Successful graphic designer, Sue Calf, has lived with the pain and itchiness of the chronic skin disorder psoriasis for as long as she can remember. "I was first diagnosed with the condition when I was four years old," she recalls, "and have suffered from just about every type over the years since."
Sue started off with scalp psoriasis and a few spots of guttate psoriasis on her body, which became increasingly prominent and noticeable during her childhood. "I have had very bad guttate psoriasis all over my body for most of my childhood and adult life," she explains, "and currently suffer from nail psoriasis on my toes and pustular psoriasis on my ankles and feet as well."
In addition to being a successful entrepreneur and mother, Sue is also a keen potter and jewellery designer, passions that she suggests are an important part of coping with the life-long skin disorder. "You have to find ways to make yourself happy," she suggests, "because the condition is not going anywhere."
About guttate psoriasis
Guttate psoriasis is also known as ‘tear drop’ or ‘rain drop’ psoriasis (the name was derived from the Latin, Guttae, which means drops), and is a generalised rash of small spots. It can occur at any age, but tends to occur most often in children, adolescents and younger adults.
It is thought that streptococcal throat infection, and other viral or bacterial infections trigger guttate psoriasis.
Guttate psoriasis often clears up after a number of weeks, or a few months but if not, a dermatologist may use ultraviolet light therapy to treat persistent guttate psoriasis, which is often quite effective.
Dealing with the disgust
The physical discomfort of the condition is testing enough, but Sue identifies the stigma and psychological challenge as the biggest ordeal. "The physical discomfort and itchiness can be unbearable," she confirms, "and it's frustrating not being able to wear certain clothes or shoes and to always be looking out for what is in skin products, make up and shampoos, but being ostracised and teased mercilessly as a child was much worse."
One particular incident took place when she was eight and changing for a school swimming lesson.
"The entire group of girls were whispering and staring," Sue recalls. "One girl pulled a funny face and asked what was wrong with me, saying that I looked disgusting. I didn't know what to say so I tried to make light of it by joking that I had a deadly disease, chicken pox or measles, and that I was going to make everyone catch it. They all stepped back and a few screamed. I tried to tell them I was joking, but I could still feel the disgust."
Incidents like that left Sue feeling ashamed and insecure. "I felt as if there was something wrong and nasty about me," she explains. "I had no self-confidence or esteem. I have never had the carefree life of swimming, shorts and T-shirts that our wonderful South African climate encourages."
Although Sue has learnt to cope with it better, the stigma is just as common today. "I still see people looking at me," she affirms. "They don't say much, but I still get the funny looks and it does still affect me."
Test your knowledge: How much do you know about psoriasis?
Learning and sharing with others
The lack of understanding about psoriasis is something that Sue believes sufferers have a role to play in tackling — by ensuring they are well informed about their condition and can share their knowledge with others. "It's not enough to just tell people psoriasis isn't contagious," she maintains, "when people ask 'what have you got?' you need to be able to explain the process, the over multiplication of cells and so on, in a way that they will understand."
Find the right therapy for you
Like many sufferers, Sue has tried every kind of remedy over the years. She has also given up for long periods because nothing seemed to help. "I have tried every remedy, quack cure, tar, paste and medication," she confirms. "I even stopped for fifteen years, despairing that anything could help, but I would urge people not to give up. You've got to control it by finding something that works for you and sticking with it."
Sue is reluctant to give advice, but, when pressed, she sums up decades of managing her condition. "Don't let your outward appearance define who you are," she concludes, "and don't waste your time and money on false promises and instant cures, none of them work. Rather spend it on a good psychologist, your happiness and self-fulfillment."