After getting vitiligo at the age of 26, Leah Antonio struggled for years, hiding her spots every summer and battling low self-esteem. Then she had kids. Determined to be an example of confidence and self-love for her children, Leah found new strength through the unconditional love they showed her everyday. Now, she’s ready to open up about her experiences – and the moment she realized her kids love her just the way she is.
Name: Leah Galido Antonio
Hometown: New Jersey
Years with vitiligo: 15 years
LD: When did you realize you were developing vitiligo? What was that like?
LA: I first realized I was developing vitiligo when I was 26 years old. When I first saw it, I didn’t know what it was. I knew my mother and my aunt had it but I never knew what it was called and I didn’t know if my spot was the same thing. But as weeks went by the spot started to grow, so I went to see a dermatologist and that was when I found out I have vitiligo.
The dermatologist told me that there was no cure for it and that it would probably spread all over my body. I left her office in tears. She wrote me a prescription for a topical cream. I used it for a while but I couldn’t really keep up with treatment because more spots just kept appearing and spreading so quickly. I decided to stop using it.
LD: How would you say vitiligo has impacted your life?
LA: I struggled with vitiligo for many years. Before my vitiligo, I was very carefree. I was a beach goer. I looked forward to spring and summer because I loved the feeling of being comfortable, wearing nice dresses and just being free and being myself. I remember feeling so much confidence.
After getting vitiligo, I hated myself. I’ve seen a lot of different dermatologists and tried treatments like other creams and phototherapy. But there was zero improvement or success. I started avoiding the beach, the pool, dresses and hot weather in general. I basically tried to avoid anything that had to do with having fun in the water. And when it was really hot outside during the summertime, I made sure to stay home.
LD: Would you say living with vitiligo is the hardest thing you’ve ever experienced?
LA: Vitiligo has definitely brought me to my lowest points. There were many days when I wouldn’t look at myself in the mirror because it would bring me to tears. Many nights I cried myself to sleep, thinking, “Why me?” and “What did I do to deserve this?”
I felt alone. I felt like no one could truly understand what I was going through. Every time I told someone how I felt, they would tell me that “It’s nothing,” or “At least it’s not cancer.” “Get over it and just accept it.” “You’re beautiful just the way you are.” I knew they meant well. But hearing them say things like that pained me. I wanted affirmation and recognition from them.
I felt I was crying for help and no one could hear me. They could see my vitiligo – the obvious, the visible part of it – but what they couldn’t understand is the invisible part – the emotional and mental toll that was taking away every part of my soul.
LD: Would you say things are the same for you today?
LA: Yes and no. Things are a lot different today. Within the past 10 years, so much has happened in my life. I got married – and also got divorced – and I had two children. Today I live with my two children, my boyfriend, and his two sons. Life changes kept me busy and forced me not to pay attention to my vitiligo.
By the time I had my daughter, my vitiligo had spread throughout my legs. I felt so guilty about not taking my children to the beach or the pool. That was when I started to wear makeup on my legs – which I hated because it never looked right. But I wore makeup anyway during the summer.
I remember crying one day because I felt like a horrible mother. The very next day I told myself that I can’t let my vitiligo get in the way of things when it comes to my children. So I took my children everywhere including the beach and the pool. I felt very self conscious but I forced myself to ignore the stares. I cried inside, but at the same time seeing my children have fun made some of those feelings go away.
I don’t think about my vitiligo as much as the first 7-10 years since it first appeared. I still cover it during the summertime but it doesn’t really bother me as much now. It has been a long journey finding self-acceptance and self-love, but I have to be honest that I am not yet where I want to be with self-confidence. I am getting there, and I know I will get there.
LD: Would you say your children are what pushed you to find your confidence, or at least, your courage when it comes to living with vitiligo?
LA: Yes. Eventually, I got tired of feeling sorry for myself. Vitiligo suddenly just became this annoying thing for me instead of something that controlled my life. And I realized that the unconditional love from my children changed that.
When my son was 4 years old, he asked me why my legs looked like that – referring to my vitiligo. It was the first time he ever asked about my spots. I didn’t know what to say so I just told him that that is how God decided to make me. A couple of days later, I took him to the playground. Another kid asked my son, “What’s wrong with your mom’s skin?” My son responded with, “Nothing. God just made her that way.” Tears ran down my face. It made me realize that my children don’t see my spots, they just see me, their mommy.
I noticed that as my attitude changed on how I see myself, my children also saw that in me, especially my daughter. When my daughter was three years old, she started calling my vitiligo “clouds.” We were in bed one night and she started tracing my vitiligo with her fingers and then she just suddenly said, “Mommy, I love your clouds!” Clouds. That is what she calls them.
She lets me know all the time that she loves them, and that she loves me, and that I am beautiful. When I hear her say those things it brings me to tears, but these tears are a lot different than the tears I used to have. These tears are happy tears, tears that constantly remind me that I am more than my skin.
LD: I understand you also work as a teacher. If you could tell your students – or your children – one thing about self acceptance what would it be?
LA: I would tell them that there will be many times in their lives that they would disapprove of themselves in so many ways. That they will believe that there is something “wrong with them.” And that when they are faced with that struggle, they need to remember that accepting themselves over and over again and over again is the most powerful thing they can do. And when they do, their confidence will rise. They will become their own biggest fans.
Everyone has something different about them. We should all celebrate our individuality and not be ashamed of it. Because when it really comes down to it, the only person’s acceptance you need is your own. It is how you see yourself that really matters.
LD: You only recently started opening up about your experience with vitiligo. What inspired that change?
LA: About five years ago I started to research more about vitiligo online and that was when I discovered Living Dappled. I read different stories about women who also had the same struggles as me. I realized that day that I wasn’t alone. It was life changing. It was the support I have been searching for and needed for a very long time.
Makalah Moore is a writer based in Massachusetts who has lived with vitiligo for sixteen years. In her free time she enjoys reading, photography and spending time with friends and family. Find her on instagram @the.moore.you.know.