Looking around our photo studio, Priscelia Chan observed in a voice of mild incredulity, “This is my first photo shoot in two years.”
In fact, the actress, who used to grace magazine covers regularly, has not even been seen in television roles since 2017.
During that time, her drastically dwindling social media posts revealed that she wasn’t in the best of health. But it’s only recently, after taking a turn for the better, that she has opened up about what really happened.
It was an affliction that struck with no warning and threatened to take away her looks, her career and her relationships – but her road to recovery, although arduous, painful and as yet incomplete, has led to a rediscovery of self.
It all started when Chan’s family members noticed that her lips were turning a bluish hue, she told CNA Lifestyle. At the time, she was filming an emotionally draining role, she wasn’t eating cleanly, and there was also an illness in the family to be dealt with; she was undergoing more stress than she even realised. Soon, inflamed rashes were breaking out on her face.
It’s so worrying – you don’t know what’s wrong with your body, but when you do a checkup, you’re fine.
Medical checkups yielded inconclusive results. But “I could feel that my whole system was not right. I felt breathless, I felt very weak, I couldn’t even talk (normally). I couldn’t even sweat. I always felt cold. It’s so worrying – you don’t know what’s wrong with your body, but when you do a checkup, you’re fine,” the 40-year-old recalled.
In her desperate quest for solutions, she saw four dermatologists and three general practitioners, and also turned to traditional Chinese medicine. She tried all kinds of remedies such as taking probiotics and drinking cactus juice and soursop leaves boiled in water. Some treatments helped more than others, but none solved the problem, and the skin condition, which doctors diagnosed as eczema, was spreading.
Realising that the prescribed steroid creams and immunosuppressants were not helping her, she stopped their application. That was when the worst happened.
Her skin became red and raw, and felt like it was burning and swelling, she said.
There was a period of time I really didn’t want to see anybody – because I couldn’t even face myself.
“I could feel I was losing my joy every day. I didn’t even want to go out because of the risk of infection – it was raw skin. I only went to church – I would have a mask covering my face and the mask would stick to my skin. My good friends and colleagues would visit me, but there was a period of time I really didn’t want to see anybody – because I couldn’t even face myself,” she said.
After doing research and finding communities of people suffering the same symptoms, Chan believes she was going through what is known as topical steroid withdrawal – a phenomenon she says is often not acknowledged by doctors.
THE FEAR OF LOSING EVERYTHING
More than the physical pain, it was the fear, frustration and sense of helplessness that she describes as “torturous”.
“I never knew that 24 hours were so hard to endure,” she recalled. “In my worst state, I could not stop looking in the mirror. And the irony was, I was an actress. I was really not vain. I didn’t take lots of selfies and I didn’t look at myself in the mirror. (But) in my darkest days I kept staring at the mirror until my husband told me, ‘You have to stop.’
“I couldn’t recognise myself in the mirror, because I was no longer me,” she said. “You’ve lost everything – your looks; the fear of losing the career you’ve worked so hard for.”
Change your food choices and the way you handle your stress and the way you look at your life sometimes.
There was also the relationship with her husband, former actor Alan Tern, to consider.
“We women want to be the best for our family, our loved ones and our husbands, especially. Who wouldn’t want to? You want to be the prettiest, the most beautiful woman, right? I always asked Alan, ‘I look like this now. I’m so hideous. Can you accept it? Will I recover?’”
But “he always said, ‘Don’t worry. You’re still beautiful. You will recover.’
“I tell him, ‘Thank you for being so awesome. Thank you for being with me.’ I don’t want to take it for granted.”
STRESS, THE HIDDEN CULPRIT
For Chan, it was proper nutrition, rest and finding a suitable TCM practitioner that helped her begin her journey to recovery. Although she emphasises that what worked for her might not work for everyone, she says it’s necessary to put in the hard work – such as keeping a food diary – for yourself.
“The way is really to change your lifestyle. Change your food choices and the way you handle your stress and the way you look at your life sometimes. So don’t just shove it off and try to hide it with a band-aid,” she said, adding that she believes her immune system was “screwed up” because of her indulgence in sweets and desserts made with processed sugar, as well as stress levels.
She now feels compelled to share her story and lend her support to others who may be suffering. About 25 people with similar conditions have reached out to her through private messages on social media, she revealed.
“Sometimes I think we urbanites don’t even know how stressed we really are,” she said. “The stress unknowingly starts because we live in a society where we’re always trying to outbid ourselves, so we keep pushing and pushing. We all want to be perfect, flawless, invincible in our jobs.”
Dr Lynn Chiam, a dermatologist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, said that “stress definitely plays an important role in many different skin diseases. Eczema, psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis and acne can all be aggravated by stress.” And, yes, “skin problems can happen without any prior symptoms or signs,” she said. Your body’s immune status and hormonal changes can also play a part.
Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Hospital, agrees that stress can be a trigger. “In individuals afflicted with skin problems such as psoriasis, rosacea and eczema, it is quite common that their skin conditions are made worse in periods of stress,” he said. “Should stress be an important factor in exacerbating the rashes, counselling and psychotherapy can be utilised to help patients with stress management.”
RECOVERY THROUGH CREATIVE EXPRESSION
Indeed, Chan’s turning point came when she attended a workshop meant to equip her with counselling skills, she said. When the instructor asked for a volunteer to share their story, she felt the urge to raise her hand, even though she was among strangers. When asked what her biggest fear was, she realised that it was the fear of losing herself.
I realised that my biggest fear was not actually about losing my career or my husband. I feared losing myself.
“I wanted to help people, but it was meant to help me,” she said. “I realised that my biggest fear was not actually about losing my career or my husband. I feared losing myself. It was with that awareness that I started to pull myself out of that quicksand, fast. Then I got better and better, and I directed all my efforts to staying positive and staying strong.”
Channelling her energies into creative endeavours such as floral arrangements for her church helped immensely. And she was also offered the opportunity to script and direct a short film for Toggle. She’d never attempted being behind the camera before, but there was now a story she felt compelled to tell. Thus was born the short film Soul Connection, about a woman whose busy life prevents her from living to her full potential until she meets a food deliveryman. She’s now scripting another Toggle project, and these days, she also spends her time conducting acting classes for children and adults.
“I realised you must really try to distract yourself, and find something you can do within your limits,” she said. For instance, “I found my recovery speeding up quite fast from my flower therapy… I directed my energy to something that was besides my condition.”
She’s slowly making her way back onto television screens by participating in variety shows, but there’s still one big barrier to resuming her acting career: Her skin isn’t resilient enough to tolerate most kinds of makeup, even specially formulated or chemical-free products.
After numerous discouraging makeup trials, she still experiences reactions to products. “But at least I can feel that my energy is rebooting really well,” she said.
“And I have realised some changes in myself. In the past I would be super critical of myself in all areas. I have started to feel that sometimes what’s meant to happen is really the best – you just have to accept the situation sometimes, and just do your very best. It will all work out fine.”