I Had Hyperhidrosis in My Hands, Feet and Underarms — And it Was a Total Enemy to My Body Image
The worst day of my middle school career was not the day I realized the boy I had been pining for through all of 8th grade (a sentiment only worsened by the sheer proximity of his locker — our last names were next to each other in alphabetical order) would simply never love me back. Nor was it the day my two best friends turned against me because I had somehow managed to insult their outlook on the merits of MySpace dating. The worst day of my middle school career was the day we were told we'd be learning to square dance — for an entire semester. We'd be learning to appreciate the "wonderment of this 'American' folk dance" (even though variants of square dancing were first documented in 17th century England!). We'd be switching up partners routinely. And this of course meant we'd be holding hands with people constantly, as we tossed and turned and spun around like the "patriots" our PE teachers knew us to be (they really did say this). I looked down at my hands — at the puddles formed atop my palms — and I felt like running. I felt like cursing the gods (if there were any) for giving me the hyperhidrosis that made hand-holding a bigger fear than Lord Voldemort — that made my body image (quite literally) a sea of even more intense insecurities.
Although I wasn't diagnosed until I was 20, I was born with hyperhidrosis, otherwise known as excessive and unpredictable sweating most prevalent in the hands, feet and underarms. Being the naturally lucky gal that I am, I had/have it in all three regions — making me part of the 3 percent of global citizens who suffer from this vastly underrated condition (of which my sister was also a member). Relatives recall touching my hands and feet as an infant and being vastly worried that I was overheating — why else would my limbs be so damp? The first day of kindergarten was met with inconsiderate jokes by the teacher when she shook my hand (and I was already the new kid in the district!). For the entirety of my life (the parts I can remember, anyway), I had hands and feet like water. I couldn't wear light-colored shirts (this made my emo stage as much about practicality as teenage angst and rebellion). I couldn't date when my friends started to, because not only would I be a larger girl dating a smaller boy; I'd also be a sweaty girl incapable of the most rudimentary form of first base. Essentially, I couldn't exist as a normal kid or teenager, because most "normal" kids and teenagers don't leave everything they touch coated in a transparent coat of warm perspiration.
When we talk about hyperhidrosis, we're not referring to your run-of-the-mill, post-cardio sweat spree. Hyperhidrosis is pretty much constant. It can be aggravated by anxiety and stress, but it's not caused by anxiety and stress. My hands were wet all the time (so much so that a high school teacher once accused me of deliberately pouring water over my homework so as to have an excuse for not turning in a completed assignment). For the first two decades of my life, I tried every natural solution out there: from baby powder (see dissatisfied face above) to homeopathic remedies in log cabins (consisting of placebo pills and the instilled knowledge that "your brain controls your sweat, so your brain can stop your sweat") to clinical strength deodorants to botox remedies for sweating. Nothing worked. I wasn't even eligible for the botox because my sweating was deemed far too excessive for the aid of a basic injection. It works for some people; it wouldn't have worked for me.
The thing is, excessive sweating wasn't just inconvenient. My main problem didn't stem from the fact that I was too shy and self-conscious about it to hold people's hands. I could deal with the lack of human contact. Nor was it that I couldn't wear plastic sandals without socks (something that was definitely not popular in the aughties). My main problem was how it affected by body image. Kara Nesvig's xoJane article on hyperhidrosis addresses the reality of this condition, and in it she writes, "When I really couldn’t avoid having people touch me, I would cringe as I watched them wipe their hands on their pant legs." That exchange — that moment when you see how disgusted someone is by you — does something to your psyche. It makes you feel not only inadequate, but like a complete "other." It makes you feel like something is so intrinsically wrong with you that you'll never be able to enjoy even the most basic form of human interaction. And even if you don't miss the actual human contact, you miss the idea of being able to partake in that contact, if you so wanted.
Until I was 16, the only person whom I would let touch my hands was my sister. As far as I knew (before adulthood, that is), she was the only other person in the universe who could relate to my problem. We'd hold hands and laugh at the monumental puddles created within them. We'd jut out our arms and watch the sweat drip from our palms to the floor. We'd give each other high fives just to see how big a splash we could get. It sounds gross, and maybe it was. But when you live in fear of someone touching your skin, being able to let loose and create your very own handheld waterpark is like a dream.
I often wonder how severe my other body image-related qualms would have been had I not suffered from hyperhidrosis. Would I have been so worried about my weight had I not also had to deal with my sweat? To me, being the fat and sweaty girl in middle and high school seemed like the worst combination possible. In reality, I imagine things would have been much the same. Weight stigma in our society would have still been prevalent, and that probably would have screwed me over no matter what. But at least I could somehow understand that. I knew that fat shaming was this taught behavior so many of us seem to accept as normal. I knew that all those lectures on healthy eating and "being the right weight for your height" were engrained in my classmates' minds. I didn't know anything about hyperhidrosis, though. And neither did they. It was just another repulsive idiosyncrasy. Yet another quirk to add to the "Marie is so weird" list.
The first boy I loved was also the first person (outside my sister) who didn't give a shit about the fact that my palms were my very own personal water supply. I was mesmerized by him — by this human who didn't feel the need to carry a roll of paper towel just to be around me. The first time I accidentally grazed his face with my hand, he didn't cower away or flinch or squirm. He just took my hand. The first time my foot touched his (we were sunbathing), he ensued a game of footsies, not paying any mind to the cold sweat I'm sure most people would have recoiled at, unaware of the wave of self-deprecation it causes in the person they're recoiling at. This wasn't the only reason I fell for him, of course. But it certainly helped, and to this day I am thankful for his existence. He was the first person who made me feel like it was OK — like I wasn't a ghastly abomination. For the latter two years of high school, and the first year of college, we were this on and off again thing (most of the time a non-thing). But knowing he was there, somewhere, made me feel like there must be other people who wouldn't care about my sweating, even though I still did.
The "even though I still did" part of that last sentence was crucial to my decision to get surgery. No matter how comfortable the aforementioned boy was with my perspiring palms, I never was. I still flinched to be held, even if he didn't. I still hated human contact. I loathed how restricted my clothing options were, because my underarm sweat would drench through even the thickest of pastel-hued fabrics. I detested having to carry Bounty rolls with me; to always put a sheet under my hand in order to write on a piece of paper without soaking it through. My sophomore year of college, I was just about done with it all. I wanted some kind of permanent solution to this condition that I felt had personally ruined a huge portion of my life. Like most Millennials, I did the only thing my 19-year-old self knew how to do in these situations: I Googled. And I found a surgery: endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy (ETS).
ETS is a minimally invasive procedure. The surgeon will create two small incisions in both underarms, and use a microscopic camera to find the nerves controlling your hand, underarm and face sweat (those nerves live in your chest). He will then use his magical tools to either cut or destroy said nerves. In order to do all this (and this is the scariest part of the procedure), your lungs need to be collapsed (one at a time, depending on the side the surgeon is operating on). This makes it so that air won't constantly be moving in and out, therefore providing more of a work space, if you will. It takes one to three hours in total, and has about a 99 percent immediate success rate for palmar and axiliary hyperhidrosis. Recovery is fast, and mainly involves one day of feeling like a sumo wrestler has taken shelter upon chest. The biggest side effect tends to be "compensatory sweating," which means other parts of your body will sweat more to make up for the loss in the hands and underarms. So all in all, not a bad deal. And a much more realistic solution than the below.
Of course (remember how I said I was "lucky?") ETS is often deemed a purely "aesthetic" procedure in the states — categorized right alongside a nose job or a face lift. We're at a point where people still don't realize the vast psychological hazards hyperhidrosis can have on its sufferers. We don't realize that depression, anxiety and Anthropophobia can occur when someone lives in fear of touching other human beings — when someone lives in fear of possessing a body that's somehow wrong or broken. It sounds dramatic, but it's not. Hyperhidrosis is as much an emotional burden as it is a physical one. And yet you still have to pay out of pocket to get it remedied.
My luck improved when I realized that being a dual citizen of Colombia and the U.S. means I'm eligible to undergo medical procedures in either country (although anyone can travel to Colombia for surgery). So I found Dr. Camilo Osorio Barker (a thoracic surgeon who performs ETS in Medellin, where my family is from). Turns out that (at least in this scenario) Colombians are more empathetic to the toils of hyperhidrosis. You still have to pay for the surgery — but the cost is a mere 10 percent of what it is in the U.S.
I was 20 when I traveled down for the procedure. There was no fear, no anxiety, no stress. Anyone who looked at me would have thought differently. One glance at my palmar drippage, and they would've deemed me an anxious mess. But I was happy. I was optimistic, for the first time, that my body image wouldn't always be such a hideous state of affairs. It was the summer before my junior year — a year I intended to spend abroad in Madrid and Prague, and a year that would prove to change my life in more ways than one. I knew this would happen. Study abroad is supposed to have a profound impact on your life, after all. But getting ETS surgery had a profound impact on my sense of self — without which I would not have felt confident enough, strong enough, good enough to truly embrace my international adventure.
Three years later, my hands are sweat free. My underarms sweat when they're supposed to, as does my face (though my back, core and thighs sweat a bit more than they used to). I still have obscenely sweaty feet, and I can't wear jelly sandals without ripping the straps off (something I may or may not choose to have surgery for down the line), but to say my life has changed would be an understatement. My poor body image always had two major aspects to it: my weight and my sweat. When the latter was combatted, it gave me time and energy and motivation to work on the former.
Ridding myself of my palmar hyperhidrosis made me realize that the issues I had with my weight weren't something that required surgery, too. Rather, they were something that required a slight reprograming of the brain. You might ask why the sweat needed a surgery, if I'm so into instilling self love and positive body image these days. Why couldn't I learn to just love having dripping hands? But it's different. Hyperhidrosis truly affected my everyday life. I couldn't write on paper without smudging the ink. I couldn't hold a person's hand without feeling a panic attack in the works. I couldn't shake a potential boss's hand at a job interview, or hold onto the steering wheel of my car or the handlebar on the subway without slipping and risking injury. My body doesn't hurt me in those ways. I thought it did, because I was taught that being "overweight" is wrong. But my body lets me do anything I so please. My sweat did not. When my hands dripped, I couldn't really be myself. I had to be a modified version of myself — and now that it's gone, there's a lot more room for self-expression. And I never would have been able to envision just how incredible a feeling that really is.