I lost out on my teenage years. Years when I should have been out clubbing, dating, exploring new things and taking risks. I spent mine hiding away trying to cover up the angry acne pustules that appeared relentlessly on my face, too embarrassed and self-conscious to socialise.
“I never thought I’d enjoy going out with a girl with acne,” said my one and only boyfriend during those years. Despite the backhanded compliment my hand moved instinctively to cover my face. He’d noticed! The relationship lasted as long as the life of that week’s pimples. As the years progressed though my cysts lessened but I was left with the scars, both inside and out.
Eventually, with the help of a loving partner himself an ex acne sufferer, and a new baby, I began to rebuild my confidence. But just as I was moving forwards with my new life a different enemy emerged, one that advanced slowly, built rapidly and shattered my self-esteem once more.
I noticed the tiny red patch on my cheek one morning after washing but dismissed it as a heat bump, dabbed on some concealer and dragged my reluctant five year old off to school. Chatting to the other moms at the school gates was the highlight of my day. We’d gossip, laugh and discuss the latest crazes and food fads of our youngsters. It brightened my otherwise humdrum round of cleaning, laundry and cooking. As a stay-at-home mom I missed the camaraderie of colleagues, so that morning face-to-face contact with the school gate moms re-energized and uplifted me for the rest of the day.
The red patch though became as consistent as the school year ran. I’d grab the magnifying mirror every morning to scrutinize my face trying to work out what it could be. It wasn’t a spot, or eczema; it wasn’t raised and it didn’t respond to any lotion or potion I applied to it and believe me I tried every advertised product going.
This probably all sounds a little self-obsessed to some people. Of course it’s not life-threatening but after enduring acne for years and years, and watching pimples come up and turn into pus-filled cysts that took ages to heal I’d become very self-conscious about my looks and desirability. I couldn’t bear, as a woman and a mom, to endure the feelings of depression and hopelessness I felt whenever I looked in the mirror back then. Spots can be zapped with some cream; cystic acne can turn you into a social outcast with forever plummeting self-esteem. I didn’t want to be on the outside of life again.
Moving to a different area, finding my son a new school, trying to make friends all took its toll. As the weeks turned into months the red patch grew. My cheek turned redder and angrier. I was sure bugs were crawling under my skin. It spread to the other cheek. “You look flushed, are you feeling warm”, family and friends remarked. Of course I laughed it off but my skin flushed deeper under their enquiring gaze and inwardly I was squirming.
The joy of chatting to the school gate moms turned from a pleasure into an ordeal. While none of them openly commented, their silence made me feel worse and I began to resent their cheerfulness. Looking down at my feet became far more absorbing than looking at their fresh-faced, dewy complexions.
My cheeks burnt ever hotter. “Have you got the radiator on” I asked my sister. “Oh, you’re getting hot flushes” she laughed. But I knew it wasn’t that. Mum tried her usual platitudes, “Well at least you won’t have to wear blusher’ she said. I didn’t care about that; I was screaming inside, I know it’s just cosmetic to you but it’s irritating and uncomfortable to me. I feel ugly and I know it’s irrational but I’m sure everyone’s looking at me. I was back to being a teenager all over again imagining the perceived stares of others.
I could no longer bear it; my complaint was obviously not going to vanish without help. My doctor took one look at me and diagnosed ‘rosacea’, prescribed antibiotics, told me there was no known cure, no-one quite knew what caused it and ushered me out. Job done!
Suddenly, after months of not knowing, my skin problem now had a name; it was no longer an unknown, frightening entity. It wasn’t the return of my cystic acne. Strangely I felt relieved. Now after feeling helpless and impotent I was back in charge, an adult again and able cast my net wide to look for a solution, a remedy, who knows? even a cure. Doctors aren’t always right are they?
The antibiotics didn’t do much good. Instead I convinced myself that my skin troubles were an early indicator that my body was out of balance. If I can’t cure it I’ll keep it under control and maybe that will stop anything worse from happening to me. That thought gives me some comfort anyway. Trying to think positive is an uphill struggle though. I have my ‘ugly’ days when I can’t bear to look at myself in the mirror and don’t want to face the world. In fact I’ve stopped using the magnifying mirror altogether.
Meantime, while I’m searching for the permanent cure I’ve learnt the art of subtle skin camouflage. I’ve dampened down the redness and tried to draw attention away by making up my eyes more. The school gate moms have even admired my new ‘makeup’ and although I still hate all eyes focussed on me I feel slightly more protected with my new look. I’m avoiding the triggers that seem to cause my face to redden and irritate so now sport a big, floppy hat on sunny days, avoid the hot, spicy curries I used to love and keep my alcohol intake to a minimum. I’m taking back some control and facing up to the problem. I’ve got to show my young son that looks aren’t everything. He too could suffer in the future, these things are often hereditary apparently. I’m not going to hide away again and lose out on any more valuable years.