December 2010
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This article is reprinted with permission from the National Psoriasis Foundation/USA (NPF), 6600 SW 92nd Avenue, Suite 300, Portland, Oregon 97223. This article, 'Spots,' first appeared in the NPF Bulletin, November/December 2000 edition. Copyright 2000 National Psoriasis Foundation, all rights reserved. For subscription information, call (800) 723-9166 or visit


by Anna E. Hess
2000 National Psoriasis Foundation

’m not exactly sure when it was that my mother recognized a pattern to the scaly pink patches appearing on her skin. When she first told my brother and me about it, we were eating dinner at China Sea with my father, and the waiter had just set down four bowls of perfectly scooped white rice.

"I have something to tell you kids," Mom started. "It’s not a good thing, but it’s going to be okay. I don’t want either of you to worry." I held my breath. "There is a problem with my skin," Mom continued, "called psoriasis. Psoriasis takes a while to go away." My brother, Aaron, almost three years older than me and sharper to the subtleties of adult language, stirred his coke with his straw and asked if the problem was a disease. "Well … yeah," Mom answered to my horror. "Yes, psoriasis is a disease."

"Psoriasis really isn’t so bad as far as diseases go, though," Mom went on, trying, I was sure, to sugar-coat the terrible truth. "It’s just uncomfortable to live with because it’s sore and itchy … and unattractive."

"You can see it?" I asked, not one bit relieved by calm explanations. How could I not have noticed a disease on my mother’s skin?

It struck me, as I racked my memory for signs of disease growing on Mom’s skin, that I hadn’t seen my mother’s body for quite some time. After all, we were just emerging from a long winter of sweaters, slacks and thick wool stockings. At least a year had passed since we had shared one of our long, soapy bubble baths. When I stopped to think about it, I missed my mother’s body. And I hated psoriasis.

For weeks after our dinner conversation that night, I insisted on taking baths with my mother. I wouldn’t actually get inside the tub with her, but would sit perched on my red wooden footstool and keep her company while she soaked in the sea salts that a doctor had sent in the mail. The salts turned the water a charcoaly-gray color, and despite all our attempts to ventilate the room, left a murky stench in the air. Some days the two of us would get talking — me doing most of the talking and Mom listening attentively. Other days, the obligatory hour stretched into a boring eternity — my mother staring absently into the murky water, occasionally adding a bit of hot water from the faucet.

For the first couple of bath sessions, I was careful to keep my eyes averted from mom’s body and stifle any reaction to the sight of her spots. But when for a few brief moments she turned her back to climb into the tub, my eyes immediately focused in with anxious curiosity. Like angry, shapeless reptiles, the spots covered my mother’s beautiful figure, embedding themselves across the backs of her long, curvaceous legs, small, round buttocks and narrow shoulder blades. There were more spots than I could count, more than I could even look at during my 10-second inspections. Each scaly beast was slightly unique; some were narrow and elongated like tiny lizards and others wide as round crabs roaming the ocean floor. I hated each one equally, though. I resented the arrogance of their cruel invasion on my mother’s happiness.

As weeks passed, the frequency of the salt baths increased, and I no longer accompanied most of them. Hours before any of us were out of bed, my mother would rise to prepare her skin for the day. Because the weight of her clothing frequently caused the spots to itch and sometimes even to bleed, she was instructed to apply lotion to her entire body and then wrap herself in Saran Wrap before getting dressed. Some mornings I would be up just in time to watch her squeeze the yellow globules of liquid lotion onto her arms, legs and stomach. While she applied lotion with one hand, she used the fingertips of her other hand to rub, dab and press the goo into the scaly patches. Then, before reaching for the Saran Wrap, she used both hands to reach back over her shoulders and around her waist in fervent pursuit. Each spot had to be thoroughly greased.

The yellow lotion was one weapon in my mother’s arsenal against psoriasis, a tranquilizer that kept the beast sedated. Bound in plastic and shrouded by full-length skirts and long-sleeved blouses, my mother was a walking warrior whose battlefield was her own skin. None of the high school students sitting in her classroom, listening as she read impassioned soliloquies from Shakespeare’s Othello or visiting her office for extra help on term papers had any idea of the discomfort their favorite English teacher endured. None of her colleagues who complimented Mom on her beautiful skirts knew that as soon as the skirts came off, the spots would be there waiting, ready to pull her back into the tub.

Mom soaked every day after work and then again after supper in the evenings. On weekends, the baths stretched into the in-between hours: 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning, 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon. Upon throwing open the bathroom door in a rush to reach the toilet, I would occasionally find my mother sitting silently in the tub, soaking in that fragrant pool of salty gray.

It was Saturday morning when my mother announced that she no longer would take her baths. Bleary-eyed with sleep, I was wandering downstairs towards the kitchen when I saw both of my parents sitting at the breakfast table. Something about the way the two of them were hunched together over coffee mugs stopped me on the stairs. I knelt down and peeked through the rails of the wooden banister, straining to discern their hushed words.

"They’re not working, Woody," my mom said. "They’re not working." She grasped the dome of her mug as she spoke, her knuckles squeezing so tight that I thought she would crack the ceramic. "I keep waiting for them to make a difference, and then sometimes, for a second, I think maybe there’s a little improvement. But my skin is worse, Woody."

With these words, my father reached over to take my mother’s arm and pulled her onto his lap. When she leaned into him, her hair fell, shielding their heads like a soft brown curtain, and I could no longer hear their whispered words. Then, without warning, they began to rock back and forth, back and forth, letting their laughter float upwards like a thousand silver bubbles.