Wednesday 21 November 2018

'It was brought on by trauma' - TV personality Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh on battling chronic skin condition

Ahead of World Psoriasis Day, our reporter talks to TV personality, Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh, who shares her experience with the chronic auto-immune condition

Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh. Picture: Frank McGrath
Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh. Picture: Frank McGrath

Meadhbh McGrath

Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh has a reputation for unapologetic honesty - in the past, she has spoken about suffering with adult incontinence, the death of her father and her anxiety about having her first baby. But she wasn't initially open to sharing her experience with psoriasis.

"I had to be convinced to talk about this, because I was going, what difference is it going to make?" she says with a shrug.

Psoriasis is often dismissed as "just a skin condition" Blathnaid says, "because it doesn't kill you, there's no interest in it. But it does affect you, it affects your mental well-being, it affects your emotional well-being, and I get a little irate about it sometimes because nobody gets that."

The RTE star, from Monkstown, Co Dublin, is one of 120,000 people in Ireland who suffer from psoriasis. According to a recent survey by the Happiness Research Institute, just 22pc of Irish women and 35pc of men living with psoriasis report feeling good about themselves, compared to global averages of 37pc and 54pc respectively.

And yet we hear almost nothing about it, which means misconceptions abound - many believe psoriasis is contagious or that it's caused by poor hygiene, when in fact, it's a hereditary, chronic auto-immune disease that can develop into arthritis. This Sunday marks 'World Psoriasis Day', which aims to raise awareness about the condition.

"I know there are people who are much worse off, but for me, it's kind of a relief to say there is a day called 'World Psoriasis Day'. You don't feel as embarrassed talking about it as you would, and you don't feel as alone," says Blathnaid.

Psoriasis is often triggered by a streptococcal throat or periods of intense stress, and typically appears in adolescence. Blathnaid first encountered it at age 20, although it wasn't diagnosed properly until her third visit and after a change in doctors.

"It was brought on by a trauma. I'd had a bad experience a year previous to that, and like a lot of young people, you go 'okay, that happened', but it sits there and it obviously bothered me more than I realised," she recalls, describing how she lost a lot of weight and began to notice patches of scaly skin on her knees.

"It doesn't come up flaky at first, it's just a little angry red dot. It's not sore, but then it becomes flakier and flakier. I'd never even heard of it.

"When you're sort of pink and Irish and have sensitive skin, there's always something. But the fact that it was so scaly and spreading had me worried. I went to the doctor and then the dermatologist, and I was told 'no, you can't make it go away'. I thought, 'What? No, there has to be a tablet or something'. I suppose I'm of that era where a tablet fixes everything."

But a tablet wouldn't fix it, and so began a long process of dealing with unpredictable outbreaks. At 26, Blathnaid suffered a particularly severe one after having her first child, Síle.

"I remember that really affecting me. Before that, it wasn't too bad, and I was given creams and things. But I had a tough birth with my daughter, she was an emergency section. I had a very bad flare-up and I remember getting it everywhere - down below, anywhere where there was a hair follicle, there was psoriasis," she says.

"I remember thinking this was supposed to be the most joyous time of my life, and it was, I had a beautiful baby, but I remember feeling sick, I just didn't like myself, I thought I looked so ugly because of the psoriasis. Now I'm 46, I know it's stupid."

Blathnaid began getting ultraviolet light therapy, which involves shining UVA or UVB light on affected areas to reduce psoriasis.

"I would meet other people (at the hospital) and everyone would have their head down, everyone was so embarrassed to be seen going in. You're nude, and I know nurses don't care, but it's horrible, you look down and you think 'oh my god'."

She now has four children, Síle (21), Peadar (17), Comhghal (15) and Darach (14), with her husband Ciaran Byrne.

"Will one of my kids have it? Probably. I was always a little paranoid about their skin, and it doesn't matter how aware you are, you'll always blame yourself," she says, adding: "But when Kim Kardashian announced that she had psoriasis last year, my daughter was like 'oh my god, she has psoriasis just like you!' and that was her claim to fame. I roared laughing."

There are several forms of the condition. Blathnaid first experienced guttate psoriasis, the tiny red dots, and now suffers with plaque psoriasis, the most common form, which appears as raised patches of red, scaly skin.

These plaques, she explains, come and go across her back, elbows and knees, but the patches on her scalp pose a constant problem.

"I'm very conscious of my hair. My scalp is disgusting, it's another layer of skin constantly. Around my crown is just a belt of dry skin. It feels at the moment like elastic on my scalp, it's so tight.

"I often put my head out the window in the middle of the night just to cool it down," she says, rolling her eyes.

"I laugh because people say 'your hair is beautiful', and I am grateful, but I think 'if you only knew the itch in my head while you're talking to me…'. I wonder is there an irony in it, my crowning glory is actually my crown of thorns!"

As she speaks, Blathnaid often scratches her scalp and wipes at her shoulders, a habit she frequently catches herself doing. She explains that she is due a tar pomade treatment, which will lift the scale from her scalp, but has to wait until she won't have any on-air appearances or photoshoots.

Her TV work can be an added pressure on her skin. Blathnaid recalls a big flare-up after she started working on The Afternoon Show, but says she has learned to manage stress with yoga, Pilates and walks with her dog in a bid to tackle the outbreaks.

While she used to visit the doctor every time the psoriasis flared up, the expense caught up with her, and now she'll head straight to her local pharmacist when she notices a new patch.

"There isn't one thing that works for me. There's nothing that I haven't done - I have rubbed horse's urine on my psoriasis, I have gone to a seventh son of a seventh son. I know you're thinking, you're an intelligent woman, why would you do that? Because you're at the end of your tether," she says with an exasperated sigh. "I have done everything, I've had them blessed, cursed, everything."

Blathnaid admits she's "in denial" about the prospect of developing psoriatic arthritis, but has come to accept psoariasis as a constant in her life. But that doesn't stop each flare-up bringing with it a fresh rush of frustration.

"When you have psoriasis, it's awful, and when the psoriasis goes, you feel so liberated, but then you remind yourself it could come back any day," she says.

"I'm quite a positive person, but psoriasis is the only thing that can take over my whole emotion and make me feel so out of control. You have no control of when it happens or to say 'it'll be gone in five days'. On the hottest day, I'm covered up completely, when it's bad."

She recalls a black-tie event she was attending a few years ago, for which she had planned to wear a beautiful gown with a low back.

As she was about to head out, her daughter pointed out that the plaques were visible on her back and she had to return the dress to the closet.

"I remember going upstairs and I started crying. But my fake lashes started coming out and I told myself 'cop on, it's alright'. I shook it off, but I hate that," she says.

Blathnaid shakes her head as she describes the "terrible" pressure on TV personalities to maintain a glamorous image, but says she doesn't worry about hurting her celebrity by speaking out about health issues, whether it's psoriasis, her struggles with breastfeeding or her sister's breast cancer. "I'm human and sometimes the world gets to me and I talk about it.

"I don't think people think I'm one of those perfect people, I'm not perfect, I don't pretend to be any of that. I've never pretended, I can't change who I am," she shrugs.

"But I don't feel sorry for myself, I have a good time when I can," Blathnaid adds with that familiar big laugh.

"I'm looking at my aging body for the first time at 46 and going, okay! I have a little promise to myself that at 50 I'll be fitter, I won't have injected myself at all, and I'll keep going and see how it goes, psoriasis or no psoriasis."

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