Two years after joining the army, when I was 21 years old, I started experiencing symptoms of psoriasis. It was 1984. At first, the doctors weren’t convinced it was actually psoriasis – African Americans couldn’t get psoriasis, they said, so they didn’t understand how I could have it. At the time, I didn’t know anyone else who had psoriasis, including members of my own family.
In their search for other answers, the doctors tried to tell me that it was actually ringworm. Then it was eczema, or maybe just dry skin. But it was more than that — my hair began to fall out, and thick patches of skin developed on my scalp and other parts of my body. It was truly embarrassing. Flakes of skin got everywhere — in my bed, in my car, on my scalp, and on my clothing. Sometimes I would scratch my skin too hard and it would bleed.
I grew depressed. I felt like no one could understand what I was going through. I was even afraid to date — how would I explain this condition to someone when I knew so little about it myself? It seemed others had never even heard of it.
I met with several more doctors, and finally, in 1985, I was officially diagnosed: It was definitely psoriasis.
Psoriasis changed my life at a very young age. At first, it was horrible. My skin was scaly and would flake all over the place. My hair was falling out. In the summertime, I would hide in long sleeves and jeans. People were afraid to ask what was going on with me, and when they did actually ask, it was difficult to explain the disease — how normal skin lives 28 days, but my skin grows and sheds much faster.
One of the worst parts was losing so much of my hair. One day, I decided to cut most of it off and get weaves put in so that I could cover the psoriasis on my scalp with braids. But then, when I got back to base, I was ordered to undo it. From then on, I wore a wig instead. But I worried the hats or gas masks I often had to wear in the military would cause my wig to move out of place. What if, all of the sudden, someone noticed my hair was on my head sideways?
I’ve tried all kinds of topical solutions, creams, oils, light treatment, injections, and oral medications. You name it, I’ve tried it. I’ve even tried homemade treatments. I could write a book about all of the things I’ve tried as I’ve learned to cope with this condition.
Now, I’ve been living with psoriasis for more than three decades. It took me until 1993 to fully accept that the condition is a permanent part of me.
There were definitely many barriers to overcome throughout my entire adulthood because of my psoriasis. The permanent scarring on my skin still embarrasses me sometimes, but rather than letting it take over, I embrace who I am and try to live a healthy life. In the face of this condition, I’ve achieved a lot. I would say my greatest accomplishment was being able to remain in the military for 24 years despite my psoriasis.
I’ve never met any other black people with psoriasis, so I think it’s important for there to be more diversity in stories and advertisements about the condition. I want to share my story and my coping mechanisms to help others.
If I were to give advice to someone else dealing with psoriasis, I’d say it’s important to remember to live, laugh, and love — and keep in mind that there are always others who have it worse than you do. Psoriasis is difficult to deal with, but it’s not the end of the world. You just have to accept the hand you have been dealt in life and move forward.
I tell others that throughout your journey, some people will understand your condition. Others won’t. But your true friends and family will always be there to support you along the way. I know mine did.
Once, a 6-year-old boy asked me if I liked tattoos.
“No, not really,” I replied.
He looked at my skin and said, “Why do you have so many tattoos then?”
“I guess I like them more than I thought,” I said. “People always say once you get one tattoo, you get another, and I guess it became contagious!”
Sometimes you just have to look at the bright side of life.