It feels like life has come full circle for 28-year-old Yeo Jing Rui.
When we spoke to her, Jing Rui was experiencing the last vestiges of spring in the UK, having flown into the country from Singapore just a day earlier.
It may seem foolish to travel during the pandemic, but for Jing Rui, it finally represents progression in a life that has held her captive for most of her adult years and even before.
She is fulfilling what she calls her “life’s mission” of helping people heal from eczema — a condition she has been plagued with for as long as she could remember.
The UK holds a bittersweet place in her heart, because it is where she first developed severe eczema due to the sudden change in climate. She first travelled there as a baby, when her dad who was furthering his studies brought the whole family there.
That also marked the start of a decades-long battle with the skin condition, which morphed into something known as topical steroid withdrawal (TSW).
It may be hard to think of TSW as a debilitating condition, but it is more than just having red and itchy skin.
Looking at her Instagram account where she shares many photos of her skin in its traumatised form, it’s hard to imagine what Jing Rui has had to go through her whole life.
At its worst, the dry, flaky skin from her scalp to her toes would crack open to reveal weeping wounds that oozed pus. It was painful to even move. Her skin was extremely sensitive to temperature changes due to its inability to regulate heat.
“You’d feel either very hot or cold because your skin can’t regulate itself and you can’t sweat,” said Jing Rui.
“There’s also the physical pain of the skin being torn open. Even the mildest breeze blowing on the MRT will make you cringe. When my skin was bad I was always covered up because anything that touched it or interacted with it was painful, itchy or just uncomfortable.
“There was a time when I couldn’t wear pants because my skin was oozing and it’d just soak my pants, so I wore a towel at home,” she shared matter-of-factly.
Other symptoms that she experienced include enlarged lymph nodes, hair loss and weight loss. “I even considered becoming a nun, because I was also balding,” she shared. Jing Rui resorted to wearing hats when out, and covered herself up from her neck to her wrists and down to her calves.
Ups and downs
Jing Rui’s skin condition has gone through periods of ups and downs through the years. She shared that when she was younger, her skin would be soothed by steroid creams temporarily, but come back looking even worse. And that’s typically how the skin’s “addiction” to topical steroids begins.
In her teens, Jing Rui suspected her flare-ups had to do with the prescribed steroid creams that she had been applying religiously every single day from the time she was a baby. Acting on the hunch, she took a stand against her parents to stop relying on the creams, turning towards traditional Chinese medicine instead.
But as with many skin conditions, the stressors of daily life often made the flare-ups worse.
During her A-level year, her symptoms worsened and she relented to her dad’s suggestion of trying steroids again. She was admitted to hospital and put on an intensive regime of oral and topical steroids and antibiotics.
“As expected, in one week my skin was perfect-looking.” But when the medication wore off, her skin condition was the worst it had ever been.
“That was when I told myself, no way am I going back to steroids again.”
Quitting her job
But the most challenging period of her life was when she just started work after graduating from university. She had been working as a social worker for about a year when she felt a need to take a step back from her full-time role due to the discomfort.
Jing Rui shared of the difficulties she faced at work: “I would have to go to the washroom after half a day to clean myself down and then change my clothes because it was getting so flaky and uncomfortable inside.”
Thankfully, she had an understanding boss who made concessions when it came to her physical work environment, such as allowing her to work from the pantry because it was less cold and gradually allowing her to work only a few days a week.
But even with a part-time position, the physical, mental and emotional burden got too much to bear.
“After [switching to a part-time role], I still couldn’t take it. It was just too painful and it’s not easy talking to clients while also appearing completely terrible,” said Jing Rui with a smile. But she clarified that her clients were all “very understanding and didn’t probe too much”.
The stress of “clearing the emotional burdens of others” on top of her own ended up pushing her over the edge. “Every day, I would have a mini breakdown once I was home,” shared Jing Rui. “It was like a living hell.”
The depth of her grief over situations beyond her control shocked even herself.
“One day I was just in bed crying, and then I heard this howling sound, like someone at a funeral and I was like, ‘Oh my god, what’s that sound?’ Then I realised it was me.”
Jing Rui acknowledged that as with many other TSW sufferers, the uncertainties of the condition took a toll on her mental health.
“You feel very hopeless because you don’t know anyone who has actually healed from this and don’t know whether if you will ever heal.
“I didn’t see any purpose to life. So many people with TSW will also go through a suicidal or depressive stage, where you just don’t feel hopeful at all.
As a social worker herself who understands the importance of having support, she went for counselling. “But it’s very hard to find someone who can understand TSW”.
After resigning from her job completely, Jing Rui was unemployed for a year.
Describing how she was “lost by then”, she went in search of a multitude of alternative therapies within the span of two years. These included past life regression and energy work, which in the very least, said Jing Rui, helped to clear the emotional burdens that she had carried.
“There was a point in time when I started blaming my dad, like, ‘Why, when I was 18 years old, did you force me to go back to hospital and be on steroids again?'”
But she gradually understood that it wasn’t his fault, because “based on the knowledge that we had at the time, steroids were the only solution”.
“After processing all that, we are at a more healthy relationship now where we enjoy each other’s company, I no longer take [my parents’] comments personally or get angry towards them.”
As cliched as it may seem, in her most depressive phases, Jing Rui looked to inspiring figures such as the late Stephen Hawking to offer a glimmer of hope for her life.
“That’s how I motivated myself [to think that], you know what, this is not the end of the world. Somehow, I can still make something of myself. And I started working towards self-acceptance and love.”
Self-love did not come easy, especially in the face of subtle and outright rejection from others. The most distressing experience was when she was called out by a woman on the bus.
“Most people would just subtly move away or just not sit next to you. But she outwardly said, ‘You have a skin condition, don’t touch me.'”
That incident left Jing Rui “feeling very embarrassed, defeated and ashamed”, and in that moment, her tears just flowed.
The episode also shattered “a veil of delusion” that clouded her own perspective of her condition. Instead of convincing herself that “it’s not so bad”, another thought broke through. “I thought, ‘This is it, I’m just ugly’,” she shared.
Jing Rui is lucky that being a trained counsellor, she has managed to train her mind to reframe any negative thoughts. It’s like conducting self-therapy, she joked.
“I had to decondition myself that I look terrible, and just keep reminding myself that these are societal standards that I don’t have to uphold.”
She added that for TSW sufferers, “mental health is 50 per cent of the battle”.
Her lack of self-worth over the years also manifested in other ways, such as how she used to seek validation and love from external sources.
Currently single, Jing Rui has had two previous relationships, the last of which fizzled out last year, not because of her condition, but due to what she’d only reveal as the “unhealthy dynamics” between them.
But she no longer craves love and validation from others.
“Now, I don’t really care much about what people think or say about me anymore. But that’s the beauty about TSW, it forces you to accept yourself. No matter how bad you look, you just have to accept yourself, then you start to heal.
“I will say I’m not 100 per cent there, but it’s also okay to know that it will take time.”
With her background, it’s only natural that Jing Rui has also become a beacon of light for others.
She set up a blog and account on Instagram two years ago to help others navigate the tricky world of TSW. A prominent advocate in the community, she’s even hosted an Instagram Live session with actress Priscelia Chan who has also battled the condition.
Using her platform, Jing Rui used to provide online counselling and, surprisingly, what she calls “tarot counselling” to others in need.
Dabbling in tarot is partly due to interest and also an ability to tap into her intuition — a discovery she’s made only in recent years — to read for others.
“But I don’t usually answer questions like, ‘Oh, when will I find love?’ I go deeper and deliver messages that people might need to hear to change their path, especially if they’re at a crossroads, in order to gain clarity.”
However, she has since closed both counselling channels due to her new business, and is preparing to launch a TSW skin treatment centre in the UK.
Jing Rui is hopeful that her worst days are behind her.
Before, she had problems performing most day-to-day activities that many people take for granted, such as showering, exercising, and even walking without pain.
But in the last year, she has slowly managed to reintroduce them back into her life and her skin is looking better than ever.
The experience has undoubtedly made her stronger.
“It feels like the last chapter, but who knows what will happen in the future? But even if it happens again I know I can go through it again,” said Jing Rui.
It has also given her the hard-fought confidence to live life to the fullest in her own skin, literally.
“With TSW, I have found myself. Maybe it was because of this condition that I was lost. But finally, I feel like I’m meant to be who I am right now and I know what I’m meant to do in this life.
“I love myself. I love my family. We have the best relationship now compared to every other point in my life. Honestly, everything is thanks to TSW.”
Besides her business, her short-term goals for now are small and, in her own words, “lame”.
“It’s the little things — like I want to grow out my hair, be hot, get some abs,” she laughed.
When asked if she would change anything in her past, Jing Rui took a long pause before answering.
“I’m pretty happy. No regrets.”
This article was first published in AsiaOne.