Bumpy: Scenes from a Life With Bad Skin
Caution: This is a more serious turn for my blog. Navel-gazing ahead. Or maybe I should say pore-gazing. Names changed to protect the innocent and the really mean. And this is really freaking long. Get yourself a drink first. Definitely read this while tipsy, actually.
In seventh grade, Alex Doogle eyed me critically and said, “You’re one of those people who’s going to grow up and have really bad skin.”
It was a throw away comment to him. Something you say to the person you’re perpetually sitting next to or marching behind on the way to lunch, thanks to alphabetical order. He didn’t like me much because I would snap at him when he tapped his feet on the bar under my desk.
“No, I’m not!” I yelped. “Those are chicken pox scars.”
“Chicken pox?” Autumn Creedmore laughed from her spot in front of me. “All those are chicken pox scars?”
She exchanged a look with Alex and they smirked. When the scabs from my chicken pox fell off a couple of months earlier, my face was still growing new red spots. They were right, of course. Seventh graders are more cruel when they tell the truth than when they lie.
I’m positive neither one of them remembers this exchange. But it’s a flashbulb memory to me. It’s the first time I realized that other people were noticing my skin and thought it was ugly.
Unfortunately, two insecure seventh graders burrowed into my psyche and they stayed there forever.
I didn’t have any make-up, but my mom had an old cover-up wand and I used it to, well, cover up. I covered my whole face, in fact, with no thought to matching skin tones. Mindy Dugan did a double take at our lockers that morning. I must have looked like a refugee from the Jersey Shore, but we didn’t have Snookie back then and she wouldn’t have known the reference.
“Are you wearing makeup?” she asked.
We weren’t allowed to wear makeup at my Catholic middle school.
“No,” I blushed under the cakey orange layer. I was horrified at being caught both trying to cover my spots and breaking the rules. I also suspected that I didn’t put the makeup on correctly. I was right about that much. I spent most of my adolescence trying to find a stain remover for a different kind of ring around the collar.
Mindy nodded, but her eyes were sympathetic. Looking back, she had some spots on her chin too.
We tried Retin-A first. I got peely around my nose but my spots continued to bloom like weeds. There were other gels and creams that burned my face and turned me pink like a sunburn. They wanted me to try antibiotics. I childishly couldn’t swallow pills yet, so my mother would break the capsules in half and dump the bitter yellow powder into a shot glass of orange juice. I had to take it an hour before eating, so she would wake me early each morning to throw back my shot before I would get up for breakfast. Now that’s love.
One morning, she came in with the pill and, half-asleep and frustrated, I gabbed it from her and swallowed it whole. No more bitter orange juice, but the spots kept coming.
They found out I had scoliosis at the end of seventh grade, and I returned to school in the fall with a plastic brace around my torso. Now that I was handicapped, people couldn’t make fun of my skin anymore. At least not to my face. That year, I had braces on my teeth and back, I alternated between glasses and contacts, and my skin was the Before Picture for a ProActiv commercial. I wish I could say this was my awkward phase, but it was really only the beginning.
I started to be a make up artist, but I wasn’t a very good one. Mom took pity on me and we went to the Prescriptives counter to buy customized makeup. My skin was so pale and none of the regular brands had a shade light enough to match my tone. The woman at the counter furrowed her eyebrows as she spackled on the creamy oil-free foundation. The spots weren’t as red, but they were still obvious. She told me I shouldn’t wear blush because it would, “attract attention to my face.” She didn’t mean it that way, but that’s how I took it. I didn’t wear blush again until after college when a nicer counter lady told me that was stupid.
Later, Mom took me to see her friend who sold Mary Kay. She gave me a bottle of lavendar cream to layer on before my regular foundation. It turned my face stark white and gave me a “fresh canvas.” The spots were like crusty ant hills scattered over my cheeks, forehead, and chin. Once at my grandmother’s house at Christmas, I was tired of wearing all the makeup and I just put on the lavender layer. My cousin, years younger than me, wrinkled his face at me and said, “You’re pale. Too pale. Is something wrong with you?”
My dermatologist couldn’t figure out why nothing was working. I used face washes that smelled like sulphur, I slathered my skin with masks that made all my pores stand out like strange freckles, I had to fetch my night treatment from a tub we kept in the refrigerator, and I never left the doctor’s office without a a round of cortisone shots in my face. She tried giving me acid peels too; the only thing that peeled away was the top layer of skin.
Underneath, the spots remained and even flourished. They were like the cockroaches of my skin. I suspected you could attack them with a nuclear bomb and they would still be there when the smoke cleared.
We did try the nuclear bomb, eventually: Accutane. My lips turned papery and I walked around with three tubes of chapstick every where. My skin flaked off and we found those little tabs with the crossed out pregnant ladies all over the house. I had to go on birth control even though I was 14 and felt confident I was too ugly for anyone to try to sleep with me. You see, if you’re on Acctuane you have to promise you won’t get pregnant and sign a form saying you’ll use two types of birth control. That’s the kind of stuff you’re putting in your body. I didn’t care. I even braved my fear of needles to have blood drawn every couple of weeks to ensure the Accutane wasn’t killing my liver. The nursing students at the doctor’s office could never get it right the first time, and I left with bruised arms every time.
When the smoke cleared, the tiny volcanoes remained. And they were angry.
I went to an all girls high school where the girls had contests to see who could go the longest without shaving their legs. In the absence of boys, we turned to slobs. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to allow anyone to see my real skin. While my classmates joked about rolling out of bed and driving straight to school, I needed an extra 30 minutes to make sure I looked minimally presentable. I sat in class and stared at the smooth faces of the pretty girls in my class. I knew that if I suddenly met a genie who could grant me three wishes, I would wish for clear skin and then world peace.
One morning, Elaine Picard stopped by her best friend’s locker next to mine and huffed dramatically, “Look at it!”
Her friend looked at her, puzzled, “What?”
Elaine pointed to her noise, “A zit. It’s disgusting.It’s right in the middle of my nose where everyone can see. I’m so embarrassed.”
I couldn’t help myself; I looked out of the corner of my eye. There was a tiny red dot on her nose. The rest of her skin was flawless and creamy. Her friend laughed at her, “It’s hardly there. No one cares. Whatever.”
They walked to class together. I thought about the mountain range that seemed to be multiplying on my jawline. I couldn’t look Elaine Picard in the eye for the rest of high school.
On Christmas morning, I wouldn’t go to open presents with my family in our pajamas until I put on my face. I didn’t want them to take pictures of me in my natural state. I didn’t want my loving but oblivious father to choose a terrible picture of my face for the family collage.
I stopped going in swimming pools. First, I didn’t want the water to wash off my face. Second, my hormones helpfully decided to spread their joy to areas other than my cheeks and forehead. I found a racing suit from Speedo that covered the entire chest and back and came up to a turtleneck under my chin, but it still left some areas vulnerable to critique.
At the beach, my healthy brown cousins called to me to join them in the ocean to cool off. I huddled under the umbrella, sweating in a t-shirt.
“No, I’m trying to stay out of the sun. I’m too pale.”
I haven’t properly jumped into a pool since I was 11.
We tried Accutane again. No dice.
The summer before I turned 19, I had back surgery. For some reason, this cleared my skin. I could barely walk more than a few minutes at a time, but my face was finally smooth. I returned to college that fall and gleefully left the house without makeup. I pulled white shirts over my head with no fear of an orange line around the neck. I boldy hugged friends without frantically checking their shoulders for powdery cheek prints. I looked with sympathy at my classmates who continued to struggle with acne. I knew their pain. So what if I couldn’t lift more than 20 pounds at a time and my grades were slipping because the pain from my surgery still left me exhausted all the time? I finally had the skin I always wanted.
It was too good to last.
Half way through the semester, they started to creep back. They were only hibernating. I went to the student health center and let a doctor and his resident look me over. They prescribed another sulfur solution and they doctor commented, “You have nice skin, it’s just covered up.”
That still makes no sense to me.
I wouldn’t stay over with any boys at college because I didn’t want them to see what I really looked like in the morning. I didn’t really want them that close to my face anyway. I hadn’t figured out how I was going to date someone without kissing them, but it wasn’t like boys were banging down my door anyway. Years later, I would drunkenly confide in a quasi-boyfriend that I didn’t want him to touch my face when he kissed me because I was embarrassed about my skin. He told me that he never noticed anything wrong with my skin and that I was beautiful. It was a very nice thing to say. We didn’t actually go out again after that. But I think that was probably my own fault.
My college friends assured me that my skin wasn’t that bad. They said I was my own worst critic and that it wasn’t noticable, and who cares anyway? “M,” one of the males in our group said, “Any guy who’s hooking up with you will be so psyched he’s getting action that he won’t care that you have a zit.”
“You look fine,” my other friend would say, “It’s totally not a big deal. You’re a pretty girl.”
But I watched some of my lady friends lean toward the mirror examining their poreless, porcelain faces. I listened to them huff over tiny blemishes on the sides of their faces and heard them sigh heavily about how annoying those little dots could be.
If it was no big deal, what did they care about one spot? I had more than I could count on two hands, so what did they think about me? It was no use telling me people didn’t notice when I knew they did.
I have a friend with roseacea. We would exchange murderous glances when our friends whined about their tiny baby breakouts.
“I have a mirror, I know what I look like!’ I raged at one well-meaning friend, once.
She didn’t know what to say.
We would go out late and stumble home, and my friends would fall across the sofa and pass out without washing their faces. No matter how drunk, I always washed my face and put on my gels and creams. Every night. It didn’t seem fair.
Once, I had to take a plane some where and made the mistake of packing my foundation in the checked bad. It got lost. I cried.
Have you ever tried microdermabrasion? They tell you it feels like a cat is licking your face. That’s actually pretty accurate. I saw a technician named Sugar, and she didn’t recoil when she saw my face. This was something that the ladies at the makeup counters always did when they wiped off my protective layer, and I hated it when people couldn’t hide their pity for me. Sugar was all business and even introduced me to mineral makeup that didn’t leave an orange ring around my jawline.
The microdermabrasion helped smooth away scars, and my terminally unobservant father even told me that I was looking better. I felt good about it. But then I had a bad breakout and Sugar said we couldn’t try it again until things calmed down.
They never did calm down.
Accutane a third time, while in Europe with two friends with lovely complexions. This time, my skin rebelled and great cysts started to colonize under my skin. Green puss oozed out and I was horrified that everyone could see me. One time before the trip started, a small sack came out of my skin, and I flipped out. I ran to my mother’s room and showed it to her on a Kleenex. She seemed bewildered about why I was upset. “Isn’t it a good thing that it came out?” I was just so disgusted that my body was growing things like this without my persmission.
In Europe, I volunteered to wake up first every morning so I could shower and put on my face before anyone could see me.
When we hiked the Cinque Terre, my friends leaped into a crystal blue lagoon to cool off half way through the hike. I told them I couldn’t jump in because someone had to watch our things and, anyway, I couldn’t risk my sunscreen wiping off my ultra pale and sensitive skin. I sat in the glaring sun, sweating through my t-shirt and journaling about how jealous I was of my pretty friends.
I missed out on a fantastic life experience because I didn’t want two of my best friends to see what I really looked like.
They already knew, of course.
Later, when we pooled together our pictures of the trip, I volunteered to sort through them all and distribute them to everyone. I painstakingly went through each photo and used the iPhoto tool that blurred the pixels to wipe out all my obvious acne. I was generous; I smoothed out oil slicks and red drunk faces on my friends too. If you look at the pictures from that trip now, you would have no idea that I spent those two weeks agonizing that I was terribly ugly. In fact, I have absolutely no photo evidence of my skin issues for this blog because I photoshopped all of my digital pictures years ago. The worst of the non-digital offerings are packed up in photo boxes in my parents’ house.
I went to see a new dermatologist in Atlanta. She frowned and suggested some light treatments. “You know,” she said, “you’ll probably just have to get used to always having moderate acne.”
Acne is a sign something is wrong, right? Something internal isn’t functioning well. So, there should be an answer, right? I stopped seeing her.
Eliminate Diet Coke.
The Wonder Bar.
Mario Badescu, mailed from NYC.
Zeno zit zapper.
Blue light treatments.
In the end, the spots and cysts outlasted everything. They were starting to be my oldest and most loyal friends.
My endocrinologist told me I had Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and gave me metformin and birth control and said that, in time, it would cure my face.
A year and a half later, my GI system was furious with me because of the metformin, but my little red friends were completely indifferent. They yawned and invited me to Bring It.
I gave up on the prescriptions and pills. I started to see a nice little Asian lady who believes in natural treatments. My friend who had occasional flare ups but now sported glowing skin raved, “She just gives you this magic soap, and you clear right up!”
Kim took one look at me and said we needed to be more aggressive. She sold me a couple of fancy French products and signed me up for facials every few weeks.
This was no relaxing facial with soothing lotions and massage. This was a pore by pore extraction process followed by a stinging acid peel. Kim would cluck as she prodded and squeezed. She would sometimes show me what she extracted. It was disgusting but also fascinating.
I noticed things were actually getting worse. I stopped.
I cruised the Acne.org message boards looking for suggestions for a new acne-safe makeup brand. My eyes caught on other subject lines and I was sucked into a world of people just like me– people desperate to find the solution and exhausted by the previous countless attempts. Those people were intense. They gave up all kinds of foods and had elaborate regimens, but they were still not clear. Some of them claimed they found magic cures, but then other posters would immediately swoop in and call it all snake oil.
Finally, I did a Google search for the best dermatologist in Atlanta. It was my last hope, I decided. After that, well, so be it. I’d just be ugly.
Two years after starting to see Dr Schaen, I can finally touch my face without finding a new bump brewing beneath the surface. She was aggressive, making me return every few weeks for check-ins. Where other dermatologists would tell me, “Give it time. It’s just bringing it all to the surface,” Dr Schaen would purse her lips and hand me a sack of new samples to try.
I hate it when doctors say the medication should “bring things to the surface.” Shouldn’t it kill those villains in the hole and make them vanish? The point is to keep them off the surface.
My friends and family compliment me. They marvel at the change. My hair dresser can’t greet me without saying, “Girl, your face is amazing now.” People ask me what finally worked. I read out my regimen- a face wash that smells like baby poop, a fancy gel, another fancy gel, an off brand blood pressure med, expensive non-generic birth control, French sunscreen, and a partridge in a pear tree. That’s just the current regimen. There used to be more, including a foam I had to wash off after five minutes and an antibiotic that made my PCP raise her eyebrows.
Dr Schean says my skin will get used to being clear and we can start to ease back on some of these things in a few months. She says once I’m clear for a year, we’ll look into skin re-surfacing for my remaining scars and pitted skin.
I told her I don’t care what she wants me to do and that I’ll rub dead dolphins on my face if she thinks that will work.
I was mostly kidding.
She uses my “Before” and “After” pictures in a binder of pictures to show new clients. She brought them out for me to see when I went for my last check-in. I stared at my Before picture in horror. Pitted, red, almost Freddy Kreuger-esque. The new nursing assistant looked over my shoulder and whistled. “It’s like a miracle. I told one of the other girls to check you out when you leave today. She couldn’t believe these were both you.”
That felt good to hear. But it also felt terrible. That’s true for all the complements I get now. I love hearing that the change is so great. But I don’t like pondering what people used to think about me. I’m being self-centered, if course. Doesn’t the old saying go that we wouldn’t worry so much about what other people thought of us if we knew how much they didn’t?
Now when I pass by adults with acne, I want to slip them Dr. Schaen’s card and tell them to have hope. But I know that most of them just want what I always wanted: not to be noticed.
Last weekend, I went to the farmer’s market with my neighbor at 9 AM. I started to squeeze some of my Internet-purchased mineral make up on to the anti-bacterialized foundation brush, but then I stopped. I looked up at my face, blemish-free but reddish and uneven thanks to years of angry cysts and ill-advised picking on my part. I didn’t end up wearing make up that morning. My friend didn’t blink when I arrived at her door. The farmers didn’t stare. Children didn’t point.
I wish I could end this with something about beauty being skin deep. I wish I could say that once I stopped caring what people think, my skin magically cleared up. I know there are people who will read this and feel disgusted by my total self-absorption over this issue. They’ll remind me that there are real problems in the world and there are children with worse diseases and people that die for no reason. I have a childhood friend with cancer, and she must see things like this and wish this was as bed as it gets. There are people who will tell me that they never noticed I had bad skin. My mother will tell me that I was always beautiful.
But the other people out there with Bad Skin? They’ll get this.
It’s stupid, right? It was just my skin. It was literally a superficial, surface-level issue. The people in my life, the good and true people in my life, never even saw my skin. When I zeroed in on the part of the picture where my skin looked like pizza, I missed the scenery where everyone was laughing. In the paraphrased words of Henry Drummond, when I look back on my life, the moments that I truly lived were the ones when I forgot myself and my stupid face and did things in a spirit of love– when I thought about other people instead of myself and my bad skin. I’d like to tell my younger self to jump in the clear blue water on the hot day and to get some extra sleep before school and to stop crying in the hotel bathroom. I wish I could say that I came to this conclusion before my skin got better because I am really mature and I’ve had plenty of time to realize What Really Matters in Life. But the truth is, it all got a lot clearer when my skin got a lot clearer. That’s embarrassing to admit.
Teenage M is still lurking in the back of my mind and she’s hissing that it’s easy for me to say all this since I’m no longer playing connect the dots on my face. She’s always going to haunt me, the way our teenage selves do. She’s always going to have minor panic attacks when a blemish starts to brew or when I forget to wash my face before bed. The thing is… Teenage M isn’t in charge anymore. And I have to keep reminding myself of that. I’m guessing you struggle with your teenage self too, but for different reasons and because of different issues.
So maybe this isn’t just a navel-gazing essay about my Bad Skin, though if you read it and didn’t feel so alone, then I’m glad. Maybe this is really an essay about putting aside things from your childhood. Maybe this is an essay about finally growing up in your 30s.
I guess I can end with this: we all have things that hold us back, things that take over and keep us from seeing the whole picture. We use these things as excuses, reasons to sit out and avoid scary situations. We start to use our flaws like a shield when they were the real enemy.
My skin wasn’t keeping me out of the water; I was.