My journey with acne began before I’d even hit puberty. I was 11 and hadn’t yet started my period, but Mother Nature decided to gift me a breakout of spots to initiate me into secondary school. I mean, it’s not like you really care what people think about you at that age or anything.
What followed were years of persistent pimples and every single over-the-counter ‘wonder’ product you can imagine. With every witch hazel stick came a glimmer of hope, rapidly extinguished when they all failed. As time went on, a few spots turned into breakouts, which turned into fully fledged acne taking up permanent residence across my face.
If you’ve suffered with problem skin and haven’t let it affect your life, then huge props to you. However – and I know I speak for a lot of people when I say this – what seems a simple skin issue to some can have a huge impact on your mental health. My acne defined my identity; it totally changed my appearance, so much so that when I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t see past the bumps and I was sure no one else could, either. I was the spotty girl; nothing more. Every flippant comment made at school chipped away at my confidence. Gems like "crater face", "spot-a-lot" (I’ve got to give them points for the rhyme at least, right?) and, my personal favourite, "she looks like she’s rubbed a bin all over her face" stuck with me. Kids are nice, eh? I was hurting. A lot.
At the age of 13, my confidence reached an all-time low. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye and avoided any type of daytime social situation because I thought that the sunshine highlighted my awful skin too much. It was then that I discovered you could treat acne with antibiotics prescribed by a GP. The promise of clear skin was such an incentive that throughout my teenage years I tried every drug possible. If one failed (which it always did), I was on to the next. No fucks given about how long-term usage could be impacting my body.
Alas, I always lost out to my seemingly superhuman strain of acne and after exhausting the prescriptions, I was referred to a dermatologist for a course of the controversial drug Roaccutane. I was 15 and yearning for a clear complexion, so I gave no thought to the possible side-effects (the more serious being depression, seizures and liver problems).
Massive shock: Roaccutane worked. For a while, at least. After about a year, my spots came back with a vengeance and so I went on living with my best mate, acne. I ran quickly back to the antibiotics. Using medication had to be better than nothing, right?
It was only when I went in for round two of Roaccutane at age 23 that I really started to think about what I was putting my body through. Being older, more emphasis was put on the potential side-effects, some of which really concerned me. I found the process pretty gruelling this time around; monthly blood tests, constant dryness and backache took their toll. Once again, my skin cleared up for a while, but then it was Breakout 3: Return of the Zits all over again. I started to weigh up the possibility of clear skin against how the drug was making me feel physically. And what about my constant use of antibiotics over the years, the side-effects of which I hadn’t researched at all?
I’m now 28 and – you guessed it – still suffering from spots. So while there are still options of drugs that can potentially treat acne, I’ve called it a day. Why? Because, personally, I feel like my body is worth more than being treated as a drug vessel for something that may or may not clear my skin.
When I was younger, my desperation made me blind to caring about what I put into my system. I was willing to do anything for clear skin. These days, I prefer a more holistic approach to life and taking care of myself; I’ve cut out gluten, dairy and a lot of processed food in a bid to heal my skin from the inside out. And while I’ve read a lot of stories of people who have found some miracle all-natural cure for acne, I, unfortunately, haven’t had the same experience. But I’ve seen improvements and that’s progress enough for me. What’s more poignant about my experience is the compassion for myself that I've developed over time.
While progress is being made, there’s still so much pressure to achieve perfection – from celebrity culture, the beauty industry and social media – that it’s drilled into us from a young age that we’re not beautiful until we fix all of our flaws. Don’t get me wrong, I’m never going to cheer with joy at the sight of a new spot, but accepting myself as I am is something I’m learning to do. What I lack in clear skin, I make up for in so many other ways.
Looking back, my desire to be blemish-free led me down paths that weren’t right for me and it's only recently that my skin has found a new balance – as have I. Learning not to measure your self-worth by what you or others see is wrong; your focus should be you, and embracing yourself, warts and all, is a way more progressive and productive way to live life.