You know that scene in The Notebook, where Ryan Gosling tells Rachel McAdams that he had actually written to her every day for a year, grabs her face, and rain-kisses her with such ferocity that she nearly ricochets off the boat deck? I had a similar experience recently.
Except mine ended up with me prying my date’s hands from my face, muttering an excuse, and leaping onto the nearest bus. Don’t get me wrong; the date had gone well. But in the last month, a cluster of lovingly persistent zits had made my jawline their home, and while they’d been hidden under a curtain of hair for the duration of the date, they were now sitting in prime territory. I couldn’t shake the embarrassment. And this was only the beginning.
Now, this wasn’t my first rodeo. Since the age of about 15, my skin had always been unpredictable, launching fleets of spots at the most inconvenient times. After a visit to the doctor, going on the pill temporarily blessed me with a couple of years of what I like to call the tinted-moisturizer-and-nothing-else era, but with it came the irrational mood swings, constant periods, and grim migraines. So I came off the pill, walking away thinking it was possible I’d outgrown acne; one year later, the treacherous bastard made a U-turn back into my life.
After the night of my Great Date Escape, things got much worse. Day after day, the cute baby spots of my teen years were traded for huge painful cysts. Spots so big that they demanded their own sequel and prequel. An unrelenting Star Wars franchise on my skin. “The Spot Strikes Back.” And they weren’t short-stay visitors. They would hang around for weeks, and left a smattering of angry red scarring in their wake.
Before I knew it, my skin began to permeate every area of my life. As an editor for a fashion company, I was constantly faced with models, shoots, and crowded meetings, and it took every ounce of strength not to bury myself at home all day. I stopped wearing my hair up, earrings — anything that drew attention to the sides of my face.
I feared public transport with its harsh overhead lights, a magnifying glass finger pointed at my imperfections. It had even changed my day-to-day interactions with strangers. I was obsessed. Not in a casual-glance kind of way but in a Hitchcockian, Rear Window-obsessive type of way. I found myself staring at poreless waitresses in restaurants, unblemished teenagers munching on McDonald’s on the bus, even babies. That’s right. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve openly coveted the skin of a jam-smeared child.
I developed a hate-hate relationship with Instagram, which regularly taunted me with impossibly smooth selfies or experimental makeup tutorials that didn’t reflect my own repetitive routine of shellacking layers of foundation on my face. I cancelled plans with friends and became uneasy with dating. On days when I managed to feel less self-conscious and I’d force myself out, megawatt bar lighting was my nemesis, and any post-date extracurricular activity would end with me escaping in a 5 a.m. Uber to avoid the guy seeing me sans makeup. Yes, it was that deep.
I launched myself into a healing saga of harsh topical creams, trying every antibiotic under the sun, , probiotics, Chinese herbs, going dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, chugging spirulina (tastes like and looks like pond scum), eating chia seeds (shares the unfortunate consistency of congealed gravy), getting less sun, getting more sun (one ill-advised SPF-free sunbathing session left me looking like I was wearing a painful red head-to-toe bodysuit for four days). I felt exhausted. I put all my energy into my skin, and it repeatedly rebuked my advances like a hostile nightclub bouncer. My breaking point came the day I turned 26, when I looked in the mirror and barely recognized myself. That was that. I had been battling acne for over a decade. I was going to need a bigger boat. I made an appointment at The London Skin and Hair Clinic to see consultant dermatologist Martin Wade, and it was one of the best things I ever did.
Going into my first appointment, I was asked to remove my makeup before my face was put into a beastly scanner which, after a few clicks, told me to what degree my skin was afflicted with things like redness (66%), wrinkles (2%, baby) and spots (20%). This would be monitored throughout the length of my treatment for improvements. After closely examining my face with magnifying goggles, Dr. Wade then asked me to relay in detail my skin history up to that point (which, trust me, is like therapy for an acne sufferer).
He then told me what I already knew — that my skin situation was on the severe side — but that there was something I hadn’t yet tried: Accutane. A last-resort drug and reserved for extreme cases, he explained that it wasn’t for everyone and certainly not to be taken lightly. First off, you absolutely have to be on some form of birth control (it can cause birth defects), undergo monthly check-ups, blood tests, and limit any drinking as it’s hard on the liver (farewell Chardonnay, my old friend). But used correctly it had a high cure rate. Yes, a cure. I signed up then and there.
The first month was hard. I experienced the phenomenon so dreadful and unutterable that it has its own acronym: IB, the Initial Breakout. Within two weeks of starting the first course of treatment, every pore on my face expelled monstrosities worthy of a Guillermo del Toro film. And dry lips, peeling, red skin, and fatigue came in the package deal. After a panicked email to my dermatologist, I was assured that this was completely normal and to ride it out. In the second month, things started showing the smallest signs of improvement, and from then on it’s been a slow crawl upwards.
Right now, I’m only partly through the course (which usually lasts five months), and while it hasn’t been easy and I’m nowhere near clear yet, I have no regrets. I know that your skin doesn’t define who you are, and at times I’ve felt guilty that I was so inhibited by something that is, after all, literally only skin-deep, but I’ve also spent too long feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. Seeing a sympathetic expert and learning that there was a light at the end of the tunnel has been the greatest relief of all.
And along the way, I was reminded of some things I already knew: Friends don’t actually give a shit about what you look like; my parents (aka my 1-800-breakdown hotline) are an actual godsend; and self-love and how you feel about yourself is so important. I learned to go easy on myself and that it was okay to cancel plans on days I couldn’t face it. But every day that I did force myself to go out and face the world and/or board an almost comically crowded commuter train, I felt a little more badass. Acne is alienating and exhausting, but clearing my skin aside, taking control of it has been the most empowering and life-changing experience of all.