From Brenna's first week of life, we have held onto hope that as she grows up, she can be happy, she can do well in school, have lots of friends, go to college and successfully pursue whatever career or family life she wants. And this is because of older children and adults with severe forms of Ichthyosis who are happy and successful now, who have reached out and encouraged us along the way.
One of these people is Carly, who lives in Australia and has a type of Ichthyosis called Netherton's Syndrome. Carly writes a very popular blog herself, Tune Into Radio Carly, and it always gives me hope to read about her travels, schooling and writing adventures. She has also been a great teacher to me about living with Ichthyosis - she's always quick to respond to all my questions on twitter : ) - so I asked her if she would share with my blog readers about her life too...
Brenna and I have a few things in common. We both like shopping (I've seen her excitedly look though those store catalogues!), we are December babies, and we both have Ichthyosis. I have Ichthyosis form Erythroderma/Netherton's Syndrome - scaly red skin. There's 30 years between Brenna and I, and I am writing this guest blog post to let Brenna, her parents and readers know that even with Ichthyosis, life will be OK.
I live in Melbourne, Australia. I lead a very full life, working full time as an events planner and communicator for a department within the Australian government, and outside of my day job I keep a blog, write for various publications, speak at various community events, and volunteer my time to a community TV show called No Limits - focused on disability. I also have a big social life, spending time with friends enjoying good food, live music, shopping and movies. I have also just graduated from my Masters of Communication. And in mid-2012, I took my first overseas trip, visiting London, Los Angeles and New York. When do I find the time to live with Ichthyosis?!
In recent years, I have become so much more confident with my Ichthyosis. I have been sharing my story on my blog for around three years (though have been blogging for many more - leaving out the stuff about Ichthyosis as I chose to remain somewhat anonymous online). My appearance used to keep people away from me - for it was hard at school; kids thought they would catch it - but now it's my brand. Blogging has led to writing and TV work, speaking and becoming somewhat of a consultant in the social aspects of Ichthyosis, looking different and social media. While I was once strictly a patient at my dermatology clinic at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, I am now giving speeches to dermatologists and geneticists! I was also invited to speak at the Appearance Matters conference at a university in England after the Centre for Appearance Research found my blog. (You can read that speech, and more about me in greater detail here.)
Like Courtney and Evan, my parents did not know I had Ichthyosis until I was born. They had also just moved to Australia from South Africa and England, so I imagine their life was shaken up a lot. The doctors did not expect me to live. And though I had some very sick months as a baby, and lots of stays in the hospital as a child (and a few as an adult), I'm doing OK. My parents were great in bathing me, applying my creams and combing my scalp until I could do it myself. They took me to the dermatologist in the city and to hospital several times a year. They have been fantastic!
I'm not going to lie - things have been hard. I've been bullied as a child and adult, been ordered out of a store because the owner thought my cream would ruin the clothes she was selling, been told I'm ugly and disgusting, and been told I should be dead because of the way I look. But I have supportive parents, colleagues and friends which makes the difficult times easier.
My parents encouraged me to do everything that other kids did - though I am not one for sports (unless you count extreme shopping). I got good marks at school - excelling in English and History, went on to university to study a Bachelor of eCommerce, and worked part-time at a department store through the last year at high school and during my degree. It was at university and the store where I found my first real friends; they accepted me for who I am - Ichthyosis and all - and also learnt to handle the stares and comments in a professional way. It is tiring when people stare and comment on my appearance, but I am able to answer it in calm and simple way - "I was born like this".
When I was 21, I moved from the small country town (population 200) to the big city of Melbourne (population 4 million) to commence my first full-time job at the government. I love living here; I love the independence and the friendships I've made. I love blending in to this big city - while I do get stares, especially in the hot summer, this city is diverse and appreciates diversity. Because of my little media career, I sometimes get recognised as a writer or TV presenter by people in the street! It's nice to be stopped and spoken to positively.
In recent years I have identified with having a chronic illness (after mentoring a group of amazing young people with chronic illnesses at the Children's Hospital), and also as a member of the disability community. I have made so many friends and professional contacts, and when I'm in that community, I feel such kinship. In September 2012 I judged a disability film festival in Melbourne, and while exhausted from watching around 35 films in five days, plus going to work on three of those days, I loved meeting the people involved and seeing the films. Our disabilities may be very different, but we could all relate to society's perceptions of disability, access and inclusion issues, and the humorous side to disability.
Despite my appearance, I'm not afraid to have my photo taken - though I tend to put my 'best face forward' online and out of the house - as I never want people seeing me with infection at my worst. I believe everyone has the right to feel beautiful and express their own beauty. When at the film festival, I met New York fashion photographer-turned-social entrepreneur Rick Guidotti, founder of Positive Exposure. He talked about his work taking photos of people with a whole range of generic differences and disabilities, making them feel good about themselves and showcasing genetic difference and disability in a positive way. I think I met my hero in the appearance diversity field. He took photos of me, and we did an interview for TV and my blog. I encourage anyone with a visible difference to spend some time with Rick.
Sometimes I feel like I have to prove I am more than a red face, because people expect my life is so much worse than theirs. I strive for high marks in study, I push myself with my writing, and I fit so much into my life that I get tired, and sometimes very sick with sore skin. But while I am fit and as healthy as anyone can be with Ichthyosis, I'm going to live life to the full. And have a laugh along the way. Especially at the assumptions that people make about my skin.
I don't ask why Ichthyosis "happened" to me. It is what it is. A genetic condition for which currently there is no cure. I'm not in search for a cure - I've been there as a child and it was tiring. I don't blame my parents for carrying the recessive gene, and I don't wish I didn't have Ichthyosis. I am proud of who I am and the life that Ichthyosis has afforded me. I don't want sympathy from strangers, for I'm living with this illness, not dying from it.
I've been reading Blessed By Brenna since January 2012, and while Brenna's life was hanging in the balance, one of the first comments I left for Courtney and Evan was that when Brenna gets out of this difficult patch, her life will be a great one. And now that I've been reading for almost a year, seeing Brenna develop (I love that smile), and the love and positive attitudes that Courtney, Evan, Connor and all of you readers have for Brenna, I know she will be OK. More than OK.