I dread family or social gatherings. On such events, shaking hands and the occasional hugs are the norm. It comes naturally for most people, particularly when you are in the company of family members or acquaintances you have not met for some time. With people who have just been introduced to you, etiquette dictates you reach out to shake their hand as a gesture of respect.
For me, the simple act of shaking hands with someone can invite unwelcomed reactions, ranging from polite, subtle comments like, “Did you just wash your hands?” to nastier, cringed-out facial displays of disgust, “Urgh!”, as they gradually inch themselves away from me as if to avoid a deadly virus.
What most are not aware of is that I cannot control my hands, feet and underarms from dripping profusely with sweat. This is typical for hyperhidrosis sufferers like me. And I have had this condition since I was in primary school.
Humiliated As A Child
I was once hit on the hands by a teacher, who was totally oblivious to the condition, for drenching my writing book so much that the pages crumpled, making the sentences that I had written illegible. Some parts of my writing were covered with greyish marks as my wet palms smudged the pencil lead that I had used. I was shouted at, reprimanded and unjustly punished for something I had no control over, in front of more than 30 other pupils in the class. Imagine getting punished for a medical condition! Imagine the humiliation!
At the age of seven, how could I have defended myself when I didn’t even understand what I was suffering from? Thinking back, could an adult have endured such humiliation, let alone a seven-year-old child? I had no one to speak on my behalf. I never told my parents about the episode, thinking that it was my fault. So hyperhidrosis became something that I had to cope with as I grew up.
Living With Hyperhidrosis
Years later, my mother told me to try a potential relief for hyperhidrosis she had heard over the radio. It required that sufferers hold a handful of warm rice for a few minutes. Now, any sane hyperhidrosis sufferer would question how this method could work for the feet and armpits. Are we to step on warm rice or place it on our armpits as well? I laughed it off as being ridiculous but realised my mother was genuinely concerned… but unfortunately blinded into thinking something so illogical could work.
Needless to say, years later when I started working, I avoided shaking hands with people. Working in corporate communications, it was hard as meeting people within and outside of the company came with the job. Fortunately, my hyperhidrosis never became a talking point in places where I worked. I must have hidden my condition so well that nobody really noticed, or it could be that others knew but were just being sensitive towards something so personal.
It came to a point where shaking hands for me would happen only when there was an absolute need, such as in a situation when the person reached out to shake my hand. I would ensure that my hands were not dripping wet by rubbing them against my outfit. I would be selective of my clothes material, preferring cotton, which is more comfortable. Colours such as bright red or blue do nothing to camouflage my sweat, so those are definite “no-nos”.
I once wore a pair of yellow pants and as soon as I got out of the car, I could hear my daughter laughing. When I asked her why, she pointed to my bottom, which had become partly wet, creating a panty-line. That was when I did a rare power walk to my apartment, wary that the neighbours might spot me with a wet bottom! Choosing the right shoes is an uphill task, too. When my feet get too sweaty, there’s no grip and they slip off easily.
Singapore’s humidity makes it even harder for sweat to evaporate. Getting through customs was always a challenge as my thumbs were always too wet to pass the scanning machine. As this often happens to me, I am now exempted from having my thumbs scanned whenever I travel.
Now that I am a stay-at-home mum, I don’t worry as much about shaking hands with others. To get round the unsightly sweaty clothes situation, these days I am usually clad in my track pants and a dry-fit top. So if it appears that I’m sweating a lot, my attire acts like a justification – that I just came back from some exercise!
When I ramble about how uncomfortable it can get to go out with hyperhidrosis, my husband reminds me that it is not a debilitating condition. I also find comfort in knowing there are about 200 million people like me around the world, facing the same challenges that I face every day.
*Names changed to protect privacy.
This article first appeared in The Singapore Women’s Weekly.