Ten years ago this week, I was in the hospital with a rare acute allergic reaction called Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. I had been taking a mild antibiotic that had Sulfa in it…I am allergic to Sulfa based drugs, but did not know it. It started with flu like symptoms and a sensitive rash that turned into blisters. Once my rash and blistered covered body worsened, and my ulcerated mouth made eating a challenge, I was admitted to the hospital. I spent eight days and seven nights in the hospital as the Sulfa burned through my skin.
My skin has always been a perfect blend of my dad (who is Black) and my mom (who is White). I have always LOVED and embraced being mixed. As long as I can remember, I made it clear to everyone that I was both Black AND White. In the 4th grade I even spoke to a university class, with my parents, about being mixed.
As I got older, I recognized that my skin changed with the seasons. In the winter, I was lighter. In the summer, I was darker. My ever changing color always makes picking out the “perfect shade” of make up a challenge! In the summers, I would try and get enough sun to last as long into the winter as possible. This was mostly because I felt I looked healthier with darker skin. I know that sounds silly, but it’s just how I felt, and still feel sometimes. My skin has always ignited discussion from others. I have usually taken advantage of their curiosity by answering their questions, sharing my mixed story, and educating them about what it means for me to be mixed.
As I sat in the hospital, a few weeks before graduating with my Bachelors of Social Work from Azusa Pacific University, watching my skin literally flake off my body, I had a lot of questions for the doctors about what the final results would be. At this point, the skin that had fallen off was leaving very raw, fresh, pale pink, and sensitive skin. There were spots of this new skin surrounded by darker, unblistered, and unaffected skin. One day the infectious disease doctor came in for his daily visit.
Me: “What am I going to end up looking like?”
Doctor: “What do you mean?”
Me: “Am I going to look like Michael Jackson?”
(I know this might make me sound vain…and maybe it was a little…but I had stopped looking at my reflection. I no longer recognized myself in the mirror, and was having a difficult time remembering what “normal skin” felt like. I was beginning to realize that I might never look like my old self again.)
Doctor: “Well its hard to tell. We don’t really know.” (Looks at my mom) “You will probably end up being about her complexion.”
(My heart sank. Not because my mom isn’t beautiful, but because I LOVED my mixed skin. That is who I am, mixed. If it is washed away…than who would I be? I was speechless.)
My mom pulled out my senior picture to show the doctor.
Mom: “This is what she normally looks like.”
It was written all over the doctor’s face. He did not realize that I was mixed. I had been in the hospital for at least three or four days, and the doctor didn’t know I was mixed!
Doctor: “Oh, well, uh, we will just have to wait and see. Time will tell.”
WHAT!?! You are the doctor! You can’t tell me what is going to happen! As I was quickly learning, no one really knew the exact outcome of Stevens-Johnson. They didn’t even know what was the best way to treat it or prevent it from getting worse. Nurses from all over the hospital came to visit me. They had worked there for 10 years and had never seen a case. The only thing the doctors could tell me is that it has to run its course as it works through my system and out through my skin.
The doctor left and I was left in epidermis limbo. I was forced to start the process of coming to terms with my current changing color of skin.
Picture taken May 1, 2004. This was Day 7 in the hospital.
As my skin continued to flake off, my face was light, and like new baby skin. My arms and chest and back were spotted. Slowly the light spots gained pigment. I was hopeful that my skin would even out. However, the light spots continued to darken, eventually hyper-pigmentating. Now I had my color back, but I was spotted. After about nine months, lots of prayer, and a series of microdermabrasion treatments with my Dermatologist, my skin evened out. I still have a few lingering scars, but only I see them.
As I reflect back on the experience, I am thankful, and feel blessed, that my mixed skin was restored, but if it hadn’t been…I still would have been mixed, for mixed blood runs through my veins. My worry was never that I might be different, or having to come to terms with an altered appearance. I think my worry was that if my skin was lighter, spotted, or looked like Michael Jackson, that it would no longer be a catalyst for conversations where I could educate others about my mixedness. For someone who has always felt comfortable with my mixed identity, the thought of that being stripped away was scary. I realize now, more than ever, that being mixed, for me, is more than skin deep. My skin would have still been a discussion starter…but for a new purpose…surviving Steven Johnson. Now my skin tells an even more complex story, not only one of my mixed heritage, but of surviving Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. Who I am is obviously more than skin deep, but skin, for me… is a story starter.