I wrote in a previous post about a medication I was taken for a condition that I’d been suffering through for half of my life. I have acne (not just your basic black- or white-heads; I’m talking your full-blown, under-the-muscle, swollen-for-days cysts). Every day with acne was a nightmare for me, because it wasn’t just a breakout here or there: my face would be swollen, red and painful to the touch from cysts. And it only got worse as an adult.
So, when I write that I have a “condition”, I can’t promise you that it will kill me, but I can promise you I’ve been through hell treating it.
I have been through every single topical medication and every antibiotic prescribeable for acne. In addition, I’ve also adjusted my diet, washed my face three times a day, and got acne-clearing facials in an effort to try to clear my skin. But the problem with cystic acne is that no amount of topical creams, antibiotics or facials will get rid of them.
It’s not just about looking like a model, or feeling like I had to live up to a standard of beauty. Every day through my teenage years, I had to deal with groupings of breakouts on my face, or a cyst deep in the dermis that would take two weeks to fully disappear. No matter how much or what kind of makeup I used, I couldn’t cover up my breakouts. Because I have very fair and very delicate skin, every single cyst, and nearly every breakout has left a scar. Without full-coverage makeup, I have purple marks all over my cheeks and my chin in a color-coded map of the history of my breakouts. I have cysts in my scalp that cause me to cry out in pain if I’m not careful when running a brush through my hair.
I believe in loving the skin that you’re in; but when you can’t look co-workers and bosses in the face because you are embarrassed and convinced that all they can see is a cyst, there is no amount of self-love that can take that humiliation away. Employers and clients don’t take you seriously if you are covered in acne. And when it comes to getting jobs, I certainly would not have gotten a second interview if I had a serious breakout that I couldn’t cover up.
I was 21 when I started my first course of Accutane. It was the first time in ten years that I had clear skin. It was tough trying to find a lip balm that would actually help with my perpetually-chapped lips, and the moisturizer that I had to use on my skin was very expensive, but it was worth it to have clear skin for the first time in years. And it was worth it to go through that time so that I could not have to worry about another acne-medicated face wash again.
Everything changed when I got a Mirena IUD. Suddenly, I had an influx of hormones that I didn’t have before. I was able to wax some of the excess hair, but the acne came back. It wasn’t as bad as before, but about as painful, and particularly embarrassing for work in a field where I see people every day. All of the original feelings of humiliation and self-loathing came back, as acute and as tear-inducing as when I was a teenager and in college. (In the back of my head, when I finished my first course of treatment with Accutane, I always sort of knew that I would have to go on it again. There are a lot of patients who take multiple courses of Accutane therapy.)
Millions of people are just like me, who suffer through painful breakouts, who are so embarrassed by their skin, they can’t bear to show it in public. We have online support groups; we have people who love us and hate to see us suffer in our own private hell, fighting so hard against our own skin; we have doctors who are willing to listen and give us options. For some of us, it’s not “something we’ll grow out of” or “not that bad” or about “loving the skin you’re in”. For some of us, it’s a public hell that we have to fight in private every day. But we won’t have a magnetic support ribbon to stick on the back of our cars, and we won’t have anyone racing for our cure, and we won’t have have foundations set up to help with our medical bills. I’m okay with that: I certainly don’t need a magnetic ribbon, a race, or a bowl-a-thon to feel like I’m being helped in some remarkable way. I think what I’m really asking for is that for people who have never had to deal with painful, scarring acne be kind and understanding to those of us who do.
Accutane was a godsend for me. It is a godsend for hundreds of thousands of other people who have suffered with me. I am happy to stand with those people and say, honestly and truly, that this medication saved my life by treating what had previously been an untreatable, chronic condition.
My message is clear: if you have acne, if you have cysts, if you have spent years and thousands of dollars on medications, creams and washes to treat your skin and nothing has helped, be your own best advocate. Go to a dermatologist, keep records of your condition, make sure that you are seen an evaluated, cry if you must, but be strong, and be firm. And if you are a parent, please listen to your son or daughter, and be their best advocate if they can’t be their own – I was so lucky that my mother listened to and understood my pain and humiliation with my acne. My biggest regret was that I didn’t go on Accutane sooner when I had the chance. Our skin is the only organ that other people get to see; the reality is that we are judged our skin. So when there a problem with our skin that is treatable, non-permanent, and has no effect on the content of our character, why wouldn’t you do everything you could to help?