(Possible trigger WARNING.)
You know what was the first thing I did on my fifteenth birthday? I cried. Looked in the mirror and burst into tears.
I’ve been plagued with acne since I was eleven. In short, I broke my elbow, spent six weeks under heavy painkillers and didn’t wash, and contracted all sorts of health problems. Some, like my sudden deterioration of sight, were easily dealt with: a visit to the optician and the attainment of glasses and eventually contact lenses.
Others problems, like that of my skin, I haven’t even been able to alleviate. Soaps, creams, roll-ons, sprays, pills and vitamins, herbs, oils, washing and cosmetic habits…nothing has worked. The current stuff I use contains peroxide, and it’s bleached and discoloured all my towels, pillowcases and bedsheets.
Besides indirectly destroying my pillowcases, and making me party to numerous insensitive remarks (even now, the word ‘spot’ flips my stomach), it annihilated my self-confidence. Unfortunately I was also the approximate size and shape of a lamppost (another sudden upshot of breaking my elbow and the drugs entailed), so I couldn’t easily hide from notice. I learnt to stoop and bow my head, wear my hair across my face.
It was a struggle to get out the house morning after morning, to have to show myself to people who recoiled every time they looked at me. I could feel their revulsion. And they were the ones who had to look at me. I hated myself for giving them such discomfort, devastating their aesthetic experience with my very presence. And me—what of me? Of course, I didn’t have to see myself, but I have to live with myself. I knew every time I spoke eyes would be drawn to my disgusting face.
To see that face in the mirror, take it out of the house, show off its hideousness to others—others whose opinion I cared for—and all the time pass off that face as my own. It was the old, ‘hate me if you like. Bully me. Call me names. Just don’t stare at it. I know it’s there. I know it’s mine. Please, please don’t stare.’
And was it really that bad? Or was that me being overly sensitive? It’s true whenever I see pictures of the past I flush in shame.
At the age of twelve I asked my mother when she thought the acne would clear up of its own accord (there seemed no alternative), and she told me my brother’s acne was gone by the time he turned fifteen. It seemed a hell of a long time to wait. But with the hope of freedom when I was fifteen coursing through me, I bore the next two and a half years without outward complaint.
But on my fifteenth birthday it was no better than ever. Maybe it was an unreasonable hope, to wake up on that day and be suddenly liberated. I’d hoped for a miracle. It didn’t happen and I felt betrayed. My hormones still run rampant, I regret to own.
Now, if the acne itself is any better at all (most days I doubt it), there are the scars to be contended with instead. Yeah, I was stupid years ago. I didn’t know I’d get scars if I scratched. And it hurt so much–not merely physically; no one understands what it is for your entire face to ache for years on end. I have friends with perfect skin who make a ten-minute lament of the novelty of getting a single spot. Listening to that draws the acid up from the back of my throat.
Another long-lasting effect is that I have a phobia of the sound of scratching. Since I stopped the scratching myself the very sound of it has me shaking and sweating. My mother, funnily enough, has what her doctor calls ‘bored fingers’. You can guess where this is leading. She picks at sores on her body merely to give her hands something to do. And the sound of that idle picking, the nail levering under the scab and pick…pick…pick… Who can imagine what that does to me?
I’ve never told anyone this. Most of the people I love best don’t suffer from any skin defects, and those who do haven’t anything as bad as I. Hence I naively supposed nobody would understand quite how soul-destroying it is to face life day after day with an external defect. Internal failings I can and do hide, as much as I can, but my appearance I can’t change. Everyone sees me and knows.
Claim you’re immune to prejudice all you like. Beauty plays an enormous part in popularity.
So what’s the point of this post, if I’ve never told anyone this before? I’d usually bury my testimonial writings deep in My Documents, never again to see the light of day.
Perhaps to mark the anniversary of that dreadful day, my fifteenth birthday, and to let people out there know that birthdays aren’t by default the best day of the year. For many, advancing a unit of age reminds us of the shortcomings we still haven’t overcome, though a year older and wiser we are than at the last landmark of personal dissatisfaction.
I have a character in an old Protagonize story, name of Shani, who was supposed to be shallow and irritating to my ‘depressed’ MC. After a while I realised I needed to give her a backstory to explain why she strives for the appearance of ‘sunshine’. So I gave her acne scars.
Here’s a short excerpt from her conversation with my MC at the revelation of this history. (Please bear in mind it was written before I started researching stuff like ‘how to write’.)
She stood at the sink, splashing cool water on her tear-smudged face. I watched in wonder, the face of a teenage girl shedding its make-up entrancing me.
“See here?” she whispered, beckoning. She was staring into the mirror.
“The instant anyone, whoever it is, mentioned the word ‘acne’, I wince. I can’t help myself. I can’t hear that word.”
I winced myself. I’d never heard her speak with such feeling. Her exterior was shallow, skin-deep. But some things pierced the core, and stayed there.
“Come closer,” she said.
I peered into the mirror as closely as I dared, and I saw that her face was not thick and pale and flawless. It was blotchy, holey.
“Scars,” she said. “You’ll never know how much I hated myself. How much I had to get through. How I had to beat myself up, reason with myself, just to go out and show my face to the world every day.”
“I do know,” I said.
She looked at me through the mirror, unsmiling, but her sunshine touched me once again. Not merely light; but warmth, too. This was Shani’s soul. And for a moment, I knew I couldn’t possibly disappoint her…