“Oft hope is born when all is forlorn.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
Surely despair is the last thing anyone wants to experience. Feeling hopeless; dejected; lost; how could that possibly be a good thing?
I’ve had red, dry, itchy skin since I was born. There have been times when it’s gone away, like when I first started to meditate or when I lived in Malawi at the age of 5. But most of the time, I’ve been feverishly scratching itches on my body, particularly on my head, neck and the backs of my knees.
My attitude towards it has generally been to just put up with it, accepting that it’s a fact of my life. About 80% of children with eczema grow out of it; I’m in the 20% who don’t.
Towards the end of last year, it got really bad. There was almost no part of my body that I wasn’t scratching. Most nights, I would scratch so much I left blood and skin on the sheets. It got to the point where bending my arms and legs was really uncomfortable because the skin was so raw.
I felt incredibly frustrated, despairing and down about it. I was embarrassed and ashamed about what it looked like and when I stayed at someone else’s house and stained their sheets.
I also felt a lack of integrity, because I want my clients to believe that they can resolve any issue they set their mind to, and yet here was one issue that I didn’t think it was possible to address.
I was particularly frustrated because I felt I was trying really hard and making big sacrifices by giving up foods I love to eat: bread, cheese, yoghurt, ice cream and cake, in the hope that it would help my skin. Sugar, wheat and dairy are often said to exacerbate eczema.
When I first gave those things up it got better for a bit, which got my hopes up and then it got worse again, dashing them.
I did a food intolerance test which said I should also give up another 30 types of food including nuts, oranges, rice, peas and pineapple.
When I started this round of elimination, my skin seemed to heal dramatically, to the point where I was imagining telling people, excitedly, that I’d finally found the cure. Then, seemingly cruelly, it got worse again.
This was when I really started to despair. I was so desperate to heal but I had no idea how. I would also beat myself up for occasions when I’d broken my restrictions, and frustratedly told myself that if I could just be more disciplined I might get better.
Inspired by a podcast about the 12-steps approach to addiction, where one of the steps is acknowledging that you can’t do this by yourself, I posted a picture of my raw skin on Facebook and asked if people had any suggestions.
The response was overwhelming. I collated 7 pages of advicefrom 128 comments on the post. It was amazing and wonderful to see how many people, some of whom I barely know, wanted to help me. It was also impossible to act on all of the advice, some of which was contradictory, or would involve time and money, and couldn’t be done simultaneously. Where to start? Who’s got the answer?
A while ago, I went to a talk by one of my favourite authors, Charles Eisenstein, called The fertile ground of bewilderment. His message was that, in the space of not knowing what to do, unexpected and amazing things can emerge. You can open up to new ideas and avenues that you wouldn’t have considered before. So I decided not to rush to find the answer, but to be patient.
I had a conversation with someone who had lifelong eczema but found using steroid cream everyday kept his skin clear. My belief was that eczema had a cause and that the itchiness was a symptom that steroids would mask. I’d tried using it before and the eczema came back as soon as the cream ran out. It also has potentially harmful side-effects.
I did some sessions with people to see if we could find an emotional cause, and it seemed like it might be linked to anger or frustration. I did some work on releasing that, but the itching continued.
In early January, a family friend who’s a GP had a chat with me about it. He said that maybe the steroid cream hadn’t worked last time because I came off it too quickly. He suggested giving me a strong dose and then gradually reducing it and combining that with an anti-inflammatory pill.
A few hours later, I came back from the chemist with a massive bag of creams(by the way, did you know that for £30 you can get unlimited prescriptions for three months using a prepayment certificate? That saved me a lot of money!). Within days, it started to clear up and it’s currently the best it’s been for months. It’s such a relief to finally have soft, clear skin again, although it’s still not 100%.
But what about the root cause? I’m still actively exploring that. A chiropractor I’ve been seeing for two years identified that I have a problem with my gut. She told me to make linseed tea and bone broth.
I was resistant to the idea of the broth at first, having not eaten meat more than two or three times in 18 months. I was a ‘pesky-vegan’ (vegan plus fish!) for a combination of ethical and health reasons.
But I decided to do it, if that’s what it would take to heal.
The slow cooker circulated a fatty, boney smell around our one bedroom flat for two days. It was not the best aroma to wake up to!
But drinking it felt good and, after a week, my chiropractor said that my gut was healing.
I was still on my very restricted diet until I went to an event where there was a massive block of blue cheese. I just thought, ’Screw it! I’m eating it.’ And I gorged on it.
I’d started doing a nutrition course that said that the only way you can really know what food is right for your body is to pay close attention to how it feels during and after eating it. Science is always contradicting itself.
So I just decided to drop all the diet rules and it felt so liberating!
In the last week, I’ve had spaghetti bolognese, steak and a burger.
On Sunday, my sister’s jaw dropped when she walked into the pub while I was halfway through my second roast beef in two weeks.
It’s been a kind of explosion of suppressed desire and it feels great to set it free. I started to think about how often in my life I’ve thought that in order to be successful in my work, to be a friend, to be in a relationship, to be healthy, to be ethical, I needed to suppress my desires. But maybe the opposite is true. Maybe life is calling on us all to listen to and act on them.
This is a model of human nature that says that we can trust ourselves; we don’t need a guru, scientist or guilt complex to tell us what to do.
It reminds me of the Howard Thurman quote: ‘Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go and do that, because the world needs people who have come alive.’
It’s exciting and inspiring to be around someone who’s joyfully doing what they love. But how often do we let ourselves do that?
Another reflection I’ve had in this process is that there have been several other times in my life when I felt despairing about a situation and had no idea how to move forward, but it led to a really positive transformation in my life.
I still don’t have ‘the answer’ or a formula for solving my problems or yours. But I feel fully committed to continuing to search, keep an open mind, and keep trying things until my skin is healed. So, in a way, it’s already happened.
I realised it’s only now that I’ve experienced reaching a state of despair that I feel so much determination. When I was 19, my girlfriend at the time printed out a whole load of information she’d found about eczema, in the hope that it would help me. I didn’t even look at it. I had all this resistance to really facing the issue head-on.
Much of that resistance has now gone, and I’m so grateful for the gift of despair.
Originally published at www.wellbeingcapitalpartners.co.uk on February 8, 2019.