– by Dupsy Opiah, Guest Contributor
It all started one blessed day eight years ago. I went to bed and woke up to a dot. Yes, it all started as a dot, a little white spot, an atom on my right index finger. I initially overlooked it but it gradually became a little more noticeable, so I showed it to one of my colleagues, a nurse, who advised that I visit my dermatologist. The spot eventually grew so much that it was visible to anyone looking intently. This was the beginning of the “horror” that would follow me everyday as other white spots started to crop up on my brown skin.
I became the dotted lady in my own eyes. My right index finger, the stubborn finger as I would call it, was become more white and more noticeable, letting me know, Hey! I am here to stay! I applied different ointments on it but nothing worked. I visited a holistic doctor who explained that some people are born with this condition and others, like me, get it at a later stage of their lives. It can be treated in some people, but others, just have to live with it. I was one of those people who just had to live with it.
The doctor explained that what I had was a stress-related form of a condition called Vitiligo. Up until this point I hadn’t known the name of the blemish. The first time I heard the “V word” was when the late Michael Jackson said he had it! The doctor saying that I had a stress-induced case of Vitiligo made sense because when I noticed the first spot I was head of my department at an assisted living facility, managing over a hundred nurses and CNAs (Certified Nursing Assistant) as well as overseeing marketing, billing and scheduling. To say that I was stressed at the time would’ve been an understatement.
The doctor urged me to go vegan and to juice, which worked; it slowed the spread of my whitening skin. I found out that drinking matcha green tea helped add color back to my skin, as did kale/cilantro/cucumber smoothies. However, as the white parts of my skin started to darken, the dark parts of my skin were also darkening. At this point I figured I wasn’t winning. I saw more doctors around where I live; they all had different ideas of how to treat it. There are lots of options–long lasting makeup, laser treatments or chemical peels. I even had a consultation with a doctor in New York who would have treated me for free but I couldn’t travel to NY each week. I came back to Florida and my doctor advised me to just deal with it, that there is no treatment. It never occurred to me that perhaps my Vitiligo wasn’t something that needed to be fixed.
The scary part of all of this was how I was losing my color. There are different types of Vitiligo; some cover large parts of the body whereas others, like mine, appear as several small spots. My skin turns really dark right before turning light. Usually, the change takes place at night. I go to bed and wake up to a new spot. One morning I was in my little lady’s room in the dark with the door closed. (I wasn’t ready for the light to fully wake me up.) When I finally did turn on the light, I saw that my toes had turned white. I screamed. I thought I had spilled bleach on myself, LOL! My body, the way I was used to seeing myself, was changing rapidly and shockingly and there was nothing I could do about it. It might have been less shocking if all my skin changed at once instead of gradually. The patches really makes one noticeable. I was physically no longer completely black nor was I completely white. I was multicolored.
I started wearing only pants and long-sleeved blouses, covering the parts of my body that were now covered with “V.” No more shorts or skirts.
Dealing with people I work with and new people I’d meet was hard initially because I knew when they saw me, they were thinking, OMG what the @#! is that? I would just say to them, Hey! I have the Michael Jackson disease. And they would smile or laugh because I would laugh too and then I’d say, it’s only a matter of time that I’ll look just like Michael–a black woman who turned into a white woman, haha! I know it’s not contagious but, I always make light of it to put people at ease. At the end of the day, I am harder on myself than anyone that I come in contact with. We all have a certain level of consciousness when it comes to how we see ourselves and how we think other people see us. And when you visibly fall outside of the norm that consciousness is heightened, especially when people are surprised by how you look.
Different people have different reactions. Surprise is the usual reaction from people I haven’t seen for a long time. I sometimes joke that if I turn completely white I could start benefiting from some of the privileges white women have. Once, in the parking lot at Whole Foods I ran into a former colleague who told me I wore my vitiligo well. While another said she wished she had it too so she’d be less dark. I did not know what to do with those remarks other than laugh. My first daughter was dismayed when she saw what the V was doing to her mother’s beautiful body, she said, “mom you are beautiful, kind and giving. Why do you have to be the one to have this?” I said, “because I am someone who could handle it and make the best of it and enlighten the world.” My little one kind of saw it my way. She said, “Mom! I kind of like the design; it looks cool.” I agreed. My son is not bothered at all. He just advised that I eat healthy, detox and exercise, and I will be fine.
I admire America’s Next Top Model contestant, Chantelle Brown-Young (also known as Winnie Harlow), who’s had vitiligo most of her childhood and was bullied because of it. I find her brave for being able to endure. I love her for being bold and embracing the different colors of her skin. I’ve read of young lads committing suicide because they could not bare the pain of being different and being bullied. Being visibly different hasn’t been easy for me as an adult so I can’t imagine what it’s like for young people.
I certainly think that seeing people like Chantelle embrace what makes them different is powerful and necessary. I told a friend once that if Lady Gaga had vitiligo, she would make the best of it; she’d make art out of it. So I decided to look at the artistic side of my multi-colored skin. It’s part of nature’s design, something no man can explain or replicate.
Managing my vitiligo has become very easy. I’m about 60% covered now. It’ll likely cover more of my body, at which point I may consider a chemical peel to even out my skin. I don’t necessarily like the way my skin looks at the moment but I’ve gotten used to it. It hasn’t messed up my psyche. I no longer cover up. I wear any type of clothing without minding who looks or what anyone has to say, and I am loving it. It hasn’t stopped me from meeting real people because they look past it. They only see me and nothing else. My Vitiligo wasn’t something that I immediately embraced. But now I see it as a reflection of who I am and how the world is: varied, not homogenous. We’re all multifaceted we all have different shades to who we are and I now wear my different shades on my skin.