I served four
years on active duty in the U.S. Coast Guard (largely
without distinction) during the waning years of the Viet
Nam war (1969‑1973). I was seventeen when I enlisted. It
was, in retrospect, a marvelous four years. I lost my
virginity, lost my stammer, discovered I had skin
problems, got married, and participated — albeit from a
safe distance — in our nation's quest for peace with
A young MD in the
Public Health Service diagnosed strange white patches on
my chest as "vitiligo." This is a "condition" in which
the body is unable to turn vitamin D into melanin, the
pigment that gives us Caucasians the ability to tan. I
treated the diagnosis with indifference. What the hell?
I was married, quite invested in the new-found raptures
of conjugality, feeling in all ways quite vigorous. So I
can't tan? So what? Who needs it?
The vitiligo that
had been concentrated on my chest in 1970 had, by 1975,
spread to my limbs. Now I was in college on the GI Bill,
still married, still enjoying the raptures of youth and
manhood. But now I was also "an older man on campus" and
a veteran, to boot. The vitiligo became something of an
embarrassment in summer school, to and from which I rode
sleeveless on a motorcycle, hence getting lots of sun
exposure. Blotches on my arms tanned quite nicely, other
blotches became pink, then peeled and returned to stark
whiteness. It so happened the blotches of
melanin-deficient skin tended to focus on the inside of
my forearms. They became quite distinctive.
I told young coeds
the white blotches on my forearms were burn scars caused
when a canister of napalm I was carrying got hit by a
sniper bullet and blew up in my arms. This lie generated
interesting manifestations of sympathy until one day I
shared it with a young woman who also had vitiligo. She
concluded, correctly, that I was full of ... well, you
Twenty years later
the vitiligo still exists but I don't mind it much. The
only parts of my body that get sun exposure are my
hands. Blotches on the backs of my hands will tan, the
majority of skin just burns. The tan blotches look like
liver spots in contrast to their pink or white
I look at my
blotched hands now for signs of erupting psoriasis
lesions. The vitiligo is no more than an old familiarity
— compared to the psoriasis.
Nothing in the
literature I've surveyed suggests a connection between
vitiligo and psoriasis. My dermatologists shrug off my
inquiries about the possible connection.
I was diagnosed a
psoriatic at the age of thirty-nine. By then, lies about
tragic accidents in Viet Nam were out of the question.
Besides, psoriasis, unlike vitiligo, is not so
discussable because it's much more disgusting. The red,
flaking lesions that constitute "plaque psoriasis"
aren't nearly as tolerable as vitiligo's scar-like white
splotches of skin.
By the time I was
initially diagnosed a psoriatic, I'd been out of college
for thirteen years, out of my first marriage and into my
second, and into the waning years of what had been a
meteoric career in a high-tech telecommunications
industry. In other words, I'd already "been around the
block" a few times and the worst physical abnormality
I'd had to contend with was the vitiligo. In retrospect,
I can see this rather late-in-life manifestation of my
psoriasis was both bad and good.
It was bad because
I considered what I was losing; i.e., skin I wouldn't
hesitate to "reveal." With psoriasis, for me there would
be no more short-sleeve shirts and Bermuda shorts; no
more bathing suits on the beach; no more convivial
visits in the spa or gym locker room. All those
realizations were very depressing.
But the good side
was that, for awhile, I had a life full of all those
things — memories to lean on — and could be thankful for
thirty-nine years of psoriasis-free living.
“manifest” their disease at much earlier ages than me.
There are some who have never known life without
psoriasis. What do they lean on? I hope it's a
sense of self-worth that resides tenaciously beneath the
It was a crisp January night in Alexandria, Virginia. The
woman beside me was nearly a stranger. We paused on the
short walk back to her townhouse to listen to a man play
steel drums on the sidewalk. He mistook us for lovers —
perhaps a married couple — and played and sang a song just
for us (which caused me to give him five dollars). It was
during that song, played at about midnight, that she took my
arm and huddled close to me. And I leaned into her, too. I
hadn't been with a woman in several months. It felt good.
returned with her to her townhouse ostensibly to fetch a
book then take my leave, but once there things got started
and she asked me not to leave. I didn't want to leave, but I
didn't want to take off my clothes, either. I swallowed and
said, "There's something you need to know about me. I'm a
Five hours later, as I was leaving, she smiled and called me
her "spotted lover." It was the kindest gift anyone had
given me in years.
Ed’s Postscript (11/27/2007): Though I developed
psoriasis comparatively late in life, my vitiligo came
before I was 30, which is typical. Not so typically, as I
aged the vitiligo diminished. The last significant evidence
of it was prematurely white hair showing up in my beard.
WebMD, autoimmune disease is a risk factor for vitiligo
— meaning having autoimmune disease makes it more likely
that a person may develop vitiligo. I developed vitiligo
nearly two decades before my first diagnosed indication of
an autoimmune disease — psoriasis — but since
then have added type 1 diabetes to the list of my autoimmune
The fact that I have less visible vitiligo today than I
did thirty years ago might stem from any or several of these
deficiency has mysteriously reversed
skin pallor has lightened because of less sun exposure,
hence vitiligo is less obvious
the onset of
psoriasis “superseded” vitiligo
changes have mitigated the vitiligo
On the matter of
intimacy, an additional thought: In
1995, at age 44, I was "single" once again. That's when the
interlude described at the end of this chapter occurred.
There were other interludes that year and, in retrospect, I
refer to 1995 as my "year of living dangerously," which is
true for a number of reasons, but none relating to my
psoriasis. I, like many flakers, was terribly apprehensive
of intimacy and most pleasantly relieved when my condition
proved not to be the end of the world. Of course, I may have