20-Year-Old Battle With Acne: The Scars on My Psyche are Deeper Than the Ones on My Face

First Person

20-Year-Old Battle With Acne: The Scars on My Psyche are Deeper Than the Ones on My Face

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Ihave spent more time at the dermatologist’s clinic than most millennials spend in a coffee shop. And I change my doctors more often than our media changes its mind on Rahul Gandhi.

It was yet another Saturday spent in the waiting room of a new dermatologist. When I was called in, she exuded a lot of confidence. Sure that she could get rid of my acne in a short time, she offered me a deal that was too good to pass on. But as much as I wanted to believe her promises of smooth and clear skin, I knew better. I’d been hearing the same pick-up lines for two decades now. If life had taught me anything, it was that a new, painful pimple was always just a few days away.

I have been living with acne since I was in Class 8. My teenage memories are filled with breakouts, not break-ups.

Every pimple appears on my face the same way. It begins with a mild awareness that a part of my face feels different. And a few days later, it arrives – red, brimming with pus, hard, the size of a peanut. That, for me, is a good day. On a bad one, two or three will announce their presence. And I have to stop myself from crying from the pain and the repeated confirmation that even now, at the age of 36, 22 years after the first one erupted, I suffer from cystic acne, the most severe form of acne vulgaris. It is marked by large, inflamed lesions that form deep within the skin and can result in painful bumps on the surface of the skin.

None of my friends or acquaintances suffers from cystic acne. So when some of them meet me on a bad day, they’re truly surprised. I’m surprised too – at their casual insensitivity.

On the street, I walk with my head bowed, covering up the sides of my face with my hair.

A woman I know well asked me to not kiss her toddler – who I love as if he were mine – because she didn’t want my infected face to touch his. A fellow passenger in the train once grabbed my hand without offering a pleasantry to show me the points I should press all day on my palm to make my face better. A former colleague once brought me a packet of Multani mitti without us ever discussing my acne. An aunt I met on a good day between pimples said that since my face had cleared up, now was the time to start looking for a husband. Over the years, my friends have asked me why no treatment seems to be working. While they might have been asking just that, my warped mind would translate that to: “What are you doing wrong that no treatment is working?” I know all of them meant well, but grateful is not what I feel in these moments.

My acne-scarred face is the most enduring memory people have of me. When relatives come over, my brother gets the usual Indian greeting of, “My, how you’ve grown!” I get “Why don’t you go to my friend’s dermatologist?”   

On the street, I walk with my head bowed, covering up the sides of my face with my hair. I’ll bring up my pimple in a conversation before someone else does, so I’m not blindsided when I’m asked about it and have the acne talk in control. My interaction with the opposite sex has, since I can remember, been skewed by my own perception that any half-decent boy wouldn’t want to come within an arm’s length of me.

After controlling what I eat based on the suggestions of anyone who shared their opinion (I once gave up my beloved daily mug of milk), applying every possible topical cream, getting my pimples diluted with a needle injecting the painful lump so many times, and a bunch of hormone-balancing pills, I finally found a miracle drug named Roaccutane.

It is a powerful medicine that my dermatologist has called the final frontier. Because if Roaccutane doesn’t work, nothing will. It reduces the amount of sebum made by glands in the skin, brings down inflammation, opens clogged pores, and is the most aggressive treatment in the market. The list of side effects includes drying out your skin, mouth, eyes, lips, and nose. It can cause nosebleeds, joint and back pain, dizziness and drowsiness. It has also been linked to anxiety and panic attacks, depression and suicide.

But I am desperate, and I’ve been on the drug for four months now. Except for the dryness, I have suffered none of the other side effects. Recently, however, I’ve learnt that Roaccutane can affect the health of my liver as well. A blood test would tell me if it has, but I was reluctant to get one. Thanks to the daily pill, my skin is the best it’s been in a long, long time.

I now go to sleep with the certainty that a new pimple won’t come knocking the next morning. That I am just like the other women I know who don’t have to worry about acne. And I don’t want that wonderful feeling to go away.

But now other thoughts began to haunt me. What if the drug has made my liver unhealthy and I have to go off it? Then I’d have to give it up and be back to looking ugly again. I don’t want that. While I’ve always known that acne will leave its mental scars, this was a new low for me. Was I really willing to risk my health for a face that wouldn’t make me feel ashamed? Where was all my wokeness when it came to my face?

My liver is functioning just fine… for now. But I’m at an age where I should’ve figured out what’s truly important in life. I am old enough to know I am worth more than my face. That once you look past my battle scars, I’m a hoot to be with. Someday, I’ll look at a woman with smooth skin and not wince. Someday, I’ll look at her and not wish I had her skin. Today is not that day.