Vicki Layton had a perfect life, but an alarmingly common skin condition destroyed her happiness in the blink of an eye.
The Brisbane woman, 41, was living an active life, working full-time as a registered nurse, exercising daily, seeing close friends on the weekends and even playing competitive volleyball.
"I worked very hard, I had very high standards for myself, my work and my future achievements," Vicki told news.com.au.
Her life seemed fulfilled until one morning in 2010 when she woke up to a strange rash that stretched across her stomach.
That small red rash would end up costing Vicki up to $50,000 in treatments, as she fought for almost a decade against agonising pain, sleepless nights and crippling loneliness.
'I'LL NEVER FORGET THAT MORNING'
The day Vicki first discovered that rash is burned into her memory, a moment impossible to forget.
"I was on a morning shift, so I woke about 4.30am," she said.
Dragging herself up to get dressed after a morning coffee, Vicki suddenly spotted a "raised red rash" across her abdomen.
She reasoned she had been outside the day before, trimming trees and mowing the lawn, so she put it down to a simple allergic reaction to something in her garden.
"I took off out the door to work, thinking nothing more of it," she said.
"I had no idea how much my life was going to change."
LIFE SPIRALLED AWAY
In the days that followed, Vicki became increasingly worried as the extremely itchy rash spread from her stomach to her legs and right across her arms.
"I tried every over-the-counter cream and solution I could find, but there was nothing I could do to get comfortable," she said.
As the mysterious skin condition spread rapidly across Vicki's body, it soon began impacting her daily routine, from her sleep and exercise to her social life.
Vicki was unable to concentrate on anything else around her because of the agonising itch and ache.
"I couldn't find clothes that wouldn't irritate my skin further," she said.
"Life started to spiral away from me."
HITTING ROCK BOTTOM
Despite trying every diet, internet trick and miracle cream available, Vicki's condition was getting worse by the day.
The rash had spread even further — taking over her chest and face — and was becoming infected and inflamed.
Finally, after 12-months of self-medicating, she was hospitalised after a friend found her collapsed on the floor of her home, utterly confused and suffering temperatures so high she was "in a delirium".
Vicki was raced to hospital, where stunned physicians discovered her damaged skin had broken through to the bones on her heels and collarbone, resulting in a severe bone infection.
"I didn't understand the condition I had until I become seriously unwell," she said.
After recovering from her horror ordeal, Vicki was diagnosed with eczema.
Having a diagnosis made Vicki even more determined than ever to rid herself of eczema and "finally find relief".
She tried courses of steroids, light therapy three times a week, lotions, pills, diets and radical treatments, all of which failed to ease her agonising symptoms.
Vicki even lay in bath tubs filled with bleach or potassium, some of which were excruciating.
"I still wake up in a panic, struggling to catch my breath after I've relived those days in my dreams," she said.
It's estimated Vicki has spent more than $50,000 on treatments just to get some relief from her around-the-clock agony.
"I feel like such a fool for spending this much money … but when you suffer so relentlessly for so long, it's hard not to want to believe you have finally found a cure," she said.
SLEEP WAS IMPOSSIBLE
As one of the most essential biological functions to keep us alive, sleep soon became impossible for Vicki.
Her skin was so raw, split, blistered and painful, she was unable to lie on her back for about three years.
"I either slept sitting crossed-legged on the floor with my head on the coffee table, or I tried to get some sleep in the bath tub," Vicki said.
ISOLATED FROM THE WORLD
Unable to see a light at the end of the tunnel, Vicki retreated into herself, avoiding friends and family and preferring to isolated herself from the harsh, judgmental world outside.
"My face and body was constantly raw and weeping, so I withdrew from the world," she said.
"I had no friends and no life outside my house, where I lived alone."
Her mental health deteriorated as well, and the longing she felt for human connection was almost unbearable.
She believed her dreams of getting married, having children and seeing her career take off "were now lost".
"I was so absorbed with my illness, there was little time for anything other than trying to breathe through the itch and steal some sleep," she said.
At one point, Vicki's symptoms became so searing, she told her nurse she "just wanted to die".
"I prayed for so long to get relief from the itch, but I felt like my prayers were never answered," she said.
Finally, after 10 years suffering in silence, Vicki finally got access to a new form of eczema medication that was able to ease her unbearable itch and allow her to get some solid sleep each night.
She was able to return to day shifts — which she had be forced to forfeit due to her exhaustion — and found a support group to share her story with.
After a decade of living in the shadows, Vicki began visiting Eczema Support Australia, where she soon met "other people that also thought they were alone".
"For the first time I had someone to just hear me … we now have each other and together we're strong," she said.
Eczema Support Australia managing direction Melanie Funk said Vicki's story was "sadly familiar for people with eczema".
"For too long they suffer the physical and emotional trauma because they dismiss the condition, search for a miracle cure or simply have no one to turn to," Melanie said.
A NEW LIFE
Vicki still has eczema all over her body and works everyday to prevent her condition turning into a serious infection.
"My goal is to be well enough to sleep all night and then be able to work five days a week," she said.
"That, to me, sounds like a good life."
While everyday is still a battle for Vicki, she has finally found happiness and love.
Vicki met and fell in love with Michael, and the couple were married in September last year.
"We have a great relationship," she said.
"Although he is always there to support me, I make sure I don't put him in the role of a carer.
"This is my disease … and it's important to focus as much as possible on the other aspects of my life and the life we are building together."
She said while eczema was a condition everyone had heard of, many didn't understand just how severe it could be.
"For many, this disease is lifelong and debilitating, and like any other chronic illness, sufferers need support," she said.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland (24/7)
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (24/7)
• SAMARITANS – 0800 726 666
• SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.