When I was a kid, I was – for one reason or another, usually childish malingering – in the GP’s surgery more often than a kid should care to be. The GP would always say that I looked “very pale.” He encouraged my mum to get me out into the sunlight as frequently as possible. Mum concurred, and I was thrust into the world at every available opportunity to become more “healthy looking.”
I went brown, and then I went browner still. I felt that being light-skinned was something to be ashamed of. By the time I was 37 I was the brownest white person this side of Greece (if you can forget for a moment that Jodie Marsh ever existed). I was the Tanning Champion of the World. So dark-skinned was I that people would ask me if I was “from the Med.” I was quite proud of this. Nobody, but nobody, could ever accuse me of looking “pale and unhealthy.”
And then – irony of ironies – I got vitiligo.
What the hell is vitiligo? Nope, I wouldn’t have known either if I didn’t have the bloody thing. Vitiligo (pronounced vit-ill-eye-go) is a skin disease that causes patches of your skin to go white. And by white I don’t mean creamy or pinky or celtic white, I mean white white. Paper white. Cue ball white. Corpse white. What happens is that the cells responsible for your skin’s pigmentation (melanocytes) cease to function: they have, in all likelihood, been killed off by a wayward immune system. There is no known cure. Its only physical effect is the depigmentation of your skin. (For a more in-depth description of vitiligo, its symptoms, and its effects, you can read more at The Vitiligo Society website
My vitiligo began on my face, of all places, in Spring 2008. As I hadn’t seen the sun in a good while, I thought at first that last summer’s tan was fading unevenly. I thought it was odd but no more. Over the course of the next few weeks the patchiness on my face became increasingly pronounced, and I began to seriously worry about it. There were brown patches on my face that seemed to be getting darker, and there were lighter patches on my face that were definitely getting lighter. (My dark skin wasn’t, in fact, getting darker – this was an illusion created by the lighter patches). And then, in the blink of an eye, I was – and I hate this word but it’s probably the most apt one – piebald. People began staring at me in the street (some of the fuckers literally craning their necks to get a better look). I began to find it difficult to leave the house. I wondered what the hell was wrong with me.
Shortly after my face began to depigment, other areas of my body began to follow suit. I suddenly had some white fingers and I had some brown fingers. My neck, my chest, my legs, everywhere, went patchy. I was pretty much devastated.
Within a couple of months I went from being a normal, not unconfident, person to a shell of a man. I stopped going to work. I stopped seeing my friends. I just stopped, full stop. I felt that I looked like someone who’d had a bucket of acid thrown over them.
After about three months isolation, with some total areas of depigmentation on my now map-like face and body, I motivated myself to go to the GP. The stares on the way to the surgery and in the waiting room were horrible. I felt like a freak. I was a shaking, anxiety-ridden wreck. From the GP to the hospital and blood tests for Addison’s Disease and thyroid disorders… My bloods were ok, thankfully. Then I saw a dermatologist, who confirmed that I did indeed have vitiligo and prescribed… a floppy hat. I must never, ever, go in the sun again, I must wear sunblock even in the winter (I can burn in literally two minutes on a sunny day), and the best I could hope for was that the depigmentation would be total, and fast.
The dermatologist did, however, book me an appointment with the Red Cross. The Red Cross is the only organisation in the UK that provides a skin-colouring test for the provision of what they call “camouflage” for vitiligo sufferers. What happens is that you sit in a chair while a very nice elderly lady takes out several pots of a hard, muddy substance, and “fills in” your white patches using a finger dabbed in that substance. The colour that matched my dark patches was “Light Indian.” I asked the nice lady if this was a very common disorder and she told me it was, and that she’d just had a nineteen year old girl in with a level of depigmentation not dissimilar to my own. I felt so, so sorry for that poor girl. If this condition had so shafted me – a middle-aged working class bloke from Brum – then what the hell must it be doing to a young girl like that? I made a donation to the Red Cross and went off with my little pot of mud, feeling miserable for a girl I’d never met, but hopeful that this tiny pot might help get my life back on track.
I used the pot of mud for the next few months. It would take about two hours to accurately fill in the depigmented gaps on my face. It was an extremely tedious process. I had some sort of powder to put on top of it to make it waterproof, but I couldn’t get on with it and usually left it, hoping to god it wouldn’t rain. Sometimes I’d put too much mud on and have to wash it all off and start again. But I thought I looked ok-ish when it was all done properly. I started getting out and about again. I regained a semblance of confidence, and my totally ballsed-up self-esteem scraped itself off rock bottom to somewhere near the bottom. I began working for my dad’s business. It wasn’t my line of work but it was something. I grew my hair long to cover my horribly patchy neck. My friends and family were by now aware of the problem and kept schtum about it, like you do. Then, in a jewellers shop in Brum, a shop assistant asked me if I was “in the theatre.” I asked her what she meant and she said that she wondered, seeing as I was wearing makeup, if I was an actor. I could have died.
I carried on using the mud but with a lot less confidence. I was afraid to get too close to people I didn’t know in case they noticed my “camouflage” too.
Last year, my face thankfully became totally white. I think I’m lucky in a way as the process of depigmentation seems to have stopped now. I have completely white face and hands. Everywhere else is, and will probably remain, patchy brown and white. I would have been really pissed off if the depigmentation had stopped when I had two brown cheeks. That would have been just rubbish.
As it stands, I now tend to just use tinted moisturiser or (dare I say it, being a bloke) foundation. There, said it. I’m not ashamed of that, just a bit embarrassed. I don’t attempt to look brown; my only desire is to take the corpse-like glare off my face. I hate going out in the daylight, and I rarely go to “new” places, just in case the lighting is too severe. I still don’t like being too close to people, and I perpetually worry if I’ve got my colour “right.” I don’t think I’ll ever be the person I was in my former life, but I’m slowly getting to grips with it.
My children, bless their souls, remind me from time to time how bad I look. My partner paid me a compliment the other week to which my eldest said “How can you say that, mummy – look at his hideous skin!”
There are several different “classes” of vitiligo. The class or type you have depends on the areas where depigmentation has occurred. Some sufferers’ depigmentation is restricted to one area, for example to a hand or an arm. You have probably seen someone with this type of vitiligo. I think it’s the most common. It is known as “focal” vitiligo. The rapper Krizz Kaliko has this. Krizz’s depigmentation occurs around his eyes. His first album was actually called “Vitiligo.”
“Universal” vitiligo is the class applicable to me. This is when depigmentation occurs over the whole body. I suspect that the most famous vitiligo sufferer, Michael Jackson, might have had this type of vitiligo too. I was never a Jacko fan, but it annoys me when people insinuate that he was attempting to become a “white man.” If he did have his skin bleached then that would most likely have been to “even out” his colour. Bleaching treatment is available in the US for vitiligo sufferers.
N.B: it has been widely reported that Prince Michael Jackson (Michael’s eldest son) is also a vitiligo sufferer, at least putting to bed the rumours of his parenthood I suppose..