Erasing Vitiligo

By: Natalie Ambersley 

If someone would have told me I’d be contacting my doctor after my 30th birthday, asking to be treated for Vitiligo, I would have responded with “no chance”. The last time I sat in a hospital waiting for my dermatologist I was 9 years old.Being born the daughter of a black Jamaican man and a white English woman, meant I came into this world with caramel coloured skin. However, just before my second birthday my mum discovered a bright white patch on my hand, which slowly over time invaded my body.Looking back, it was clear that I’d never really accepted having Vitiligo.

My childhood years were pretty easy because I hadn’t been exposed to beauty standards. By the time I became a teenager, and kept seeing the same faces – white skin, straight hair and slim, however, I started to internalize that mixed race or darker women weren’t considered beautiful. To make matters worse, I had a skin condition which meant I stood no chance of fitting in the standard.So I tried everything, from steroid creams and oral tablets to changing my diet to make Vitiligo disappear. And yet nothing worked. Tired of the long visits to the hospital, my parents and I agreed that it was time to abandon all forms of treatment and decided to let my skin be.In 2012, however, my interest in Vitiligo treatments was sparked again. I read online about the UVB Narrowband treatment, which exposes the affected areas to UV light. People shared mixed results – some saying it worked straight away, while others said it made no impact at all. The success rate was 50/50 and I wanted to give it a go.

A few weeks later, I made my way to the hospital, ready to have my first session of UVB. The distinctive, disinfectant smell as I entered the foyer instantly transported me back to my childhood. Although my dislike towards this place hadn’t changed, I felt hopeful.Because UV light is harsh on the skin, there was the risk of burning the skin and of getting skin cancer. There was also the small risk that I would turn completely white, which worried me the most. The little skin that I had, that was brown and which cemented my mixed race identity, was now potentially at risk.

During my teens I struggled with my identity. Being mixed race but having a higher percentage of white skin, made me insecure. I started to question just how much I truly connected with my black side. Occasionally, people assumed I was a white person with a tan, or that I had a closer connection to my white side because my skin was fair. Both assumptions drove me insane.Throughout the treatment, I was able to put the risks aside as all I could visualise was a life without Vitiligo. A chance to live a ‘normal’ life, wearing the clothes that I wanted and not feeling embarrassed by my looks. 

After just 8 weeks, miraculously changes started to happen. My skin was starting to re-pigment in the form of tiny brown spots, which were slowly starting to connect together.Until this point, I wholeheartedly believed I was doing the right thing. In fact, seeing my natural pigment return so quickly made me a little obsessed about making sure I didn’t miss any appointments. I couldn’t help but feel excited that I was going to erase the one thing that had negatively affected so many areas of my life.The feeling of excitement subsided when a friend told me that she thought I was crazy for changing what made me, me. Initially, I thought her comments were a bit brash! She had no idea what it was like to live with Vitiligo. But as time went on and I thought about all those years I’d lived with this condition, I started to question if I was doing the right thing. Vitiligo was my identity.

After 14 months, I stopped the treatment plan altogether. I’d had more than enough sessions and I didn’t want to put my skin at risk any longer. I was happy with the results and had reduced my Vitiligo down to around 25%. Shortly after being discharged, I booked a holiday to Singapore where I wore a swimsuit for the first time. I didn't cover myself up with a kaftan and I wasn't worried about others looking at me, partly because of the success of the treatment, but also because I had learned to appreciate my skin for what it was. I felt a sense of freedom, I was finally able to do what I wanted.

I now realise it wasn’t my skin that was the problem. It was me. I’ve learnt to let go of perfection as I don’t believe it exists. I’m me. I’m beautiful and it really is that simple.

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