The executive producer of HBO’s ‘The Night Of’ encourages patients and families to talk openly about the chronic skin disease.
By Gary Fitzgerald
Since childhood, Peter Moffat tried to cover up and hide his atopic dermatitis – the red and itchy rash, dryness, skin flakes, bumps and peeling.
“I did all the classic things – keeping it a secret, being ashamed or humiliated by it, not wanting people to look at me,” Moffat says.
It was so bad he wore gloves and covered up his hands as much as possible – including when he served as a lawyer in London early in his career. He worried his chronic atopic dermatitis symptoms would be a distraction to the jury.
Now an accomplished English playwright, screenwriter and producer, Moffat no longer hides his atopic dermatitis. He even instills it in his TV characters – most recently the criminal defense attorney John Stone (played by John Turturro) in HBO’s show “The Night Of” – making it a key element of who they are.
“It really got through,” Moffat says. “I looked at some of the twitter comments from fans of the show, and about one-third discussed [the character’s] AD. My favorite tweet was, ‘The Night Of’ is a ‘show about a guy with atopic dermatitis with a murder subplot.’ And I thought, ‘Yes!’”
Moffat is helping to raise awareness of atopic dermatitis through a partnership with Sanofi Genzyme, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and the National Eczema Association. They launched UnderstandAD.com to better educate the public about the severe and chronic nature of this debilitating disease, which affects more than 1.6 million Americans.
“I want to help people to be able to talk about it – so that it becomes less of a secretive disease, so that they don’t feel there’s a stigma attached to it, and they don’t feel socially isolated because of it,” Moffat says. “The more people talk about it, the better the chance of achieving that goal.”
Allergy & Asthma Network recently talked with Moffat by telephone in a Q&A interview:
Q: What tends to trigger your atopic dermatitis flare-ups?
A: Often it’s changes in temperatures and heat. When we turn the central heating on due to cold weather, it dries my skin and it’s a disaster for me. It’s for this reason I wear sandals during cold months so that I can let my skin breathe; if I wear socks and shoes all day, my feet are in real trouble by evening.
It’s also not good to have wool next to my skin. And here’s a weird one – contact with a potato peel can cause a flare
AD triggers are so random and varied for different people. I can understand why some doctors know so little about atopic dermatitis because it’s different for everybody.
Q: What misconceptions do you think most people have about AD?
A: The biggest one – and the one that hits me hardest – is that people think it’s contagious. It really speaks to the lack of knowledge about the disease, that in 2017 there are people who believe you can catch AD or other forms of eczema by coming into contact with it. It tells you how far there is to go in terms of getting people to understand the disease.
I wear sandals a lot, because it’s better for my feet to be left open to the air, and some people will look at my feet and see that I have this skin condition. And they will stare. Some will lead their children away from me because they think their kids might catch it.
It would be great to undo that misconception. If you see someone with eczema, you’re not going to catch it. You can’t catch it.
Q: Why do you think there is very little understanding or empathy of atopic dermatitis?
A: It’s a combination of things. Atopic dermatitis has been hidden by so many and not talked about for many years. People don’t want to say they have it because it’s embarrassing. And AD is not viewed as a life-threatening condition, so it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
But look back 30 years and think about all the behaviors we have now that were different then. We’ve come a long way in 30 years. So I’m pretty hopeful. I don’t underestimate people’s capacity to change and be more compassionate.
Q: What made you want to include AD as part of the main character of “The Night Of”?
A: It’s a reason I’m now ashamed of, actually. When I first conceived the character – he’s an ambulance-chasing low-life lawyer, not making a lot of money, I know those types of people from my days as a barrister – I thought about what kind of characteristics I could give him that fit with that persona. I thought of a few things like dandruff, or that he only wears one suit, but I landed on atopic dermatitis.
And I’m ashamed of that now because I was equating this skin disease with grubbiness and an unattractive persona – which I now realize was the wrong way to approach the character.
At the time I was writing about myself and what it was like to live with the disease. Then, when I started seeing the audience reaction to “The Night Of,” I saw his atopic dermatitis was like a character itself. Apart from New York City, it was probably the biggest nonhuman character. Kudos to John Turturro – he was able to show what it was like to live with the disease, day-in and day-out, in private and in public – with all the things you do to try to cure it, and the whole range of emotions, from pain to embarrassment, from failing to have successful dates because of it, from apologizing for having it.
It turned out to be the best possible way of getting that across.
Q: What did you learn about atopic dermatitis as a result of writing about it for a TV character?
A: What I really learned has come after the program. Because of my involvement in the UnderstandAD.com program, I have come into contact with so many more people who have this disease. And I’m much better informed about people’s individual relationships with AD.
I talked to somebody who had a job in retail but gave it up because people would come in, look at his face and walk out – and he couldn’t take that. So he doesn’t work now. A parent told me their child doesn’t go to school because of how the child feels about the way classmates and teachers look at him – and how the school is threatening to expel the child due to poor attendance.
These stories are incredibly profound for those people dealing with them. And these stories really affected me.
Q: So you feel writing about it has made a difference in raising awareness?
A: Completely. As a writer, it’s easy to write about yourself. But I have found you can inform yourself much better by listening to what others say. Talking to other people with AD has been a great privilege and makes me feel so strongly about wanting to progress with UnderstandAD.com so that more people get to learn about this disease.
Q: What advice would you give to someone recently diagnosed with AD?
A: Definitely go to the website, UnderstandAD.com. You’ll see people talking about the disease you have, and it’s always helpful to feel like you’re part of a community rather than on your own. The crucial thing is to not be alone with it and not feel isolated by it. I know that’s really tough. I know that in today’s world you have to be quite brave.
Another thing is, for so many people who have atopic dermatitis on their arms, it’s really tempting to wear long-sleeve shirts all the time to hide their symptoms in the summer. I want to live in a world where people with AD can wear short-sleeve shirts anytime. So my advice would be to just wear the short-sleeve shirt. I understand completely if you can’t. I know anxiety and depression go along with this condition. But if you have it within you to be brave, to show your disease to the world and not hide it, that would be great for everyone.