Before my insecurities started, I was just a young tow-headed, blue-eyed boy in elementary school, strategizing a game plan to dominate dodgeball come recess. After, I was that same boy, but I spent all of my time concocting stories to hide my secret from the world for just one more day.
My secret: I have psoriasis.
"That redness at the edge of my scalp? That's just irritation from my football helmet."
"Those white flakes nestled in my hair? Just hair gel that I didn't blend in well enough."
"Diving in the pool with my t-shirt still on? I was just so excited I dove straight in."
The memory of my very first dermatologist appointment is still clear as day. Sitting on the cold table with my mom by my side, I anxiously anticipated the doctor's arrival. I was already nervous about the rash that had taken my body hostage, and my apprehension was growing by the second. I survived a thorough inspection of my back and scalp, but my worst nightmare became a reality with one single question.
"Are there any other areas of your body affected?"
Gesturing her hand toward my groin, my mother exposed the final area this sudden outbreak was affecting.
My head collapsed with embarrassment. My cheeks flushed with angst. My heart fluttered with fear. My hands clenched tighter than ever before around the waistband of my athletic shorts. With complete certainty, I shook my head in blatant disapproval at the doctor's request to examine what every child that age considers absolutely private. My mother shifted back and forth from sincere pleas to stern demands, but I continued to hold out as best I could.
The doctor, however, committed to finishing her evaluation and providing her diagnosis. Closing my eyes through the examination, I pulled my pants back up as fast as humanly possible and stared blankly at the wall behind her.
Want to know the kicker? After that entire ordeal, she didn't even diagnosis my condition correctly. "It's just eczema," she said. "Very common in younger children." That day was the first time I ever felt violated. Ever felt a lack of control. Ever felt truly ashamed in my own skin.
Seventy miles from home, my psoriasis was officially diagnosed at a top medical facility, Yale New Haven Dermatology.
Medically speaking, psoriasis is pretty cut and dry: "Psoriasis is a chronic inflammatory skin disease that is caused by an overactive immune system. This causes the body to grow skin cells up to ten times faster than normal. Instead of shedding, these skin cells pile up on top of each other and form red, raised patches of skin, called plaques." It doesn't cause dire health risks or change the way you can live your life—medically speaking. Psychologically speaking, psoriasis can alter your life instantly.
I Felt Different
Leaving the doctor's office with a prescription and a handful of sample medication, I felt the first glimmer of hope since feeling that first plaque atop the crown of my head.
But applying that medication did more harm than good. It entailed liberally applying a thick, greasy oil onto my hair and scalp. Not to mention, the smell resembled Skippy peanut butter. It also came with a shower cap to avoid ruining anything in my house. Even though the cap was tight, leaving a bright red mark across my forehead for hours, the oil would still somehow find its way out and stream down the sides of my face. In order to watch TV with the family, I had to place bath towels across the couch as a second wall of defense against stains. Before bed, I lined my sheets and pillows with more towels, because sometimes the cap would come off and completely ruin them.
I knew for a fact none of my friends were at home doing this. Just me. I must have done something to deserve this. Slowly but surely, I started avoiding the medication. I loathed being even more different than I already was. But my mother would remind me to put it on every day. I resented her for even bringing it up. I wish she would just ignore it. Like I tried to do.
I Hid Myself
The excuses I was creating to hide my psoriasis began to hide the person I truly was. I began to develop a facade. An alter ego.
Outside of my closest friends and family (to whom I showed my lively and gregarious personality), I became an introvert. Making new friends terrified me. I was more content sticking close by friends from preschool, the ones who already accepted me.
My friends were social butterflies, though, and soon enough our weekly hangouts doubled in size. I became accustomed to changing my lifestyle to hide my psoriasis. I wore jeans as long as possible to cover my shins; altered my hairstyle, mastering how to swiftly brush away the "dandruff" I left behind on couches and pillows without anyone seeing; and never took off my shoes or socks to hide the psoriasis affecting my toenails.
This strategy wasn't a solution to my problems, but rather a Band-Aid to cover the wound. It allowed me to temporarily cope with my pain. Unfortunately, it didn't stick for very long.
When I used to argue with my mom over that greasy medicine, she would attempt an array of tactics to persuade me to put it on. Although her intentions were always pure and heartfelt, one of her pleas stuck with me.
"C'mon, Ry, put on your medicine. What are you going to do when a girl puts her fingers through your hair."
The thought alone was enough for me never want to experience it. I convinced myself that a girl would never be attracted to me. In my eyes, I was disgusting.
Instead, my focus turned solely to sports.
Football became my escape. My sanctuary. A safe haven. On the field, no one cared about your looks or personal faults. On the field, you were judged solely on your talent. It was neither a popularity contest nor a beauty pageant; it was merely a collection of work ethic, determination, drive, and passion.
More importantly, football is the embodiment of a team sport. Together, you are eleven brothers banding together in an attempt to successfully complete a specific task every play. Win enough plays, and your team wins the game. My team became my identity.
Behind my face mask, I was able to become the truest form of myself. My shoulder pads served as my armor. My uniform declared my allegiance to a greater cause. Strapping up my equipment every day was my metamorphosis; I became more and more impenetrable with every piece of armor.
Football carried me directly into high school—as long as I was successful on the field, I could ignore the problems I faced off of it. Walking into the locker room for the first day of freshman football practice, I had high expectations for the season to come.
Except things never go according to plan.
My expectations and dreams were shattered quicker than my sprint out onto the dry practice field. Lining up into our prospective positions, I realized this was no longer Pop Warner football. Weight limits no longer predetermined your division or team; now it was every man for himself, regardless of size.
My competition for the starting spot was 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, and one strong son of a bitch. I, on the other hand, was barely 5-foot-4 on a good day, weighed a soft 150 pounds, and couldn't even bench press 135 for a single.
Once again, the situation was beyond my control. Or was it? It was time for me to take my life into my own hands.
I always referred to Tony as my uncle. He was an intimidating man, sporting a thick mustache, crew cut, and bold tattoos. It was his physical prowess that caught my attention the most. Tony was the epitome of muscle. The definition of fitness. A true representation of strength.
His expertise was exactly what I needed.
Working up the courage to ask him to take me under his wing was one the hardest things I had done up until that point. With a tremble in the back of my throat, I mustered the words just faintly enough for him to hear me. "Hey, Tony. I want to get bigger for football, so I can start varsity next year. Can you help me?"
Tony was reluctant; he had been asked this countless times before. He took his training sessions seriously and wasn't keen on yet another young kid wasting his time.
Being such longtime friends of my parents, however, he agreed to let me train with him if I agreed to three conditions:
- Show up every single day ready to bust my ass. He refused to let me slow him down.
- Purchase a brand new pair of shoes to permanently take residence in his basement.
- Smile and have fun. In order to be successful, I had to enjoy the process.
Determined to live up to Tony's standards, I showed up ready to give him every single ounce of work ethic I had. He stood behind me every step of the way—every rep, every set, every success, every failure. He was a booming voice that told me keep going when I was ready to stop. He would push me to my breaking point, then would offer his hand to pick me up.
I was working harder than I ever worked in my entire life. I saw the weight on the scale rising, but I still wasn't seeing that drastic change I was desperately seeking. Disappointed, I expressed my frustration, asking naively, "How come I'm not as big as him yet?" pointing to the cover model on an issue of Muscle & Fitness in the corner.
Tony's answer: "If it was easy, then everybody would do it."
The words resonated with me, but secretly I remained frustrated. With every achievement and success in Tony's basement, I was reminded of my psoriasis. A new personal best on the bench press was humbled by the flakes left behind on the dark leather. A set of heavy squats would pull and stretch the plaques along my obliques, causing an enormous amount of pain. No matter how hard I trained, I was always reminded that it still controlled me.
As the season approached, team meetings kicked off. Walking down into the locker room for the first time in about a year, I shook the hands of my coaches. "What in the world did you do?" they asked. With sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat, I asked, "What do you mean?"
"You've gotten huge. What have you been doing?"
Softly chuckling, I finally swallowed the knot in my throat, and my heart rate returned to normal.
"Just training really hard coach. I'm ready for this year."
A few weeks later, during our preseason performance testing, I blew it out of the water. I had noticeably put on the most strength during the offseason.
My hard work continued to pay out dividends in success. That season, as our team ran onto the field for our season opener underneath those immortal Friday Night Lights, I was a starter. While the success on the field was paramount to me, it was the result I was least expecting that made all the difference.
What I Least Expected
When I first started training, I was there for a single purpose: football. To simply become bigger, faster, and stronger. It's all I needed or wanted. So I thought.
Taking a big step back and looking at my life after I changed physically, I realized there was another part of me that was different. Slowly, I was gaining confidence and crafting my own identity. I was rediscovering that young, outgoing boy.
Sure, I still had a long way to go. I was still unwilling to pursue girls romantically. I still avoided being the center of any social gathering. I still struggled with myself when I saw my psoriasis in the mirror. I still got dispirited feeling the hard, scaly plaques across my obliques. Psoriasis still sucked. Except instead of trying to ignore it, I began learning how to look past it.
Training develops more than just desirable abs or an appealing pair of arms. It develops your mind to perceive the things you never before thought possible.
Training develops more than just desirable abs or an appealing pair of arms. It develops your mind to perceive the things you never before thought possible. It teaches you the power your mind truly possesses. Every time you do one more rep than anticipated, you get a touch stronger. Every time you add one more pound to the bar, you break past a mental barrier. Training teaches you that if you want something, you need to go out and fight for every inch of it. Training teaches you to appreciate your body and the ability you have to change it.
This article is not about my actual psoriasis, but rather the impact it had on me. Change out psoriasis for anything else: bad acne, rosacea, vitiligo, obesity, depression…
The fact of the matter is we all have battled something. Each and every single one of us has had to deal with something that has made us feel different, or feel insecure and doubt ourselves. Each of us has felt the pain of something that’s out of our control. In the end, it is these differences that make us unique. It's what builds our character and creates our stories.
This article is about finding solace. It's about learning to control the things you can to overcome the things you cannot. For so long, I focused on the wrong things. I was obsessed with finding a cure for my condition. Topical medications, shots underneath my finger and toenails, UV-B tanning beds, holistic medicine, acupuncture, dietary changes, immune-suppressant shots. You name it, I tried it.
What I should have been focusing on were the positive things in my life. The amazing family I have always had. The genuine friendships I have made, past and present. The love I have shared. The lives I have touched by training. The blessings I have received in every aspect of my life.
The truth is nobody was staring at my psoriasis and thinking that I was disgusting. That was just my own insecurities and negativity feeding my brain. Now whenever someone asks me, “What's that redness on your scalp?" I don't shrug my shoulders and try to change the subject. I just say, "Oh, I have psoriasis." Then they say something along the lines of, “Oh, I didn't know. Sorry, dude.” And the conversation is over. They don't look at me differently or flare their nostrils in disgust. We simply move on.
I realize now that without my psoriasis, I wouldn't be the person I am today. I may never have found football. I may never have gotten to know Tony as well as I did. He may never have become my mentor and the most impactful figure in my life. I may never have found my calling to become a personal trainer.
Psoriasis was my darkness, but it was also my saving grace. Without the darkness, the light would be blinding. It is because of the darkness that once the light became visible, I could welcome it with open arms.