You’ve worked up a good sweat after a workout or a hike on a hot summer day. In most cases, sweat is a completely normal bodily function designed to cool a person down after physical exertion. But have you ever wondered what it would be like to sweat like this without the sun, or the hike, or the gym? And that even after your shower, you continued to sweat?
Imagine a scenario where your back, feet, thighs and underarms generate sweat during a friendly breakfast with your writing partner, or while you’re trying to go to sleep next to your loved one, or when you’re just… working at a desk, motionless if not for the quiet tap of your fingers on the keyboard. That’s often my reality, because I have a condition called hyperhidrosis. Put simply, it means that I sweat excessively.
I say ‘often,’ because with hyperhidrosis – no two days are the same: the sweating can be mild and therefore barely detectable by others, or it can be extreme and glaringly obvious. Sometimes I feel it coming on like a hot flash, and other times it happens unpredictably. But much like with a nervous condition, I’ve noticed that minor stress and anxiety tend to intensify the symptoms: for instance, having a routine physical at the doctor, arriving late to an appointment, or even talking about hyperhidrosis can provoke an episode. While I try to avoid these episodes at all costs by being calm and over-prepared for daily events and conversations, sometimes life throws a curveball and I have to endure damp clothes for a few hours. That’s no big deal. Because things used to be much worse.
Up until age eighteen, sweat would drip from my hands at various points throughout every day. Growing up with palmar hyperhidrosis as a teen, my day-to-day existence was fraught with irrational questions like, ‘why me?’ and misguided wonderings like, ‘I wish I had any other medical condition or physical affliction than this.’ Frequent outbursts of crying would leave me feeling sorry for myself in the schoolyard; as if my character was tainted with a (literally) disgusting curse. Frightfully dramatic, I know. When a procedure called an endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy destroyed a portion of my sweat glands, I was able to shake hands for the first time and hold a pen without making an embarrassing wet hole in the writing paper. It was transformative; leaving me with hands so dry they now require regular moisturizing.
Unfortunately the same operation could not be done for my feet, so wearing shoes and socks is troublesome because within a moment or two they’ll be drenched, leaving my feet clammy and feeling as if they’ve been plunged into a tray of ice. And then I’m that person, shivering on Sunset Boulevard in historically off-the-chart blazing temperatures. Although I’m sure that I’m not the strangest thing people have ever seen on Sunset Boulevard.
As an adult, I understand, accept and respect that everyone battles against something — whether it’s a physical or mental handicap or an undesirable quality that they’re trying desperately to combat. I am still battling hyperhidrosis, but I no longer allow myself to summon the names of diseases or conditions or birth defects that would be better, because asthma, epilepsy, diabetes, Tourette’s syndrome and bi-polar disorder – all of which I had thought I might prefer as a teen with hyperhidrosis – pose other serious challenges. As an adult, I know better now – I own and walk with my own challenges.
Hyperhidrosis can definitely be exhausting to deal with and awkward to explain to someone for the first time, especially when the common reaction is, “Oh, I sweat a lot too,“ but you know that they probably don’t actually have a real problem with sweat, because hyperhidrosis affects about 3% of the population and what are the chances? They don’t have a chronic Athlete’s Foot, or have to swap their shoes multiple times a day, or slip and slide if they put on their flip-flops. Or maybe they do. Or maybe they have something else to contend with. Other personal baggage that’s invisible to my eye.
After all these years, the best part of hyperhidrosis is that I’ve learned to anticipate what might happen and strategize accordingly. I’m going to go to this location, and I’m possibly (probably) going to sweat. So maybe I’ll wear the black pants. Do I need an undershirt with padded armpits? That’s cool, got one right here. Are we outside all day? Okay, I’ll go for flip-flops, knowing my feet will dry in the sun. Are we likely to go inside? I’ll pack sneakers just in case and throw in extra socks, the nice absorbent kind. Unlike Clue, there’s little mystery in this game. Which makes it easy to win, or at least be a good sport.
Today, at age 30, if asked to describe hyperhidrosis, I would say that it’s merely a gentle inconvenience; a roadblock put in place by the higher powers in order to test my ability to charge forward with confidence. Hyperhidrosis is not a deal breaker in my personal or professional life, and it’s certainly not a crisis of character. Whether my skin is dry or wet, it’s my skin and it fits only me, and I’m wearing it proudly.