“I don’t look like I used to,” I warned. “You’re going to tell me you love me regardless or it’s not that bad, but it is. I just don’t want you to be alarmed when you see me for the first time.” The group text I sent to my best of college friends went something like that.
I was weeks away from returning home. Part of me couldn’t wait to be reunited with friends and family; the other part was dreading it. I anticipated wandering eyes and lingering stares as they asked, “So how was Spain?!” while partially listening for my answer and partially wondering what happened to my face. In September 2015 I moved to Madrid, Spain to teach English abroad.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime and I felt a mix of emotions. I had been dying to return to Spain after studying for a semester in Salamanca. After graduating college in spring 2015, I could finally make my dream of returning to Europe a reality. The initial transition to life abroad was not as simple and smooth as I had hoped. In fact, it was one of the most difficult challenges I’ve overcome in my life – even more difficult than my four years of college combined. Finding an apartment, starting a new job, making friends, dusting off my Spanish, becoming more independent…all in a foreign country and culture.
These were huge stressors. On top of it all, my skin decided to make matters more difficult. I had spent my teenage years and early-twenties with skin best described as “normal.” It wasn’t flawless; I would get an occasional pimple or two on my forehead or chin. During my period I might have * GASP * three at the same time, but it never really bothered me that much. Never really knocked my confidence, consumed my thoughts or even made me feel bad. To put it simply, I felt normal. “Breaking out is what girls do at this age, so who cares?” I thought.
Unfortunately, right at the start of my new chapter in Madrid, I could no longer maintain that carefree attitude about my skin. The breakouts became more frequent and it wasn’t normal, at least not for me. “You had just moved to a new country,” you might say. “You were stressed, your body wasn’t used to the environment, the water, the food, etc. Your skin just needed more time.” I thought the same, and so did every skincare consultant I spoke with during those first few weeks. I purchased some new products for oily, blemish-prone skin and kept my chin up. With more time to adjust, my skin would be back to normal…or so I thought.
As time went on, it only got worse. I visited my dermatologist while in the U.S. over the holidays and addressed my abnormally broken out skin. She prescribed two topical creams. Those were supposed to do the trick, but they didn’t. As January turned to February turned to March…the breakouts just got worse. I can’t bring myself to post photos, but I’ll paint you a mental picture. Not only were my forehead and chin blemished with large, red cystic-type pimples, but also my cheeks, my jaw and even my neck. It was everywhere.
With more pimples meant more make-up (*high-quality make-up designed for acneprone, sensitive skin FYI), which certainly didn’t help my breakouts, but without it I couldn’t even bring myself to go to the grocery store, let alone a bar or my job. I started dedicating hours each day to research, scouring Google for proposed acne triggers. Dairy. Gluten. Eggs. Meat. Coffee. Certain make-up ingredients. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Dirty make-up brushes. Dirty pillow cases. Laundry detergent. Sweat. You name it; someone said it could be causing my acne. I tested just about all of it. Success? Nope.
Not even close. In March, I wouldn’t have imagined my complexion could have possibly gotten worse, but ohhhhh it could. And it did. As my pimples continued to grow, I felt myself fading. I spent entire weekends at home in bed with the door shut. I cancelled plans, rescheduled meetings, declined invitations and rejected dates because I couldn’t bear to be seen. I refused to FaceTime even my mom because of raging insecurity. All I wanted was to be alone and continue searching for a solution.
I was losing my identity, my life, and myself to acne. It wasn’t until May that I began to see a light. I made plans to go hiking with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in some time. My skin looked horrific (as per usual) but I knew I needed to get out and try to have fun. I was still living abroad after all! I put on make-up to disguise my acne as thoroughly as possible and met Paige for our hike. I decided to address my skin. I felt like if I didn’t say anything, she would have thought that I thought it looked good.
I felt like acknowledging its ugliness (as pathetic as that sounds) would be the only way I could relax and enjoy the day. I am so glad I did. Paige told me she used to suffer from acne just like mine. She shared her story and I wanted to cry because, for the first time in a long time, I felt like someone truly understood me. Best of all, she told me her solution.
The solution that worked after trying everything that I also had. I’m assuming you’re curious to hear her recommendation. It was a prescription medicine she was given by her dermatologist called spironolactone. It’s traditionally used to control high blood pressure, but studies have found it can also balance hormones in women, which may relieve acne if hormones are the trigger.
Paige warned me there would be a three-month lag time in visible results from the time I began taking it, but she reassured me that if I stuck with the medication I would see a difference. After doing my own research and consulting my doctor I began taking spironolactone, too. It was a long three months of waiting, especially because at the halfway mark I returned to the U.S. I felt optimistic that going home might help my skin improve sooner; returning to one’s country and culture has a way of relieving a lot of subliminal stress.
But, it also invited many new stressors, such as seeing the faces of my closest friends and family, who hadn’t seen mine in months. I feared their judgments. I assumed everyone looked at me and thought, “What did Spain do to her face?” After several more weeks of waiting, shortly after the three-month mark, I finally started to see progress – fewer breakouts, smoother texture and fading redness. It was progress I had dreamt of for nearly a year. Progress I had started to believe I would never actually see. And with the return of increasingly normal skin, my sense of self also began to return.
It felt like my soul, which had nearly abandoned my body, was creeping its way back in. I felt amazing, practically indescribable. As my skin has only continued to improve since then, I’ve continued to struggle to find words to explain the sheer joy of the sight of my complexion. Happiness, energy, and zest for life – these are all things I’ve regained with my clearer skin, along with something new: gratitude. I wake up every morning, look in the mirror and feel thankful for my clear skin. Prior to the onset of my acne I never realized how important and life altering something so seemingly superficial can be.
This is not to say I was never familiar with negative self-talk over appearance; I still see parts of my body that I wish looked differently. But now when I feel those negative, hateful thoughts creeping into my mind, I reflect back on my thoughts from just a few months ago; all I wanted was clear skin, and now I have it. So why do I continue to search for more things to fix? Reviewing my mental laundry list of “flaws” on a daily basis doesn’t serve me nor change them.
In fact, it provokes insecurity and sadness, the same way my acne did. Now that I’ve learned to show gratitude for my skin, I am learning to apply that gratitude to all aspects of my being, and my life, too. I read a quote (before my skin had cleared) that struck a chord. “The sum of you is greater than any ‘imperfect’ part.” It became my mantra throughout my last few weeks of battling acne, and now it’s my weapon to fight all negative, self-destructive thoughts. I’ve vowed to love myself more and to help other women love themselves, too.
If you are a woman struggling with insecurity, whether it’s acne or something else, I encourage you to do three things.
1. Say, “I am beautiful.” Out loud, right now. You don’t have to yell or scream it, but I want you to say it, even if you don’t believe it. You are doing the best you can and that’s all that matters, regardless of your complexion, your arms, your thighs, your dark circles, your belly, your profile, your unwanted hair… Focus on the features (external and internal) that you love. See your beauty; it exists everywhere.
2. Find support. Reach out to close friends if you haven’t already. Schedule an appointment with a dermatologist/doctor. Read blogs and websites. You are not alone in your battle.
3. Do not stop living your life. I was abroad during the worst of my breakouts. At times, I forewent events and experiences because of my skin. But the other 90% of the time I forced myself to go out and live. Acne robbed me of many things, but I couldn’t allow it to steal everything; neither can you.
We are all struggling with something. Let me be a light to you. In turn, I hope you will pass it on to someone else. Let’s spread encouragement and gratitude like wildfire. Let’s bring out our external and internal splendor. And let’s remember that beauty is much more than “skin deep.”