7 Things I've Learned From Living With Severe Adult Acne

A month before my ex and I broke up, I was talking to him and the entire time, he was staring at a pimple on my face and never once looked at me square in the eye.
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Clarissa Wei
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A month before my ex and I broke up, I was talking to him and the entire time, he was staring at a pimple on my face and never once looked at me square in the eye.

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I have moderate to severe acne. I’ve had it since I was 18 years old and it’s been a consistent part of my physical identity for the last five years. 

Yes. I’ve tried that. I’ve taken that pill. I did that diet. I stopped eating that. I drank a lot of that. It’s all been said and done. But this isn’t a piece about my battle with acne, what I’ve tried and haven’t tried, or even the makeup products I use to cover it up. 

Acne vulgaris is simply a part of my reality. 

The papules and cystic nodules and pimples have been a terribly inconvenient part of my life; a silent malady that has, at times, caused me to burst into tears or call in sick and stay at home under a crust of lotion and medication. My acne ranges in severity depending on its mood: sometimes it’s a raging cluster of red and purple, other times it’s extremely mild and invisible underneath a dab of foundation. 

But believe it or not, as frustrating as this whole situation is, acne has taught me precious life lessons: 

1. Unsolicited advice is humiliating. 

I don’t talk about my acne a lot. Why would I? It isn’t exactly a topic most people know how to empathize with appropriately. Most people respond with “Oh yeah, I breakout too.” And then they list their personalized prescriptions for how to deal with it. “Don’t eat this.” “Stop wearing so much makeup.” “Wash your face more.” “Moisturize!” “Be consistent. I don’t think you’re being consistent enough with your routine.” “Have you tried the dermatologist? I think you should listen to your dermatologist.” “Stop touching your face.” “Stop going on these crazy diets. It doesn’t work.” 

Been there, done that, this is extremely frustrating so please don’t make me feel like I haven’t been trying my best to fix my condition. Once, an older family friend yelled at me for my condition:

“Why is your face so red?! You should be washing it more!” she screamed.  

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been accidentally lectured by a well-meaning friend. Trust me, I’m much more disturbed about my physical defects than you are. Unsolicited advice can be humiliating. These days, I keep it to myself because what the hell do I know about another person’s struggle and what they’ve tried and haven’t tried? 

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2. Beauty and youth is temporary. It’s the internal landscape that really matters and that’s where we should be deriving our confidence.

I had gorgeous skin in high school. It was glowing and tan -- free of pockmarks and scars and terrible cysts. I was also extremely vain: I loved taking photographs of myself because no matter what angles the camera was orientated toward, I looked good. I adored shopping and looking for trinkets and outfits that would enhance my look. These days the complete opposite is true.

I’ve grown to disdain shopping because who wants to try on clothes and buy pretty things when their own face is unbearable to look at? And so over the years, I’ve been forced to move my attention away from the physical part of my identity and focus on my internal landscape. I’ve been forced to deal with painful feelings of insecurity and self-hate and negativity. I’ve been forced to ask myself questions like:

“How I can confront the world without feeling insecure?”  

“How can I make myself feel beautiful?” 

And from these difficult conversations with myself, I’ve found confidence and I’m a much more secure person from it. 

3. Simplicity is liberating

I go to sleep everyday with at least eight dabs of acne medication on my face. I slather on at least one layer of foundation every morning, sometimes more. My bottles of acne lotions and foundations are always something I have to account for when I’m packing for a trip.  

I celebrate whenever my acne is at a phase where it’s extremely mild because that means less makeup and less acne lotion. I crave to be at point where I don’t have to wear anything on my face without being gawked at in public. 

This has taught me to value and bless simplicity. It’s a liberating feeling to not have to carry an extra bottle of foundation with me when I’m out all day because I know my acne won’t rear its ugly head once the makeup fades. I rejoice when I don’t have to put on medication because that means I don’t have to be conscious of wiping the medication off while I’m sleeping. 

And so in my life, when I can, I gravitate toward simplicity. 

Less is more. Truly.

4. The importance of looking people in the eye when they talk. 

A month before my ex and I broke up, I was talking to him and the entire time, he was staring at a pimple on my face and never once looked at me square in the eye. 

It was humiliating and I wanted to crawl in a hole and cry. 

I’m at fault with this too. Sometimes when I’m wearing my acne cream in the evening, I have a hard time looking people in the eye because I’m embarrassed. I usually hide or in desperate times during sleepovers or outings, I’ll put on my medication when it’s dark and everyone is asleep.  

Sometimes people have something in their teeth. Sometimes they have major physical defects. Or on the other side of the spectrum, maybe they’re gorgeous and you can’t stop staring at their body. 

But when someone is having a conversation with you, it’s basic human decency to look them in the eye.

5. Obsessing will do nothing. 

In my junior year of college, I spent significant hours looking in the mirror and experimenting with new lotions and medications. Eventually that made me so mentally distressed I broke down crying and burned my skin because I layered on too much benzoyl peroxide.

Obsessing over your looks, acne or not, will drive you crazy because there’s always going to be something off, there’s always going to be a blemish, there’s always going to be that blackhead. 

Step away from the mirror. 

6. Be kind. Look deeper. 

I have a dear friend who, bless his heart, once went on a blind date with a girl with “horrible terrifying skin” (as he put it) and he refused to talk to her ever again.

I was horrified.

I’m a lot nicer than I was before my acne. I’ve gone on dates with men who, initially, physically repulsed me but I stuck it out because I’m aware I have flaws that can be deemed reprehensible too. Eventually some of these guys grew on me and I stopped noticing their physical quirks altogether.

To my friend -– be kind. Look deeper. The “flaws” will disappear once you get to know the other person better. 

7. I am still me.

I am still very insecure about my acne and a lot of times I let it define me. I have to remind myself that it is just a physical inconvenience and that who I am has nothing to do with the bumps on my face. I am still me.