Meet Cally Deppen
Name: Cally Deppen
Occupation: storyteller, research writer, and stay-at-home mom
Skin Condition: eczema and topical steroid withdrawal (TSW)
I feel like people with skin conditions often have a one-line explanation that they use to explain their skin condition to others. Tell us yours.
I’m like an itchy human version of a kaleidoscope; I’m constantly changing based on external forces, and the kaleidoscope image, aka my skin, changes too (and presents as many different patterns and colors, haha).
What are you up to in life right now?
I’m in an experimental phase right now where I’m trying to put a bunch of pieces together to see what they make. For example:
I freelance off and on as a research writer, currently for a site that addresses prenatal and postpartum anxiety and mood disorders.
I also am becoming a board member for a local pond reservation near our apartment to get both me and the baby more involved in the community, and outside more.
I’m going to start working with a professor from my undergraduate years on getting a paper published in comparative biomechanics.
I am independently working to become a postpartum doula and a prenatal and postpartum coach through two certification programs that are self-paced.
I am meeting with a local herbalist and a nurse Ob-Gyn to see how we can create an online course to help benefit communities of mothers.
You ended up changing your career because of your eczema. Tell us about it.
This is always an interesting and weird topic for me because I tend to think very fluidly about where I am, and about what career I may have been meant for. By that I mean that I have always had a few interests that I didn’t know how to put together which included writing, a love of biology/nature/ecology, a fascination with anatomy and health, and a desire to help people.
I decided to follow physical therapy while I was a senior in college, but always wondered if healthcare was what I wanted to do with it. As I got older I kept wanting to figure out ways to use the education to go in a more creative direction, such as building a nonprofit. And to be honest, before enrolling I had had my reservations about if my skin would be tempered enough for me to complete any program. Specifically, I was worried that my skin would flare up as badly as it had at the start of my TSW in 2013 (think raw, weeping and easily irritated skin).
I also worried that said flares would make working with patients impossible. The fear about cleanliness (and my risk of infection from others), the emotional toll of having to explain what I was going through all the time, and the physiological exhaustion of dealing with the body changes were things that were constantly on my mind as I tried to make my career decisions.
Anyway, I did get into a school and then completed a little over a year of the program, and was well on track to become a doctor of physical therapy when my skin just kind of took a nose dive. I had been going through topical steroid withdrawal on and off for years (I’ve have various attempts at going off steroids) and I’ve no doubt this particular flare was augmented by the stress of school, which was reciprocated because I was losing so much sleep. In fact, I had grown closely intimate with the witching hours of the night, and often blogged or wrote notes to myself at these times.
Then one day, my skin had been irritating me all day long as we sat in class, and I was pretty miserable. I had a presentation at 6pm the next day, and that class wouldn’t end until 8pm, and then I had an 8am class the following day. I remember thinking how it would take me over an hour to get home after class, and that I’d have to leave over an hour and half to get to school the next morning I was fixated on how much free time I had because I felt like I had no time to heal. I realized I was flushed and itchy from stress and the worry that I wouldn’t be able to get any sleep again.
I had previously talked with my husband about how the school life was really messing up my health and at that point it just felt unbearable. So I went on leave, and later on talked to the head of the department about my health, and she mentioned how I could potentially leave the program and join in their developing step-out masters program. I thought that over for a few days and eventually decided it was the best decision for me.
It’s been a bit of a roller coaster since then. I am constantly reinventing what I’m doing and trying to define my new “purpose.” In our society, a lot of our identity comes from what our jobs are, and so randomly leaving a career track can feel terrifying. But it also comes with perks like having time to try new fields. I have been doing a lot of nonprofit work as a volunteer, trying to increase my skill sets including with grant writing, website editing, blog writing, researching, and general company organizing. My one consistency in this off-the-beaten-path approach is I still tend to gravitate towards health-related fields. During the pregnancy, I worked for a public charity that fights childhood obesity and I acted as a personal assistant and information specialist for a women’s health physical therapist. Then I had the baby and took a break for a while, and now I am back in the swing of things, but more slowly, gradually adding new projects (mentioned earlier), with the overall belief that things will come together in the end.
You have a young daughter (who is super adorable, by the way!). How did you manage your skin during pregnancy? What surprised you about it? What scared you?
Why thank you! I always tended to be a minimalist in my general skincare back when my skin was flare-free, and even after the TSW started, I never really changed.
Pregnancy ended up being no different, though I did struggle because my stomach flared up more as the skin stretched. My one biggest management strategy was to soak in the tub ALL THE TIME because it gave me so much relief.
I did tried to work on my habits like increasing my activity levels mostly via walking and some yoga as my belly grew, which I think helped keep my flares manageable. I avoided sugar and meat for the first trimester due to food aversions (I had more aversions than cravings) but honestly, as I had found out I was pregnant in November, I was pretty grumpy about my skin during the New England winter.
To be honest, I was surprised with how easy pregnancy felt compared to having such severe eczema. None of the stereotypical symptoms of pregnancy really bothered me minus specific pregnancy related anxieties (about the impending birth and if the baby was doing okay while inside me). But the others: trouble waking up? Fatigue? Insomnia? Never comfortable in bed? Loss of appetite? Digestion messed up? I feel like eczema and TSW prepared me well.
I think the hardest part of worrying about the baby. I was so scared that my body’s inflammation could somehow hurt the baby. And then I was scared that my constant stressing about inflammation would somehow also hurt the baby. It was very cyclical. Oh, I was also worried I would be very uncomfortable in the hospital because I was extremely sensitive to cold drafts and cold air. That fear was pretty accurate. Though everyone in the birth center claimed I’d warm up when in labor, that wasn’t my experience. I was chilly the entire time.
How are you juggling parenting while caring for your skin?
It’s definitely a circus act. I realized early on that I was going to have to make modifications to seemingly normal “mom” activities, like I’ll wear one of my husband’s flannel shirts while breastfeeding to have a barrier between the baby’s head and my arms because her body heat can make my arms flare. I also exclusively breastfed for 6 months, which reduced having to do dishes or wash bottles and equipment.
I generally have my husband give the baby baths because the repeated water exposure really irritates my hands. My husband is also the best partner ever for me because he enjoys cooking so he makes dinner and the leftovers I’ll eat for lunch, often one-handedly while I breastfeed.
I usually find ways to shower/bathe while the baby sleeps or when my husband is home. The baby is now about 9.5 months old so I designed our living room to be a large play area for her and I let her do laps around it to get to various toy spaces while I do whatever sedentary chores I have. And now she’s becoming more autonomous so I give her her food purees while I eat, or I share bits of what I’m eating.
I like to increase the perceived usefulness of mundane activities, so I just mentally think in more positive terms such as: increased activity is good for my skin, it is also good to get the baby outside, therefore I should walk to the grocery store. It also helps that we live in the city and the nearest grocery stores is just 3 or so blocks away.
Oh, that was a huge thing. We actually moved out of the suburbs and into the city to be closer to my husband’s job, but also so there was more walkability for me. I find that if I can’t get the baby to sleep (aka I’m not sleeping), walks at least calm my nerves. And as a perk, the baby usually loves our time outside.
But honestly, sometimes I fail at juggling. Like when I first drafted a response to these questions, I had gotten maybe 2 hours of sleep due to insomnia and the baby waking up 3 times in the night (she’s up for about 30 minutes a time). And the following day, she would not nap today, so I was exhausted. My husband hung out with her in the morning and gave her her first meal (I still breastfeed on demand but we have increased her solids), and then I got coffee. Since I couldn’t get her to sleep, we went for a walk. When in doubt, we always try to walk. Like I said before, if nothing else, the fresh air seems to perk us both up.
I also am really good about realizing that these struggles with timing and sleep won’t last forever. At some point I will no longer be breastfeeding and she will sleep through the night more consistently. She won’t be so tiny, but will become more and more of her own autonomous person. And often I find everything to be less grave because I just look at her cute little smiley face and realize she’s worth it, skin exhaustion and all. That makes the struggles with my skin melt away for a time.
You're passionate about women's health (especially the postpartum period), physical therapy, and movement. I can't help but notice there's a theme here - it's all about really occupying the body. What about living in your particular body led you to pursue those passions?
I think it’s the same thing that drove me to be interested in physical therapy initially. We are corporeal creatures, and so much of our experiences are dictated by these bodies we inhabit. I am vividly aware of the phenomenon of when you are healthy, you don’t realize it. Then when you get sick, you notice your state of body a lot, but by the time you are fully healed, you basically don’t notice that you are back to normal.
It’s the transitional period that you do notice, and that’s where I wanted to be able to help people. I’m not sure if that desire derived due to awareness of my own eczema (which was mild earlier in life), from having asthma that improved as I got older, or from having knee surgeries from sports injuries and realizing that physical therapy was the highlighter of transition period.
I think it was a mechanism of coping that led me to women’s health. I would be dealing with something new in my own body and want to understand it more so I’d do hours of research, finding primary sources of studies done over years and just absorb as much as I could. I think I always hoped that I’d pinpoint how to heal myself (fingers still crossed), but what I did find was that a lot of my particular issues seemed to occur more often in women than men. Like I’d realize that a lot of my injuries had similar presentations to people with hyper-mobility, and then I’d see that women are often hypermobile, and I’d venture a guess it was due to our hormones. Or I’d be experiencing cyclical flares and wonder if there was a specific cause, and suddenly I’d come across a paper about autoimmune progesterone dermatitis or studies about how estrogen may be linked to eczema, and thus the reason why more women then men experience it.
It feels like I’m constantly working on understanding my body around this giant puzzle, and each of my experiences helps me to slowly put together the edges. Then every now and then the edges will link up to pieces in the center (aka some new idea that is then supported by current research) and I start to clearly see the image of what’s going on. I think it’s that puzzle aspect that keeps me curious and delving deeper into women’s health. And of course, there’s the drive due to the residual hope that the researching will help me get out of my transitional “healing” state and back into the recovered health phase. My goal is just make sure to write a lot about my experiences and research so I don’t forget if/when I am fully healed, as we humans are wont to do.
Where can we keep up with you?