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“Maybe she’s born with it . . . but maybe it’s Maybelline,” a friend yelled down the crowded hallway of my high school. White-hot fear shot through my 16-year-old body, and I ran straight to my locker to pull out a mirror so that I could see what he was seeing. My face was red, flakey, and covered in patches of makeup. I’d been treating my acne-prone skin like shit, so it looked like shit. I faked sick and went home.
Acne has been a part of my life since my pre-teen years. I’d sit in the bathroom sink, getting as close to the mirror as possible so that I could analyze, pick, and squeeze. Every morning I’d apply zit cream, lotion, concealer, and foundation — then I'd wipe it off and start over, thinking this time I could do better. Once my legs went numb and the toilet was full of beige-colored toilet paper remnants, I’d force myself to do something else.
Unfortunately, that something else usually entailed huddling under my covers, researching miracle cures, all-natural treatments, and must-have quick fixes. The sheer panic I felt — because there were spots on my face, and I couldn’t stop them from appearing, and each spot would lead to a red mark that would last for weeks —consumed me. Though I was undiagnosed at the time, I had developed an obsessive compulsive disorder.
Somehow, someway (maybe it was after the two rounds of Accutane?), my acne retreated in my early adult years — and as a result, so did my OCD. As I accepted my first real job and entered into a serious relationship, my problems became a distant memory. And then, skin gods be damned, two years ago I was blessed with another lovely issue: perioral dermatitis (PD).
I’d later learn this was an underlying issue that topical cortisone had kept at bay for years. To make matters worse, cortisone is, by many accounts, the worst possible remedy for this chronic, basically-everything-causes-it problem. When I stopped using it, my face erupted, and derms (trust me, I went to five) couldn’t help.
Suddenly, there I was, back on the Internet, scouring obscure message boards and making it well beyond the first couple pages of Google. I started throwing money at lotions, creams, patch testing, food sensitivity testing, and supplements. I was also back in front of the mirror, poking and prodding — and sinking into a spiral of depression and OCD, worse than ever before.
One year in, I couldn’t do it anymore. I realized all my efforts to fix the outside weren’t working, so maybe it was time to focus on the inside. I began seeing a psychologist who talked me through my feelings and was able to see the underlying issues of my problem. (And no, it’s not pure vanity; this is all largely rooted in the need to have order and control.) What was one of the first steps in my treatment, in addition to a low dosage of Zoloft? Getting rid of mirrors.
Yup, that’s right. Someone who felt an almost magnetic pull toward them had to eliminate them completely. The theory was, I was engaging in some seriously repetitive patterns, and removing my trigger was my best hope for success. Since removing the rash from my face wasn’t an option, it was the mirrors that had to go.
First it was the bathroom mirror. That went in storage. Next were the little compacts I had in my purse, my work bag, and my desk drawer at work. And finally, the floor-length mirror. Truth be told, that one was just covered with a blanket — nevertheless, equally embarrassing.
Honestly, I was just so tired. Anxiety was running my life and some bumps on my face were consuming my thoughts, so it was somewhat of a relief to just not look. And at this point, I was going makeup-free in the hope of finding out what was triggering the rashes, so it felt kind of liberating to just shower and go.
That’s not to say I didn’t cheat, because I did. I’d peek behind the blanket, sneak some glimpses in the bathroom mirror at work, and even try to turn my iPhone screen into a makeshift mirror — at times my brain would demand that I know how the day’s bump situation was looking.
At one point I hid a compact under some sweaters and was busted by my boyfriend, feeling very much like an addict armed with excuses: I needed to tweeze my eyebrows, I was just trying to get something out of my eye, oh, I forgot I even had that there.
The same with googling; I’d find myself going down familiar rabbit holes, re-reading sites I’d already read, in hopes that I could finally get the answer I needed to put this all behind me.
But as time went on, I was able to fight it with some stronger resolve. Discipline, I learned, is a muscle that grows with exercise. Eventually, I got to a place where I could focus on important things, like FaceTiming my niece, biking with my boyfriend, and searching for the perfect new throw pillows.
I’m happy to say that after a couple months free of mirrors, Google, and makeup (oh, let’s not forget that dash of Zoloft), I broke the cycle. The urges died down and my mood became much less panicky, even on days when I woke up with new PD bumps. And it was then that my therapist and I decided the mirrors could be reintroduced.
I kid you not, it was like seeing myself for the first time, because I was looking at my face in its entirety, rather than focusing on whatever small patch of redness might be present on my chin. I was finally able to understand that yup, there might be some bumps, but guess what? I was just fine. And really, what my mom and boyfriend had been telling me all along was true — they really weren’t that bad.
These days, I think about that stretch of my life and, after I’m finished cringing, I just want to give myself a hug. What to most people is an annoyance became my sole focus for over a year, causing me to miss out on so many things: my friends’ wedding showers, nights out at fancy new restaurants, and even just smiling. When I was in the throes of it, I’d remind myself I was lucky to have all my limbs, to not be an ISIS hostage, to have a boyfriend who loved me — but when you’re that far gone, those thoughts can’t do the heavy lifting.
For that reason, I’m thankful for my awesome therapist, as well as my friends and family who pushed me to see said therapist. Thanks to their help, I’m nice to myself again. Life is so much better this way.