My journey with acne is one of those topics that I tend to avoid.
I like to pretend that if I don’t talk about it, it never happened.
This is far from the truth since my long battle with acne left permanent scars, both physically and emotionally.
And I know I am not alone.
Sometimes, the stories we don’t want to tell, are the ones that need to be told the most.
The uncomfortable and unpleasant, the deep reflections of our most sacredly held insecurities. This is where we find likeness in our journeys– and a similar likeness in the lessons we learn along the way.
I have always been the girl with acne.
I genuinely don’t even remember a time my face was completely clear.
It was a fight that I was constantly losing, and it affected me in many different ways. While I was never bullied, people made subtle, hurtful comments and stared. At school, boys told me I would be pretty if I just ‘fixed my face,’ and girls would tell me I needed to be more hygienic, even though I was washing my face and body multiple times a day.
My dance teachers would tell my mom to cover my back in full coverage foundation so that judges wouldn’t be distracted by my spots. I spent hours editing every photo, ensuring my pimples were covered and my face had an even tint. I never went out without makeup, using multiple layers of concealer to ensure I looked somewhat normal.
This behavior carried on through high school and most of college. To be honest, I was a mess. I constantly felt gross and unwanted, never comfortable in my skin. I would sit in front of my mirror and cry anytime I had to get ready.
I think my breaking point was when the lady who threaded my eyebrows told me not to stress because acne gets better once I got older. When I told her I was turning twenty-one in a few months, her concerned face led me to call my doctor, begging for a solution.
I started going to the dermatologist for my painful cystic spots around age 11.
I spent the next ten years on every type of face wash, cream, scrub, and patch they could prescribe, but nothing changed.
Thankfully, due to my age and decade-long battle, they decided to try something completely different – a six-month aggressive isotretinoin treatment.
Or, as you may know it –Accutane.
This was like nothing I had ever tried before. I had to take multiple tests before they started and routinely test my blood to ensure I was still healthy. I also had to constantly visit my doctors for wellness checks, which was a struggle since I lived in my college town over three hours away.
While these restrictions made it difficult, I followed through with it and started the treatment. Although I had skimmed the side effect list before I agreed to start, I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into. One month into the process, I woke up one morning feeling like my muscles were on fire. I tried to sit up but was so weak I could barely carry my weight. This happened multiple times throughout the first three months. Most of the time, I was too exhausted even to try to move that day. Other days, I didn’t want to get up and face the world.
Although I had always dealt with forms of anxiety, the depression I developed during my time on isotretinoin was like nothing I had ever felt before.
Instead of improving my self-esteem because my skin was clearing, I felt worse. My feelings of worthlessness and loneliness increased with every painful step I took and every pound I gained due to the treatment.
I was sitting and crying in front of my mirror again, but this time because of my peeling, bleeding skin and weight gain. When I think back to this time in my life, my most explicit memory is of me getting ready for my spring formal. I spent hours sobbing in the bathroom because my face was peeling so much that I couldn’t put makeup on. I was a mess, even if I didn’t have acne.
After months of suffering, I finally finished my last treatment right before school started again. My skin was clear, minus some leftover scarring and rosacea. I started a new, over-the-counter skin care process that was much more relaxing and fun. I did stress about the occasional spots, but I finally had the skin I had always dreamed of.
But there was a problem. Once my skin healed, and I got to try out acne-free life, I still felt ugly.
I thought my self-esteem issues would be solved since my face was clear, but I was still sitting in front of my mirror, trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Did I go through all of that pain and destruction for nothing? Was I ever going to be happy with myself?
I think this was when I realized that while my acne was painful and inconvenient, having pimples had nothing to do with my self-esteem. Sure, having clear skin has made my life easier. I no longer have to wake up hours before school to put on a layer of makeup, and I felt comfortable going out. But, what needed healing was me. I needed to be doing things for myself, not others.
I had to learn to love myself, acne in all.
I was so concerned about what others thought of my face and body I wasn’t paying attention to what I felt. No expensive, intensive skin treatment would fix that for me.
I started to focus on neutrality instead of perfection. I tried to shift my mindset so I wasn’t spending hours sitting in front of a mirror. I didn’t want to be so focused on my appearance and how it affected others.
I exercised not to perfect my body but to take care of it. I washed my face not to prevent acne but to feel refreshed and awake. I ate well, so I felt energized all day, not to lose weight. My face and body are meant for so much more than just looks.
It’s been many months since I came to this realization, and this may be an even harder challenge than before. While it may be painful, it’s a fight I’m determined to win. I am working on loving and caring for myself, not because of others’ opinions. I still have the occasional breakout, as well as the occasional self-image-inspired breakdown, but I am doing better.
I have learned a lot from this experience and can offer some guidance to those on the same journey as me.
First, know that beauty is not a title other people can place upon you.
Some random boy in middle school does not have control over your worth. You are beautiful with acne and without it, no matter what anyone says. If you decide that you are beautiful, no one can ever tear you down.
Second, change yourself for yourself, not others. I went into my acne treatment, hoping to finally be accepted by others. When I realized I needed more than some pills to help me, I was distraught. I was so worried about what everyone else thought that I never took the time to process my own changes.
Lastly, know that you have to heal your inside before you heal your outside. Clear skin is great, but if you haven’t been working on your mental health, it all means nothing. You need to love yourself with or without clear skin.
You need to know, really know, that you deserve that love, and nothing can take that away.
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