This post is actually an article I wrote for Cosmopolitan magazine back in 2007. Was discussing the subject recently on Twitter and realised that I was actually pretty unhappy with the way it was edited and presented in the end. So here is what I originally wrote, in full, unedited. I hope it helps anyone out there who may be suffering from this condition – you are not alone!
When I started my teaching career at the age of twenty-four, just two years ago, the only way in which acne had ever affected me was in feeling sorry for the pimply, hormonal teenage boys in my class. “Bless them”, I used to think, because they didn’t even have the luxury of preserving their dignity by using foundation to cover it up. I myself had been a bright-eyed, healthy, clear-skinned schoolgirl. In fact, all my life I’d taken for granted things like trips to the swimming pool, the beach or walking out in the rain, without giving the slightest thought to worry about my make-up coming off. In truth, I never used to wear any. Even as an adult, I felt confident enough in my looks not to bother with wearing make-up on a day to day basis. At uni, I’d roll out of bed and rock up to lectures, having slung on whatever I’d found on the floor and shoving my hair into a band. Bare-faced, brazen and lazy. That was the way I liked it.
Into adulthood, I counted myself lucky that I could go out for a night on the tiles and wake up hung-over but with only the odd slight pinky zit, that would slink off sheepishly the next day. Actually, looking back though my old photo albums, I can’t say I’ve been able to find a single picture in which my skin looks anything but radiant and smooth. Talk about not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. The way I feel right now couldn’t be further removed from that carefree attitude. Take today for example. I didn’t go to work because I quite literally couldn’t face going in. I’d spent the best part of an hour trying desperately to cover up my exploding, oozing spots and filling in the cracks and smoothing over the scabs from those that had not quite healed or that I’d picked off out of what has now become habit. Eventually, realising I was going to be late and that frankly, I was fighting a losing battle, I gave up and called in sick. It’s not the first time this has happened either.
My problems all started about eighteen moths ago; I’d finished my teaching practice and was just about to start my first real grown-up full-time job as an English teacher at a secondary school. I’d just started dating someone new and things looked to be progressing very quickly – a good sign, I thought. It seemed I’d started almost a whole new life and was ready to start planning my future. I was very keen back then; I used to arrive in school at about half past seven every morning in order to prepare for the day ahead, drink at least eight cups of coffee and be ready to launch myself into all-singing, all dancing lessons by nine o’ clock. One morning, as I was making my coffee, I started to feel an odd, bruise-like pain on my chin. With my finger I could feel a huge lump that ached when I touched it. I couldn’t remember having walked into any doors or anything, so I went to the toilets to investigate. I looked in the mirror and saw that there was indeed a large swelling just below my lip, like a bee sting or an insect bite, but without the redness or a head. I was concerned, but there was nothing I could do at that moment.
Three days later, the lump was still there. It had come to a head now and was quite obviously an enormous spot. Being someone who is extremely squeamish – I don’t have any bodily functions, I haven’t even farted since 1987 but that’s another issue – I didn’t want to squeeze or pop it. I didn’t have to; it exploded of its own accord, and proceeded to leave what could only be described as a massive crater in my face. Rather than breathing a sigh of relief that it was gone, I found that, to my mortification, there was another lump starting. This time, it was on the bridge of my nose, right next to my eyebrow. And there were more- some smaller bumps started to appear on my forehead, making my skin feel a bit like a sheet of bubble wrap.
By Christmas, it had reached epic proportions. I’d started to wear foundation in an effort to disguise the problem, but the one I was using wasn’t really up to the job. My whole face was covered, either with hard, raised lumps and bumps that no amount of cover-up could smooth out, or weeping sores that the make-up would cake around, or bright red scars that would just show through. That Christmas was probably the lowest point for me. Some of my pupils at school had been making comments, pointing out that I had more spots than they did, or asking in a sarcastic tone whether I’d ‘been Tangoed’, because the amount of make-up I wore made my face look an unnatural colour. I’m sure it was a huge source of amusement for them, but it was slowly beginning to undermine my confidence in the classroom. Although it really should have been water off a duck’s back, I was still relatively young and it felt like being back at school myself, as a child, being the object of ridicule for the class loud-mouth.
My home life and relationships were also suffering. My flat mate at the time saw me one morning without any make-up on and stood staring at me in horror. I can appreciate that sometime, in shock, things just come out and are not intended to be hurtful; she said that she wouldn’t be able to respect me if I were her teacher. I tried to ignore the comment but it really stung. My plummeting self-esteem and my painful self-consciousness was starting to take its toll my relationship with my boyfriend, who had since become my fiancée. I felt just too embarrassed to discuss the problem with him – it seemed shameful, having acne at my age, like having to have braces or not being able to ride a bike – so I would make sure I was always up before him when we slept together to go and put my face on before he saw me.
I would always insist on making love in the dark, and I would never let him touch my face when he kissed me. I made him call me in advance before coming round so that I could ensure I had covered my skin up, and we had a terrible argument one day because he turned up unannounced when I wasn’t expecting him. I ran and locked myself into the bathroom, screaming at him to leave. I knew I was being unfair but I would still rather have a huge argument than explain to him the real reason for my actions. We eventually split up, which was for the best anyway, and I couldn’t help but feel relieved that I wouldn’t have to worry about my skin on my wedding day.
Eventually, at the risk of losing friends because of my new hermit-like behaviour, I went to see my GP. She was very understanding and patient, even when I started sobbing and going red with embarrassment. She explained that women go through a lot of hormonal changes in their mid twenties; it’s almost like puberty but not as extreme. My hormones were unbalanced anyway due to using the contraceptive injection, so the excess testosterone and low levels of oestrogen had caused this outburst of adult acne. There seemed to be many other factors involved, the major one being stress. Having a high-anxiety job like teaching, arguing constantly with my fiancée and then the stress that the condition itself was causing were all adding up, leaving me in this vicious circle of worrying about my skin, then my skin becoming worse, leading to more stress. I was given oxytetracycline tablets and told to give them six months. I found that they worked to a certain extent at first in reducing the amount of spots I had, but they’ve done nothing about the severity of those that I do get.
The worst thing about my situation, the one thing that in my opinion makes adult acne worse and more distressing than teenage acne, is the fact that you feel like such a freak; you feel like you can’t talk to anyone about it, because a) they won’t understand and b) it’s so embarrassing. All of my friends have normal, healthy skin, just like I used to have. They have left their pimple problems way behind them, back in puberty. Don’t get me wrong – they’re great people and very supportive, but they don’t understand why I feel that I can’t leave the house sometimes. “It’s just a spot – no-one will even notice” is the most common response I get when I’ve refused to go out for drinks.
The reason they think this way is because, over the last year or so, I’ve become something of a make-up expert and have become very good at hiding and minimising the problem. I have discovered what I have affectionately nicknamed ‘burns victim’ make-up; it’s not quite actual camouflage make-up that people use to cover birth marks, tattoos and burns. It’s close though. By using maximum cover foundation and concealer, I can just about get through the day. It has to be constantly re-applied though as my skin is so oily that it tends to slide off, and I have to wash my face and start all over again. I now have the process down to about twenty minutes each time.
Except for this morning; I’d done almost forty-five by the time I gave up. My forehead had swollen up like a golf ball, and didn’t look like it would go down any time soon. I just wanted to shut myself away for the day. Instead, I went back to the doctor. This time, it was suggested that I have a blood test and then go to see a dermatologist. We are also considering the possibility of switching back to the contraceptive pill to try to balance my hormones out, although this will be risky for me as I get migraines and doctors usually avoid giving the combined pill to sufferers. All I know is that I can’t go on like this. Most of the time it is under control, and I can manage to go to work, go out and function normally. But I want more than that – I want my life back.
Afterword: I managed to get my skin sorted out eventually with Roaccutane and Dianette, and – touch wood – haven’t had any problems since. If anyone has any questions about anything I’ve talked about, please feel free to ask and I will try to help in any way I can 🙂