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When Prescriptions Fail

By Zoe Choo

Illustrations by Felicia Yap
Illustrations by Felicia Yap

I looked into the mirror, and for the first in a long time, I came face to face with a real, raw me. I did not like what I saw.

I was 20. That marked the beginning of my punishing sojourn with topical steroid withdrawal (TSW). I was diagnosed with eczema when little, when small spots of rash appeared on my hands and legs. The doctors prescribed us a seemingly innocent tube of steroid cream, and my parents were instructed to gently apply a thin layer of medication on my rash after shower, daily. My parents, being good parents, did it faithfully.

The painful sores were coming out gradually, then suddenly all at once. On my body you could find raised skin bumps, lesions, and full red, flaky patches that were cracking open with multiple kinds of infections like staph and tinea

It was as if the world map were printed on me. I still thought it was cool to resemble Mother Earth.


I had taken a step of faith to quit all medication after graduating from bible school, believing that God created our bodies to have regenerative abilities. Reading up on various blogs on natural healing, Autoimmune Protocol, Paleo Diets, I leaned towards natural foods that were less processed, in a bid to reduce toxins in my body.

Looking back now, I do not at all recommend anyone to simply jump into a steroid withdrawal chapter like I did. I was not prepared for what came my way for I had no prior knowledge to what topical steroid withdrawal was.

That every day, bathing was a dreaded, vitriolic war-zone. Together I washed away any remnant thoughts on life. I was robbed of a normal life, and sleep became almost non-existent. Four years of sleepless nights.

Hours of care would be spent on the wounds on my skin, with mother helping me wrap my arms and legs with an all-natural healing salve and bandages – made with natural, edible ingredients like beeswax, turmeric, and sea buckthorn, and more. It was created by another mother who desperately wanted to heal her daughter’s chronic eczema and has saw to her healing.

My feet swelled two sizes up, and my lesions began to ooze a lot. Plasma would drip on the floor as I stood surfing the net for a short-lived distraction. I was itching almost all the time, and it was impossible for me to do anything else but lie in physical defeat, scratching uncontrollably, crying and sometimes even screaming.

On days when it gets too uncontrollable I’ll pop an anti-histamine pill, but then I’d have to reel from its consequences for the next days – submerging into a histamine overdrive, shaking uncontrollably, and becoming temperamental.

Neighbours came knocking on our door. They gave my parents name card and pamphlets to a Taoist exorcist. My maternal grandmother who lives two floors above our apartment could hear my cries from the bathroom. Having been a positive, productive running a full life, to this valley low, helplessly dependent, I was ashamed I had become liken to a symbiotic parasite to my family.

So I stood half-naked in front of the mirror, because the mirror was right there in my room. I saw clearly that there is a bigger picture beyond treating mere symptoms – that I, a human being, am made up of the body, soul, and spirit, things like diet, genetics, stress, trauma all play a part in any individual’s state of health.

Many times we go to a doctor with flu, we get a jab or some pills to solve the immediate issue, but what if the consultation fees actually worked its value where the patients are educated on lifestyle and wellness – viewed as a holistic individual, instead of a passing patient number 4536. Since I was a child, my parents regularly brought me to the National Skin Centre, but we were often told that there was no cure for eczema. If I was lucky, eczema will go away before puberty.


In the first place we should change our view of eczema as a skin disease. Look at the origins of the word eczema – ekzein, a greek word which means ‘to boil over’, or ‘to break out’, it’s an indicator other underlying issues internally – for me it was digestive issue and toxins ‘breaking out’.

Years of futile trips there made me turn to alternatives such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, a German invention called Bio-Resonance, eating well and supplementing myself with cod liver fish oil, probiotics, antioxidants, and multivitamins from trusted, natural sources.

Topical steroid withdrawal is not yet approved by the US-based National Eczema Association as an issue, meaning I officially am not diagnosed as ill. Two key studies has been released by the Association – one in 2013, and a subsequent in 2015, noting a growing trend:

“The National Eczema Association has received increasing numbers of patient inquiries regarding steroid addiction syndrome.”

I sympathise with the medical community’s standpoint, that to completely eradicate the use of steroids is not sound. Most people who are on steroids need them to get on with a normal day – people with dependents, and/or responsibilities. Then there are also people like me, who desire to heal holistically, and wean off steroids for life – to no longer depend on steroids and antihistamines like a crutch or in this case, a drug. (Pun very intended.)

There is so much more to treating a patient than giving out prescriptions.

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