Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
I’m a 41-year-old woman — a mom, model, and actress, among other things — and I have adult acne. I'll admit I'm beyond blessed on every level, with access to the best skin creams and treatments that should by all (marketing) accounts have the power to conquer my troublesome skin-care issue.
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.
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
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.
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Like most people, I initially worried about the depression, muscle weakness, and other negative side effects the drug can produce. But, Accutane worked. After six months of being on it, I enjoyed a blissful six years of clear, acne-free skin. To be honest, I was so grateful to finally have good skin that I probably wouldn't have noticed them much anyway. But, after six years, my ex came knocking at my door again — just in time for my MTV debut.
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.