The first time we meet, I notice that Gladys Njiru ignores my outstretched hand and instead leans in for a hug. “Handshakes are a nightmare for me,” she tells me later.
This shy, willowy 20-year-old has suffered from hyperhidrosis her whole life. This disorder is characterised by excessive sweating of the palms, soles, groin, facial area or underarms.
While it is sometimes caused by underlying medical conditions like diabetes, most of the time doctors can’t put a finger on the cause of this excessive sweating. The sweat glands simply refuse to turn off even after the task of regulating body temperature has been completed.
Gladys was around seven years old and in lower primary in Runyenjes, Embu when she first realised that she was different from other children.
“My exercise books were always dirty from the sweat on my palms making it difficult for my work to be marked. So the teacher asked me to carry a small pail of water and a hand towel to class every day. No other child had to do this so I knew I was different,” she recalls.
Children are honest meaning they can be brutal. Boarding school was tough for Gladys. Her hands were always cold no matter how hot it was outside so she got nicknamed ‘the cold blooded one’. Cruel jokes were thrown at her. She remembers being asked whether she had risen back from the dead because of her cold palms.
She shared her concerns with her mother one time. Her mother spoke to a health practitioner who reassured her that it was just a phase and that her daughter would grow out of it.
High school was even tougher. Gladys dreaded hot weather when she would have to remove her sweater and expose the white blouse which would often be drenched in sweat. She couldn’t share clothes like other girls did. Her self-esteem took a plunge.
“I became very withdrawn. Then I adopted a hard-faced façade to hide the turmoil within me and to keep people away,” she says.
Planning her life around the condition
A day in Gladys’ life never just happens. From the instant she gets up, she plans every step of the day around the fact that she will be sweating excessively on her palms, feet and underarms regardless of the weather. She will think about what clothes to wear steering clear of the white ones. Then she will think about her shoes seeing as wearing open shoes is a task. While at it, she will need to brace herself for the eventuality that she might visit someone’s house.
“Open shoes slide off when my feet sweat and closed shoes on the other hand leave my feet smelly. My soles can also sometimes leave marks on tiled floors or on sleepers. This puts me in an uncomfortable situation when I am visiting another person’s house,” she explains.
Just as she plans her day around hyperhidrosis, she found herself thinking of it when she graduated from high school and was seeking admission to the university almost three years ago.
“I wanted to be a lawyer but this would mean spending my day handling paper and many hours indoors either in courtrooms or offices and it wasn’t something I was looking forward to. So I decided to study Environmental Science which would have me spend the day outdoors handling soil,” she says.
Gladys is now in her second year at Kenyatta University. Dating has also been an uphill task as she dreads having to introduce the topic of her sweaty palms to someone new or the fact that holding hands isn’t something that she enjoys doing.
Gladys has not physically met anyone else who suffers from hyperhidrosis. Her main coping tactic was avoidance until four weeks ago when she stumbled upon Martin Kimani, the founder of the support group Hyperhidrosis Awareness – The Perfect Imperfection, speaking on television. “So many of my questions were answered that day. I learnt that there are many people fighting the same battle as me and living relatively normal lives,” she says.
She also joined support forums where she has met other hyperhidrosis patients and had many discussions on topics like the importance of rehydrating and how one can use antiperspirants to cope.
“They are forums where I get to laugh at myself. It is also here that I have learnt of other treatment options like oral medication, surgery and Botox injections,” she says.
Gladys is learning to love herself at the moment. In the foreseeable future, she hopes that she can afford to get on a treatment plan to control the excessive sweating. “The options available right now are expensive but knowing that there is something that I can do to live a normal life is a big step for me. I am looking forward to the future,” she says.
Hyperhidrosis occurs in people who are otherwise healthy.
It has been called the silent handicap as it silently deteriorates the quality of life from a psychological and social perspective.
It may have a hereditary component as it sometimes runs in the family.
Secondary hyperhidrosis can result from use of certain drugs or neurological disorders.
This excessive moisture can predispose to skin infections.
Treatment options include antiperspirants, oral medication, Botox and surgery which is done to interfere with certain nerve pathways.