WORD RAMBLIES

Chuck Copes With An Embarrassingly Long Case of Acne

After I finished proofreading my last post, which focused on my having debilitating anxiety for almost a decade, I pondered upon what literary journey I should embark upon next. Ultimately, I landed on the idea that I should once again discuss something incredibly private and awkward that has drastically affected my confidence, which is that I’ve suffered from severe acne since I was about 17. Maybe my next post will be about losing my virginity, who knows?

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Everyone who has ever been a teenager knows how much of an utter pain in the arse acne can be. It’s bad enough going through adolescence without feeling like you have bright red neon signs proclaiming ‘LOOK HOW GROSS I AM’ on your face all the time. When I first entered teenage-hood, I was lucky enough to be burdened with nothing more than the occasional white-headed lump on my chin every few weeks. As I grew older, however, and as my anxiety started becoming more pronounced, my skin got worse and worse, until I had a horrible smattering of spots all over my back and chest, like I’d been flicked with a cursed paintbrush. It was almost as if my mental state had some sort of negative effect on my physical well-being as well. HMM, HOW MYSTERIOUS. WHAT A COINCIDENCE THAT IS. WHO WOULDA THUNK IT?

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I feel like I should state that I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with having acne, and by no means does it automatically make you ugly or undeserving of self love. If you have acne and you are happy in your skin, then congrats! That’s great! But for me, it was just another thing that heightened my anxiety, that made me feel like people were constantly staring at me and judging me for. It was the monkey on my back, except the monkey was King Kong on a cocktail of cocaine and steroids.

Plus, partly why I’m writing this post is that it turns out there was actually a medical reason behind my skin being the way it was, but I was too embarrassed to go and speak to somebody about it. It upsets me to think that there are people who struggle with their self-worth because of their persistent skin problems and blow unbelievable amounts of money on make-up and dermatological products that won’t address the root of the issue, so they feel the need to constantly cover up and live in discomfort. If nothing else has worked and you’re at your wits’ end, please don’t be too scared to see a doctor! The second I got an official diagnosis from the NHS, I immediately started to feel better, and since being on medication my confidence has grown exponentially. There’s nothing humiliating about needing medical assistance.

Anyway, enough emotional reassurances, back to my own all-consuming self-hatred. I don’t have a photo to attach but here is my completely realistic rendition of what I looked like:

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Weirdly, for a while my face wasn’t that awful. You wouldn’t have guessed I had terrible skin problems just by looking at me. Then I got to university and my face abruptly transformed into a bright red miniature mountain range. Clearly, what with leaving home, living on my own, being thrown into the world of undergraduate study where I had absolutely no friends whatsoever, and silently enduring a worsening mental state, my brain had decided that I just didn’t have enough stress in my life. Thanks, brain. At 19, I started wearing make-up to at least physically hide my shame, but obviously smearing foundation on your face every single day isn’t that tip-top for your skin. The more make-up I wore, the less progress my face made, and so I wore even more make-up to cover that up, an Ouroboros of humiliation and Bourjois Healthy Mix.

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One of those most annoying things about having terrible skin is that when you complain about it, you unwittingly invite every dickhead with a perfect complexion to offer unsolicited advice. ‘Oh, have you tried this new scrub? It’s amazing!’ Yes. It did nothing. ‘What about eating better? Junk food is really bad for your skin!’ No shit! ‘What about drinking more water?’ YES, FOR FUCK’S SAKE! I will concede that, in all its annoying simplicity, drinking more water actually does work quite a bit. Who would’ve known that consuming more of one of the only substances my body needed to survive would be so beneficial? But still, I’VE TRIED EVERYTHING BRENDA, QUIT LIFE COACHING ME. YOU HAVE NO REAL ISSUES.

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Acne is bad enough during adolescence, but it’s when you’re still plagued by it in your twenties that it reaches maximum ball-ache level. Every time you look in the mirror you just berate yourself for something that is completely out of your control. Morning and night, post face wash, I’d stare at my blemishes and internally scream. Christ, I was An Adult now! I pay bills! This can’t still be happening to me! Everybody else had flourished out of their ugly duckling stage, and yet I still lurked in the gross part of the pond sadly gazing at my own reflection. By 21, I figured out that there must be something wrong with me, perhaps some deficiency or family curse, and so I went to the doctor.

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Over the course of a few months, I got prescribed pretty much every over the counter skin medication there was. Mostly it was pills, but at one point I got given a roller that smelt like paint and also a cream that had the consistency of semen left in the sun. All of them went the same way. They would start to work, and then after a few weeks they’d cease to have any effect whatsoever. During my period of being disillusioned with pharmaceuticals, a friend recommended Lush products to me, and for a few weeks I became obsessed with trying out their skincare range, which basically went the same way as medicine did, but at least I could also use bath bombs to console myself. And I smelled nice.

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Eventually, my wallet couldn’t handle the strain of buying an armful of black pots every week, and so I decided to try medicine once more. This time, my doctor must’ve sensed my extreme frustration and exhaustion, because she suggested I have a blood test to see if there was actually a reason behind my problem that wasn’t just puberty being a dick and prolonging itself for as long as possible. So I took the test, and it turned out that I produce an excess amount of testosterone, which, if not properly cleared from the body, causes acne. Great, so I finally knew why my body was such a fuck-up, and it was only mildly embarrassing. Thanks. But it was a relief to finally be diagnosed with something, because that meant it was easier to cure, and I heard the words that simultaneously inspire great comfort but also a looming sense of dread: You Will Be Referred Through the NHS.

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I got prescribed Accutane, also known as Isotretinoin, which is essentially the last resort in terms of antibiotics for your skin. The meeting with the doctor about it was fairly terrifying.

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That night I went home and went on the Wikipedia page for Isotretinoin, and was slightly put off by the phrase ‘Its exact mechanism of action is unknown’ and the extensive side effects list, which ranged from dry eyes to suicidal thoughts. Cool, so nobody really knew how it worked, but no worries, it’ll only probably make me want to kill myself! Regardless, I started my treatment, and I swear to God from day one I started experiencing side effects like my system had just been roundhouse kicked. Ever since then, I would experience an effect intensely for about two weeks, and then my body would jazz it up and swap it for a different one. I’m convinced my brain must’ve been throwing darts to decide how it’ll fuck me up every fortnight. First came the dry eyes.

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Then it was stomach pain. Then it was nosebleeds. Then it was bleeding gums. On some days, when my anxiety was especially bad, I would even briefly contemplate killing myself.

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The one thing that has been present throughout is dry skin. My lips are pretty much always chapped, and this is actually a lot more annoying than it seems. As with 99% of the human race (the remaining 1% are wizards and must be revered) I always lose my Vaseline, so I’m constantly licking my lips, and that starts to make you worry you look like a pervert after a while. As well as this, I have to use a strong exfoliator day and night to get rid of flaky parts of my face. Peeling off your entire chin is horrifying the first time, but it’s amazing how quickly you get used to it. It’s an annoying but manageable side effect. Or maybe I am finally revealing my true reptilian form, in which case I will embrace my new skin. All Hail The Lizards.

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Despite all this hassle, there’s a reason Accutane is saved until there’s no other option; I’ve been on it for five months and, at the risk of sounding like an ad, the difference is staggering. I’m still a bit apprehensive about wearing anything skimpier than a short sleeved shirt, but I don’t feel like crying when I look at myself naked any more. Put that on the side of the box.

Before I started it, the thought of going outside without make-up would send me into a panic. Now, I probably would only do it out of extreme laziness, and only if I was popping to the shops, but in my opinion that’s still a huge victory. This story doesn’t really have an ending because like most strong medications, Accutane is a long course drug, and I could be on it for maybe three more months. But I feel pretty confident that by the end of my course I’ll look and feel completely different, like a butterfly emerging from a scaly, pus-filled cocoon, and I hope that if you aren’t happy with your skin, you’ll go to the doctor and be able to work something out too. It’s slightly embarrassing, but you shouldn’t have to live your life ashamed of your own body. We, after all, are mere vessels for the reptiles that lurk within us. I AM THE LIZARD QUEEN!

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