And, yet, my acne lingers. I still sometimes wake up in the morning with a feeling of dread that I imagine many teenagers who deal with the same issue experience before prom or senior-picture day. Has the volcano on my face come back? I often get out of bed wondering. And, if so, where has he decided to set up camp this time? (I call my acne a "him" because I think of it as a mean ex-boyfriend who always resurfaces at the precise moment I'm about to be completely over him.)
I can go months with great, glowing skin, weeks without a single spot in sight, and then I'll wake up one morning to find a mountainous blemish setting up shop on my face. The distressing thing is that when my skin is good for a period of time, I'm literally just waiting for its diabolical return.
It hasn't always been this way. I was in my late teens before I experienced cystic acne. He arrived during my first semester of freshman year at Vanderbilt University, when, as a newly pledged Tri Delta sorority sister, I was getting ready to go to a fraternity mixer and wanted to look my best. I had a crush on one of the brothers, Chance.
Of course, the morning of the big night, I woke up and immediately felt a burgeoning cyst settling in on my chin. It was massive, painful, and utterly heinous. I remember frantically getting ready that evening, attempting every beauty trick I’d ever heard of in the hopes of deflecting attention away from my chin. But, no matter how glossy I made my hair look or how smoky I made my eyes, I was convinced that all Chance or anyone else would see would be my horrid pimple.
My evil ex-boyfriend acne continued to stalk me mercilessly after I left Vanderbilt — in pursuit of a modeling career, no less. In those days, we didn't have Photoshop, and photo retouching cost thousands of dollars. Thus, us “coat-hangers,” as we were referred to, were supposed to show up to casting calls looking picture-perfect. Bad skin wasn’t an option. So, here I was, living in the capital of the modeling world, eager to make myself into a success story and plagued with adult acne. At one point, my cystic acne grew so out of control, it turned into a staph infection. The infection morphed into a mountain, protruding so far off the side of my face that I could literally see it in my peripheral vision. I had to take two weeks off of modeling until it went away.
Cystic acne is not a joke. There’s no zit to pop to mitigate the blemish's appearance. Cystic acne runs deep beneath the skin, most often resulting in large, sometimes very painful pressure-filled masses that can last for weeks.
This acne wasn’t just messing with my career; it was messing with my mood, my confidence, my life. Like an abusive ex, it held a daunting power over me. Each morning, I woke up and ran to check out my face in the bathroom mirror. Right away, I could tell if it was going to be a good day or a bad day. From weekly cortisone injections to acupuncture, I did everything to try to get rid of it. I took Spiractin, Minocycline, clindamycin, doxycycline, Ortho-Cyclen, erythromycin, and multiple other rounds of antibiotics, all in the hopes of defeating my enemy. Sometimes, the prescription medicines would work for a bit, but, ultimately, taking antibiotics wasn't a long-term solution. The acne always returned.
Eventually, I got wind of Accutane, a potentially dangerous acne drug rife with side effects. For me, because of its reputation, trying Accutane was a last resort.
It was the night before my first House of Style shoot. A monster zit had set up shop on my face, basically giving me the appearance of having a third eye. This was definitely not the fashion-forward look my producers were going for. The stress made me panicky and anxious.
A girlfriend told me that toothpaste was just the thing for zit emergencies. I basted that beast with toothpaste like it was a Thanksgiving turkey. In my mind, more was better. I woke up in the morning and prayed to the heavens that it was gone or at the very least had subsided to a point of being manageable. I approached the mirror tentatively.
I was horrified by what I saw: Not only had the pimple gotten bigger, but my toothpaste trick had burned layers of skin off. And, I was supposed to be a supermodel. The makeup artist at the shoot spent an hour and a half taming the beast. Because I had burnt my skin with the harsh paste, the makeup wouldn't stick. It just kept sliding off.
I was forced to admit that while Accutane was certainly the most effective acne combatant I ever took, it wasn’t an absolute cure. If anything, it made me confront the inconvenient truth that, for me, there is no magic pill to make my acne go away — at least not permanently.
After 20 years of dealing with acne, you would think that it wouldn’t bother me anymore, that I would just get used to it. But, every time a new beast decides to camp out on my face, I can still feel that pit of dread settle in my stomach — the same way it always had. While I’ll probably never stop being pissed when my ex returns, I am, at least, more confident than I once was in my abilities to get his ass out the door. From drugs to lasers to topical creams, I know it might take more than a minute to concoct the perfect solution, but I will make him go away. He’ll scamper back into his hiding place, and I’ll enjoy a few months of bliss.