I left high school before completing my final year. After a long discussion with my Dad about academic achievement and opportunities, he agreed to me leaving high school on one condition. I had to find a job – a “good job,” not a supermarket check-out girl or waitress but something that could lead to more. An apprenticeship would be the perfect answer.
I accepted the challenge with confidence and spent that summer working hard at one of the hairdressing salons in our little town in Victoria, Australia. At the end of the summer break and the age of 17, I was offered a hairdressing apprenticeship which I enthusiastically accepted, as owning my own salon was one of the career choices I had talked about since being a kid. I was pleased that I could leave my high school years behind and finally move into the world of adulthood.
For eighteen months I worked hard sweeping floors, washing hair and attending trade school to gain my cutting and coloring skills. Although I sometimes missed hanging out with my friends and being a part of their teenage school world, I was happy in my own skin and the choices I had made. I moved into my own flat, making confident strides towards adulthood.
Not long after being awarded my own column in the salon’s booking folder I developed a sore, itchy rash on my hands. My trade-school friend Belinda had something similar and advised me to start wearing gloves for shampoos, rinsing perms and colors, moisturize my hands regularly and to keep it on the low – I didn’t want my boss sacking me for developing a condition that was counteractive to the job. I made an appointment with my GP and did as Belinda advised, but the rash spread up my arms and onto my face, where it took more work to hide. I covered it with thicker foundation and tried not to scratch when my boss was watching.
When the appointment arrived I explained my worries to my doctor and he assured me that it couldn't be from work as I had been there for so long and hadn't presented with any problems before then. Instead, he diagnosed me with scabies which at once relieved and disgusted me. I felt as though my body was betraying me, my skin was working against my dreams of independence.
Nevertheless, I took the treatment numerous times, covering my skin from head to toe in the lotion, boiling my sheets and towels once a week for a month. But, the rash simply spread and became worse - my hands were red and swollen, and the skin on my knuckles hardened to a shell-like texture which cracked and bled when I moved my fingers. I covered them with gloves when at work, slept with frozen peas in my hands to numb the pain and prayed I wouldn’t get found out.
I was sure that I was allergic to my job and I was frightened that if I was right I would have to quit. My new-found freedom and access to the adult world would be revoked and I would have to return to high school – a Beauty School drop-out, just like Frenchie from Grease. Or worse, I would be consigned to the scrapheap of unqualified teenagers, destined to never make anything of myself and working on the checkout of the local supermarket for the rest of my days.
After getting nowhere with my doctor, who seemed totally uninterested in my skin issues, I changed my GP. The new doctor prescribed cortisone cream. It didn’t help and I spent my nights worried about the consequences of my skin’s revolt against my chosen profession. Although I regularly slathered my hands with the cream and religiously wore cotton and latex gloves when working, they remained the hands of someone else – an old crone or a horror movie monster. I still slept at night holding bags of frozen peas. Hoping against hope that my skin would return to normal by morning, but it never did and my confidence in a bright future dimmed.
The rash spread over my body, angry red patches appeared at my groin, my legs were dry and itchy and my hands looked like claws. Not knowing what else to do I changed doctors again and this time was prescribed strong cortisone tablets. It cleared up the rash in just days.
I was ecstatic! The miracle cure had given me back my skin, I could move my hands without pain and I could work without the sidelong glances from my boss. I looked healthy again! I hoped that I had beaten it and even stopped wearing gloves for a while. When the prescription finished I returned to the new doctor, effusively talking about the wondrous change I had experienced and only within a few days of starting the medication.
His reply had me falling back to reality with a thump - I couldn't continue the pills indefinitely. The risk of presenting with the known side effects of insomnia, mood changes, dizziness, nausea and stomach pain were too strong. Desperate, I asked if I could at least have one repeat prescription to be able to keep working and he declined, telling me that I should protect my hands with cotton, then latex gloves over the top if I wanted to continue working as a hairdresser.
Unfortunately, the rash returned with a vengeance. My hands split open and my feet blistered, it covered around 70% of my body, stretching from my feet up to my knees, returning to my groin area and spreading along my shoulders, up my neck and over my face, down my arms and turning my hands to claws which bled from the knuckles or creases of my palms if I flexed them either way. I hobbled into work and was sent straight home, told not to come back until I looked better again. It’s difficult to work in the beauty industry if you look frightening. I was scared of the future and ashamed of my skin.
Rather than go home, I went to visit my father and talk about what was happening to me. I was expecting a tirade about my poor decision to leave school and indeed when I explained what had been happening over the past six months, he was angrier than I had seen him in a long while – but not at me. He was angry that numerous doctors hadn’t helped me, he took me straight to his own doctor and at last, I was given an appointment to see a skin specialist in Melbourne.
The dermatologist looked over my near naked body and diagnosed me with severe contact dermatitis. He explained that sometimes a person's skin can react to substances after a prolonged period of time and it was likely I had developed an allergic reaction to something that I was regularly in contact with. Careful not to explicitly say that I was allergic to my job, he scheduled me for patch testing at Monash University Hospital, telling me to bring some of the substances used in the salon so they could be included in the patch tests, but not return to work.
I reluctantly did as advised and took along the salon chemicals. I wanted my skin to get better, but I didn’t want to give up the future I had planned. I felt as fragile as the skin that had come to betray my dreams. Various substances were dropped onto little disks and stuck to my back and chest with hypoallergenic surgical tape. I was sent home and told to return in two days, but not shower during that time.
I spent those two days avoiding thinking about the consequences of a positive result for the hairdressing chemicals. I cleaned my flat scrupulously. I scrubbed floors, washed windows and curtains, anything to keep my mind from the impending doom of losing my livelihood. If I lost my job, life as I had come to know it would go down the drain too.
When I returned the disks were gently peeled from my back and chest and I was asked to remain in a curtained cubical while student doctors viewed at the reaction of my skin. I stood there in a daze, on the edge of tears and feeling like a medical oddity. Once the students left, I was told that I'd had a reaction to nickel, hair and fabric dyes, perming solutions, and several types of grasses. Also, I would have to give up my work as a hairdresser.
I managed to contain myself until I was outside of the building, then I burst into tears. I had no idea how I was going to pay my rent or bills without a job and having left high school for this apprenticeship I was without formal qualifications and unlikely to find another job easily.
I quit my job the next day, my skin eventually healed and my confidence slowly returned as I regained my health. The diagnosis changed the course of my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I found alternative work as an administrator for an ostrich farm in New Zealand, gave up my flat and moved towards an unknown future as I slowly learned to love the skin I was in once more.