You know those people who tell you it’s JUST acne (emphasis on the “just”), that a few drug store salicylic acid spot treatments and a Neutrogena facewash will solve everything? Well, those people are the worst. And sadly, I was once one of those people. I was the beaming, bright-eyed fourteen year old who had miraculously escaped the pre-pubescent burst of cystic acne. I used to shrug and tell my friends, “I guess I just got lucky.” SURPRISE…I didn’t lucky, the acne train was just four years too late. And when I found myself in a very hideous, very depressing, and very unexpected acne breakout during my freshman year of college, I realized that it was not “just” acne, but so much more.
Acne is canceling plans. Acne is being too afraid to go to pool parties or sleepovers because that would mean having for people to see you without makeup. Acne is avoiding bathroom mirrors, and car windows, and elevator doors, and any reflective surface because your depression can’t bear to see how bad your face really is. Acne is spending hours, excruciating hours applying makeup to your swollen, red, and painful skin. Acne is desperately trying new prescriptions, and creams, and new face washes, and new makeup brands, and making doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment, hopeful that something, ANYTHING might, just maybe, fix your acne and take the pain away.
And even after all that pain, and all that suffering, they still tell you “it could be worse.” They reassure you that YOU COULD HAVE CANCER. Yes, I could have cancer. But acne was my cancer. It changed my life. It felt like a death sentence. And believe it or not, it really was slowly killing me, just as much as it was killing my self-confidence. But the thing was, I never got to admit that, and I certainly never felt comfortable enough to tell people how much acne really was ruining my life. Because when you say that acne is making you depressed, it doesn’t earn you sympathy or pity, it makes you shallow and self-absorbed.
So there I was, suffering in silence because “it could be worse.” But to me, it didn’t feel like it could get any worse. For several years, I was burdened with acne-induced depression, depression that kept me in bed for days at a time, depression that lead me to the hospital. And there I was feeling “shallow” and “self-absorbed” because I let something as “minor” as acne consume my life. But it wasn’t minor. It was never minor. To me, it was a very big deal.
And while I know now that yes, things could have been a lot worse, and at times I was just a dramatic eighteen year old, I want people to stop discounting acne as just a few spots, or something that can be washed away with a six dollar drugstore face wash. The way I looked at my face in the mirror was the same way that someone with anorexia looks at their body in the mirror. Each pimple, much like each pound on the scale, crushed me, made me hate myself, and truly felt like the end of the world. So despite those upbeat, and bitterly optimistic acne medication commercials, we have to recognize that acne isn’t just “something that happens to everyone.” Sure, everyone has breakouts, but not everyone will experience the depression that follows cystic acne flare-up. Not everyone will know the anxiety of having to walk in a crowded place fearful that they can see the bumps, and blackheads, and scabs through ten layers of makeup. Not everyone will know the fear of having to wake up in the morning and greet the five new whiteheads that sprouted overnight.
So rather than recommending the latest moisturizer, instead, offer the support and love an acne-sufferer might need. Tell them that it’s okay to feel insecure. Tell them that it’s okay to have days where they feel like they can’t leave the house. Tell them it’s okay to feel depressed and anxious. But most importantly, never tell them it’s “just” acne.