why not try it on my face? Seborrheic dermatitis often effects both the face and scalp—and whatever it is, both areas manifest the same disease process.
Friday night, I rubbed a little extra virgin coconut oil on my face. Saturday, I woke up and my skin had improved. Last night, Saturday night, I repeated the routine. This morning I woke up my skin had essentially cleared. After weeks of suffering, after weeks of complaints and internet research, weeks of steroids and antifungals weeks of just feeling ugly—my skin had improved with two applications of extra virgin coconut oil. (Update: I now believe that a natural seborrheic dermatitis cure exists. It is the rigorous application of yogurt masks. I have used nothing but water and yogurt masks on my face for over four years and my skin has remained remarkably clear. Please see my recipe on my post "Seth's Beauty Secrets Revealed").
The simplicity of it is absurd. Albeit, not as absurd as my behavior.
Illness is worthless unless you learn from it. My lesson, of course, has nothing to do with extra virgin coconut oil. More likely, it has something to do with maturity, how I might grow into that complicated, half-ugly, half-beautiful human being I'm meant to be. The proportions are meaningless, of course: maybe it's 60% ugly/40% beautiful. Probably, the goal is just a sort of unity. Obviously, I own a lot of ugliness: inside and out. But in my ugliness, I learn things. I learn about fighting. I learn about hope. Life handed me illness; it also gave me the capacity to fight. Life taught me the comeback.
Moving on, I'll try to remember this.