MAFS bride Hayley Vernon has opened up for the very first time about the traumatic skin condition she has battled for years, a secret she kept hidden from both producers and viewers during her time on Married At First Sight.
The 32-year-old suffers from psoriasis, a chronic disease where skin cells build up and form scales and itchy, dry patches.
"I still remember the first spot I had. It was on my left forearm and it was the size of a five cent piece," Hayley told Now To Love, revealing she first noticed her skin changing when she was a teenager.
"It was very itchy and I didn't know what it was. I thought it might have been a rash. I didn't know what to do, so I put hand sanitiser on it, thinking it would get rid of it.
"I used to have it so badly on my shins ... I would scratch it and it would bleed. I was just in total agony."
Hayley was working at a fast food restaurant, dealing with her parents' divorce and a debilitating drug habit that controlled her life for eight years, a period she describes as "one of the most tumultuous times in my life".
Her unhealthy lifestyle and inability to find a cure meant her psoriasis spread "like wildfire".
"My legs broke out, my elbows broke out, my knees, I had it on the inside of my ears. It literally went from tiny little patches, to the patches becoming so big that they were joining up," she said.
"It was so painful. It was out of control. It controlled my life."
She was embarrassed and ashamed of her condition, avoiding the beach and wearing long shirts under dresses.
"I remember one time in the supermarket, a lady grabbed my arm and said 'What is that? I was so embarrassed," she said.
"It totally defined me and ruined my confidence."
Hayley tried everything to fix her psoriasis and was in and out of doctors clinics for years.
"I spent so much money trying to find the right treatment," she said.
Eventually, she discovered a specialised psoriasis skin clinic and a doctor who gave her an ultimatum - clean up your lifestyle, or live with this condition forever.
"They said it was all well and good to do things topically, but you need to treat this from the inside out," Hayley revealed.
"Being young, I was partying quite a bit, consuming a lot of alcohol and not looking after my body. I was told acidic food was not going to work for me, so I cut out all acidic foods, things like tomatoes, vinegar, that kind of thing.
"I was told to up my greens and water and told to start walking and exercising and getting enough sleep, and try to do things like manage my stress and slow down."
Hayley was sceptical.
"I thought it was a crock of s--t. My skin was so scaly, so scabby and so thick. It was horrible. I thought 'This is not going to work'."
She was prescribed two oral tablets - one to take morning and night - and a special body wash and an oil, along with strict instructions to stop drinking alcohol and start eating healthily.
"The doctor said one would not work without the other. He said 'If you want the tablets to work, you have to change your lifestyle as well'."
So that's exactly what she did.
"I cut out dairy and gluten and started eating a lot more whole foods. In about a week and a half, it had improved."
And she found the proof that her diet was affecting her skin.
"I noticed that if I did go out with the girls on the weekend and have a few drinks, it would flare up. if I had toast in the morning, the next day I'd wake up and be more scaly," Hayley explained.
Feeling motivated, and with her scepticism at her doctor's advice reduced, she stuck to the medical advice. And slowly, over time, her psoriasis completely disappeared.
"No one would ever guess I even had it," she said.
Sadly, Hayley's time on Married At First Sight this year - the stress caused by the drama, along with the show's intense booze-fuelled dinner parties - has caused her psoriasis to flare up again.
"I think the overall effect of MAFS is something that I never could have imagined," she revealed.
"It definitely took a toll. I gained about 7kg on the show over three months, because I was comforting myself with food, eating things I normally wouldn't eat, like bread and alcohol at the dinner parties.
"At the moment, I have mild psoriasis. I have one tiny dot on my knee and on my elbow and that's due to the fact that I'm under extreme stress at the moment with the show."
While psoriasis is extremely common - even celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Cara Delevingne have been open about their struggles with the condition - there is still a lot of shame surrounding the disease, which sadly prevents many patients from seeking help.
But Hayley has one clear piece of advice for those battling with psoriasis: Don't suffer in pain any longer. Stop putting it off and get help now.
"The biggest message I want people to know is that you need to get on the phone and have a really candid conversation with a doctor. You just have to lay everything out on the table."
"This is something people spend thousands of dollars trying to fix. It affects you mentally, because it knocks around your confidence. Don't let that happen to you."
WATCH BELOW: Hayley plays Now To Love's Two Minute Speed Date. Story continues after video.
An expert explains everything you need to know about psoriasis
Professor Michael Tirant from the Psoriasis Eczema Clinic, who is a practitioner of integrative dermatology, answers his most commonly-asked questions below.
What causes psoriasis?
Like many other chronic diseases, there is no one simple explanation. But the most accepted explanation today is that psoriasis is a genetic condition which is autoimmune in nature.
The majority of genes involved in psoriasis are those that control innate immunity and therefore psoriasis is more accurately described as a systemic inflammatory disorder which predominantly affects the skin. It can also affect the joints and nails.
Why are some people more prone to it than others?
Susceptibility to psoriasis is largely determined by our genetics. The more people in our family with psoriasis, the higher our chances of having psoriasis. However it is never the genes acting alone, but in combination with our environment and therefore susceptibility to psoriasis flares can also be determined by our exposure to triggering agents
What factors can increase or cause a psoriasis flare up?
- Injury to the skin
- Certain medications and chemicals
- Poor dietary habits
What tips do you have for anyone battling with psoriasis?
1. It is important to remember that you are not alone. There has been some fantastic progress in regards to acceptance and a reduction in stigma in recent years. Social media has played a big role in this and I recommend joining a forum with other sufferers to help take that feeling of social isolation away.
2. Education is key. Discuss your condition with your GP, family, friends and your partner. Psoriasis is not contagious and doesn't need to affect your relationships.
3. Psoriasis may be genetic, but remember it is never the genes acting alone. Your environment plays a key role to managing your stress, eating habits, exercise, and other lifestyle issues. Of course getting enough vitamin D and swimming in salt water are well known to be of great benefit.
4. Remember we are here to help you. We have treated patients for over 30+ years and offered hope to those who thought there was none. Have a positive outlook, as there is always hope.
For more information visit the Psoriasis Eczema Clinic in Melbourne or visit psoriasiseczema.com.au