I have struggled with acne with over two thirds of my life. That’s a long time to deal with a face that has never really fit today’s standard of beauty, and it has most definitely been (and continues to be) quite the journey of problem-solving vs. self-acceptance. I write this now, with a sheet mask on my face after detoxifying my pores with a mixture of a charcoal and sulfur mask, so I am not going to pretend that my quest for perfect skin has long since come to an end. Quite the contrary, summer has always wreaked havoc on my skin, with the sun, humidity, heat, and generous applications and reapplications of sunscreen. The biggest thing that has changed for me is that I think I ran out of f***s to give, somewhere along the way, so I don’t let it bother me the way that it used to. It’s still annoying, and yes, I wish these tiny, red face gremlins would leave me the hell alone, but I have come to value myself in deeper, more meaningful ways than I did ten years ago.
That said, I wasn’t always so chill about my skin; far from it, acne has provided me with a lifetime supply of obstacles, emotional turmoil, and fragile self-esteem. It pushed me as far as to have an emotional breakdown in front of my mother, where I actually contemplated that being dead might be easier than living with acne. I was 23-years-old.
However, many people don’t realize the mental and emotional roller coaster having moderate to severe (or even mild) acne can put a person through; or, more specifically, how it can cause a person to modify their entire life around dealing with and containing the problem. Living with face gremlins is no walk in the park, and I assure it, it goes far beyond vanity and wanting to “look nice”. Listed below are just a few of the ways in which my life actually revolved around my acne, but in reality, the are many, many more:
8 Ways in which the Face Gremlins Controlled my Life
1. No undoctored photo of me was ever uploaded online of my own accord. Okay, so I am sure that a lot of people can relate to this, especially in this day and age when Instagram-ready photos are the in thing. But even before Instagram, back when Facebook was the new big thing, for the longest time, you simply would not find a photo of me that had not been doctored in some way; either put through a crappy filter to disguise the texture of my face, or airbrushed, or colour-corrected somehow. That said, if I didn’t feel ‘Instagram-quality’, which I often didn’t, then pictures were simply NOT an option for me. And, if by some sorcery, untouched photos of me did end up on the big bag internet, I was SO fast to untag myself and dissociate myself with the photo that I’d be surprised if my name was ever successfully attached to it. And then there was all the awkwardness of asking friends to either take down the photo, or blur out my face, when I was really the only one who had a ‘problem’ with the way I looked. This also largely spurred my tendency for #4 in this list.
2. I never had a healthy night’s sleep before work. No matter what was going on, when my acne was at its worst, I could NOT leave the house for any reason without a full face of make-up. Work was the worst; I often had a 25 minute commute, and between washing my face and applying make-up, my morning entailed easily 1.5 hours spent in front of the mirror, just to feel normal. This meant not only covering up my acne to the best of my ability, but going way out with eye-make-up and enhancing my lips, so as to hopefully give people something other than my acne to focus on. So, if I worked at 8:30am, then I absolutely could NOT sleep in past 6:30. I know, this may not sound unreasonable, but being a night owl, I am seldom able to fall asleep before midnight. Meaning that most nights, if I was very, very lucky, I would get a maximum of 6.5 hours of sleep. And if I wanted to grab a bite to eat and make-coffee, well, my mornings looked more like 6-6:10am. I wish I could say that I am one of those people who can function beautifully on 6 hours of sleep, but alas, I was a zombie, more often than not. Leaving the house without full-on make-up was just NOT an option.
3. I could never pack ‘light’. So, even with that 1.5 hours spent in front of the bathroom mirror, inevitably my make-up never actually survived an 8-hour work day. This meant that I had to pack more than just blotting sheets in my purse. You would be hard-pressed to ever find me without my foundation, concealer, compact, setting powder, and make-up wipes (at the very least). There were days that I would spend my entire lunch struggling to re-do the parts of my make-up that were simply unsalvageable, due to oily skin and sweating in the intense summer heat. And if ever I managed to forget any of the above, it was a crisis. My confidence and emotional-stability would plummet, to the point where if I had the opportunity, I would run to the nearest drug-store to buy a replacement because I just could NOT show my face without make-up. At one point, I recall having quite the collection of drugstore foundations and concealers, many which were only ever used a couple of times, as I would always stick with my main foundation (which was on the pricey side) if I could. If only I had a dollar for every time spilled foundation stained the lining of my purses…
4. I was reclusive most of the time. If the above alone seems like an unreasonable way to live your life, that’s because it is–and I certainly couldn’t keep it up every single day. As soon as that make-up came off at the end of the day, I was housebound by my iron will not to be seen. And, if for whatever reason I just couldn’t muster the energy or willpower to spent 1.5 hours on my face, then I just plain wouldn’t leave the house. This meant I would not only frequently turn down invitations to socialize, but I would try to bribe others to run weekend errands for me, and utterly refused to answer the door. I was fine sitting around the house in my own skin, so long as outsiders didn’t see my face. And, yes, this did put a major strain on a lot of my friendships. I was completely unable to even show my face around my closest friends who have known me forever, and if I’d committed to an hour-long visit, you can bet that I’d spend that 1.5 hours on my face–and still pack my touch-up supplies, just in case.
5. I would try to schedule and reschedule appointments around my acne. At one point, I had almost developed a legit fear of going to the hair salon. Because salons are places that aim to make you look beautiful, where everyone is beautiful, and are notorious hotspots for gossip if you do not fit this mold. That said, if you walk in with a face full of severe acne, then you can bet you’re going to get the side-eye on more than on occasion. What’s worse, is hairdressers and estheticians are all close-up in your business, so even 1.5 hours of intricate make-up applications will not fully conceal those mountains and craters on your face. When my own hairdresser (who I had known most of my life, since she’s my best friend’s older sister) began to bring up my acne now and again, I plummeted into the deepest state of depressive self-consciousness I can imagine. She wasn’t even trying to be rude or to make me feel bad; I was like another little sister to her, and it was nothing more than an attempt at a heart-to-heart. But I was trying to hide my acne, and I did not want to acknowledge it, even with those closest to me. So this made for quite a handful of canceled appointments, and when I’d rebook, I’d always be taking a stab at what the best face-day would be for me down the road (i.e. not around my time of the month, when I anticipate heavy exercise, etc.). It was downright impossible; at one point, I must have gone a good 6 months without a trim, and I have a haircut that requires a touch-up at LEAST every 2 months. But, having disheveled hair was preferable to talking about my acne.
6. It caused me to purposely avoid alternative treatment, out of embarrassment. At one point, my hairdresser (among many other well-intentioned people) suggested that I should start getting facials to treat my acne. Now, at 29, I have done enough research to know that there can definitely be benefits to treatments such as extractions and chemical peels to treat acne, but at 23, I felt entirely hopeless. And beyond that, even if I’d harboured an inkling of hope that facials could benefit me in any way, I just couldn’t bring myself to get them done. It would mean I’d be walking into yet another place, another situation, where my pizza face would be on full display. It would mean that people would have to TOUCH that pizza face. It would mean that they probably found it disgusting (even if it was their job), and would bring stories home about how they had this client with the grossest and most terrible skin. Of course, I was catastrophizing, as people with anxiety tend to do, but what I envisioned was a living nightmare. I didn’t want people touching my face, even if it helped; hell, I didn’t want to touch my own face. It was hard enough to let my doctor and dermatologist touch my face, and the very thought of it just made me want to hide even more.
7. I wouldn’t date, and was afraid to get too close to people. If you’ve ever heard tell of those people who go and take a shower, and then reapply foundation directly after to give the illusion that ‘they were born with it’–well, I wasn’t one of those people. But only because letting my guard down around someone in any way, shape, or form, even if it meant them seeing my skin look just a little less than totally unblemished, was just not happening. For this reason, sleepovers or anything that entailed me taking off make-up was INSANELY stressful. Spending the night at other peoples’ places often meant that I would stay up until everyone else was asleep, and only then, in the dark, would I take off my make-up. Furthermore, I’d try to make sure I woke up before everyone else, so that I could at least get my foundation and concealer on, and in the event that I wasn’t the first one awake, I’d actually go to sleep with concealer and a thin layer of foundation over the worst areas of my face, just in case (and yes, even then, I knew that wasn’t doing my skin any favours). And, not that I did a lot of dating back in the day, anyway, but whenever I gave it a try, I found myself purposely pushing significant others away by some means or another, because deep down, I was convinced that they would eventually realize how hideous I was, and leave me. So to save myself the heartbreak, I would behave in such ways that would cause us to just drift apart. It was easier, that way.
8. I felt as though I was leading a double life that no one could know about. If it seems as though these obstacles are becoming progressively worse and more intense, it’s because all of these compulsions and all of this avoidance boiled down to the same thing: I was living two lives. There life that I put on display, that I wanted everyone to see, was the life that my acne 100% controlled: a full face of make-up, rare and controlled appearances in public, completely nonplussed by the disaster beneath the layers of foundation. And then, there was the life that I considered my down-time, holed up in my house as I gave my poor skin a break from all of the cosmetics I piled on it. That was the life that I refused to show the world; those days when I could barely look at myself in the mirror were my behind-the-scenes. And like Hollywood, where the finished product is amazing and even inspirational, behind the scenes for me was a very dark place. People who knew me only knew the (literal and figurative) facade that took me 1.5 hours to apply every morning, and countless other precious minutes to touch-up. They didn’t know the girl who was so desperate to hide her face from the world, she had practically dissociated from herself. At this point, it had become more than just a problem for me. It was a pathology.
As severe as this list detailing my former life with acne might seem, this isn’t everything. There are countless more habits into which I found myself falling in order to cope with my face gremlins (including referring to it as face gremlins instead of acne–it’s better to laugh than take it too seriously), but these eight are among the worst. I write this not for pity or to shock anyone, but as a glimpse into the secret lives that people with this issue may lead. Suffering from acne extends so far beyond vanity; it attacks your self-image, self-worth, your confidence as a human being living in a world where so many people don’t deal with and don’t understand what it means to have to look in the mirror, and face a sea of blemishes. And if anyone who reads this can relate, in any way, then at least know that you aren’t alone. It gets easier, I promise. ❤