Sometimes I get really anxious meeting new people. It’s that opening handshake when we first meet that gives me nightmares. See, my hands sweat. A lot. They aren’t just clammy—sometimes they’re drenched and dripping.
I’m sure other people think my handshake is gross, but they’ll never fully understand how uncomfortable I feel in my own skin. This is especially true as a performing classical flutist. Imagine playing an instrument with sweaty and swollen fingers; my hands sweat and swell so much that I can’t feel the keys. After the concert, when people want to shake my hand in congratulations, I cringe as they try to discreetly wipe my sweat off their hands.
I have a medical condition called hyperhidrosis, which causes extreme sweating.
There are two types of hyperhidrosis: primary and secondary. I have primary hyperhidrosis (also called primary focal or essential hyperhidrosis) which means, according to the Mayo Clinic, that the nerves responsible for signaling sweat glands become overactive. In other words, you sweat a lot—even when you aren’t hot or exercising. In my case, stress and hot temperatures exacerbate my hyperhidrosis, but I also sweat like crazy when I’m just relaxing at home in a comfortable room temperature.
There is little known about what causes primary hyperhidrosis, outside of the fact that it may be genetic (others in my family have the condition, too). Secondary hyperhidrosis, on the other hand, is excessing sweating that is caused by another condition, like diabetes, thyroid problems, menopause, and nervous system disorders.
I first realized that I was different in elementary school, when no one wanted to hold my hand in dance class.
I asked my mom what was wrong with me and she said that when I was a toddler, I used to leave sweaty footprints when I walked, and that I’ve had excessive sweating ever since. When I was in middle school, I started exploring online and found an article about hyperhidrosis, which was a lightbulb moment. Shortly after, I was officially diagnosed by a doctor.
It was such a relief to finally find some information about what was going on with me, but frustrating to learn that there weren’t many treatments available. Little did I know then that hyperhidrosis would greatly impact the rest of my life, for better and worse.
Hyperhidrosis makes ordinary tasks, like using a cell phone, a struggle.
When I write with pen and paper, the page curls up and the ink smears. I don’t like holding newspapers because the ink comes right off on my hands. My phone doesn’t recognize my fingerprint password when my hands are too sweaty. Taking change back from a cashier is a careful game of not letting them touch my cold, clammy hands. I feel bad whenever my hand accidentally brushes up against someone on a crowded subway. I was mortified working in retail when customers asked to replace their suddenly soggy items. Then there was the time when I was bringing a bridesmaid’s dress to be altered and the seamstress said, “I didn’t know it was raining!” It wasn’t. The dress was wet just from me carrying it.
The condition has forced me to get creative with solutions. For instance, I keep a fan on my desk year round so that I can temporarily alleviate my sweating issues. And I always bring a small towel with me when I’m traveling so as not to leave puddles of sweat on doorknobs and handrails.
But my sweat never stopped me from playing the flute—no matter how many times the instrument rusted.
I started playing the flute when I was 9 years old, immediately falling in love with the sound it made. As I advanced, it became increasingly harder for me to focus because I felt so uncomfortable with my sweaty hands. I would even practice while standing in a tub of ice cold water, just to cool down enough to be able to get through the music. Sometimes I wondered how far I could even get with this condition.
But as I grew to be a professional, earning two degrees in music performance, I learned to breathe through my discomfort and just keep going. I learned how to focus my mind and be confident (even if I was faking it), because quitting was never an option. I loved music too much.
As a flutist, my sweaty hands are always an issue. Sweat drips all the way down to my elbows while I play, and I’m often concentrating more on not dropping my flute than the musicality of the piece. My flute has rusted several times, to the point where a repair person needed to take it completely apart to clean and fix it. My fingers don’t move as fast as I think they could without hyperhidrosis. Still, I kept going. I’ve since played at Carnegie Hall and several other major music halls in New York City, and I’ve toured Europe and China with performing ensembles.
Hyperhidrosis may be rare, but obstacles are not, and my condition helped deepen my understanding of the challenges we’re all going through.
Even though I was doing what I loved, I never felt like there was anywhere I could turn to for support. So, in 2011, I started a blog called Just A Little Sweat as an outlet for my growing frustrations. Through it, I connected with people all over the world suffering with hyperhidrosis. I learned their stories and we confided in each other. I was able to start moving forward, even feeling proud of myself for how much I had accomplished and overcome on my own.
It inspired me to help others—not only with hyperhidrosis, but with all types of challenges. So, a few years ago, I went back to school to become a special education teacher.
Today, I teach music at a school for kids who are blind or visually impaired. I was drawn to this school because it’s such a supportive community and it provides the accommodations that students need to continue doing what they love, which is making music. Some of our students are auditioning for music conservatories and colleges, and others have even released their own albums. Every day, I’m inspired by these students as they strive to reach their goals. They don’t let their impairment dictate what they can and can’t do.
For a long time, hyperhidrosis was my secret. But I don’t want to hide anymore. I want to help others realize that with support and perseverance, anything is possible.
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