Like so many others, when I first developed acne as a teenager I sought the advice of a doctor. And I think it would be fair to say that we all received a very similar treatment for our skin condition – topical solutions, followed by antibiotics, oral contraception and when all else fails Isotretinoin.
Can you remember the amount of appointments you’ve had concerning your acne? I’ve lost count! But what I do remember is that the state of my mental health was never addressed. Professionals expected me to be depressed and anxious. It was normal to feel that way living with acne. Understandable even. They pitied me but it was nothing to worry about because I would feel better when my acne cleared.
For thirteen years I told myself that I would be happy when I had clear skin. Thirteen years…
I first started getting pimples when I was in high school and although it was humiliating AF when I was teased, I knew I wasn’t alone. It was just part of growing up. But that feeling changed when I started beauty college and was the only one that still had adolescent skin. First semester – facials and makeup. Great. Guess who was the guinea pig for acne prone/problem skin type?! I arrived to college each day immaculately concealed but by lunch time I’d already had a least three practice facials! My face was so sore and inflamed I was afraid to even walk across campus to buy a sandwich at the cafeteria.
Things didn’t get any easier when I started my first job as a beauty therapist. I thought the humiliating days of having to expose my acne in class were over but the training continued – thankfully this time it was with experienced professionals and not a bunch of teenagers who had no real interest in pursuing a career in beauty therapy. But whenever my mask of makeup was removed during a demonstration I waited nervously for the audible gasps that inevitably followed.
Despite having access to free treatments and an unlimited supply of skincare as a beauty therapist, the overwhelming pressure to look like a vision of health and beauty prevented me from making any real progress. People looked to me for skincare advice but my inability to sort my own skin out made me feel like a fraud. I couldn’t help feeling that I didn’t belong in that perfectly polished world.
At home things weren’t any easier. At nineteen I was living with my boyfriend Ciaran, trying desperately to keep my skin concealed from him 24/7. It was exhausting. And it was around this time that I experienced hysterical paranoia – at school, I always assumed that people were laughing at me as I walked by, or that I was the subject of their whispers but this was something else. I was having panic attacks. And it didn’t take long for my irrational behaviour to start affecting our relationship. I couldn’t explain to Ciaran why I couldn’t just come out of the bathroom when he asked, why he HAD to keep the light off or why I didn’t want to go out with his friends. He wouldn’t of understood. Or would he? I regret not giving him the chance…
I felt ashamed about the way acne dictated my life. It was a burden and it took all of my energy to put on makeup and pretend that I was OK just to get through each working day. I literally don’t think I would have been able to function had it not been for good makeup! It allowed me to feel normal, pretty and temporarily happy. So whenever someone suggested to me that it was makeup that was making my acne worse, it hurt. Makeup was my lifeline.
I was reassured that by the time I reached my twenties I would have grown out of acne. So with each birthday I clung to the hope that by the time the next one came around I would have clear skin. When that didn’t happen and I had tried all acne medication, I really believed that nothing could help me. Looking back it was probably the lowest I’d ever felt about myself and rather than loving and accepting myself, I just gave up trying.
As an early teen, I had been bullied about the way I looked. Although it hurt, I also knew it was untrue, so their words didn’t stay with me for long. But in my twenties I wasn’t so lucky. I was being bullied so badly that it was affecting everything I did. But strangely I didn’t realise I was being bullied at the time because I was the bully. I was constantly telling myself I wasn’t good enough, that I was ugly and unloveable. And this time, I believed it. Even now I have no idea why I was so cruel to myself. But I think that says a lot about my state of mind at the time. Since then I’ve learnt that what you say to yourself matters and nothing good can come from hate.
It wasn’t until my mid-late twenties that I actively tried being kinder to myself. At this point I had met my husband Chris and felt loved unconditionally. The only thing that had been getting in the way was the sporadic attack of acne anxiety. Before I met Chris I had had three years alone working on myself, accepting and loving myself completely. Well almost… I had stopped trying to “fix” my skin and accepted that it was part of me. For the first two years of our relationship I concealed my skin from Chris adopting the same tricks I had used to hide away from Ciaran. He had no idea… To Chris I was the most beautiful woman in the world. Cute – but a lot of pressure to live up to! After two years the same acne insecurity shaped cracks started to show in our relationship. It was make or break. Be honest with Chris and show him all of me, or let acne ruin another relationship.
I chose Chris.
Throughout this blog you may have noticed I describe acne as “dictating my life”. But something I have realised quite recently is that it was never a skin condition that held me back. It was a mental health condition. Acne didn’t stop me from socialising, anxiety did. Acne didn’t stop me from answering a knock at the door, anxiety did. Acne didn’t make me cry into my pillow every night, depression did. Happiness was not absent in my life because of acne, I had mental health condition.
Today I can see how much my mental health prevented me from making physical progress with my skin. Now I question why psychological support isn’t offered automatically alongside traditional acne treatment. But then I do wonder if I would have accepted it if I was offered help. Would I have realised at the time that I needed it? I’m not sure…
I really believe that my skin started improving when my mindset changed. Two years ago for the first time in thirteen years, I took control of my acne struggle. I shared my insecurities with Chris and the world on social media. I needed everyone to know that I wasn’t perfect and THIS was the real me! That was the beginning of Beautiful by Breakfast which in turn put me in the right frame of mind to clear my skin once and for all. Suddenly I saw clearly. I needed to understand why I was breaking out and tackle acne logically – at the root.
I’m often asked about how I became confident in my skin – and the truth is, good mental health is at the core of my success. A change in perspective meant that I no longer measured myself up to unrealistic beauty standards. I accepted myself completely. But this didn’t happen overnight – it took work. But I don’t think I’ve ever done something so worthwhile that will continue to serve me for the rest of my life.
If you are struggling with psychological acne scars here are a few things you can do to start healing today.
- Talk kindly to yourself always! Speak to yourself as you would a friend.
- Change your language. Replace sentences like “my skin isn’t so bad today” with “my skin is glowing today” OR “I’ve tried everything and nothing works” to “I’m dedicated to my skin but haven’t found what works for me yet”.
- Speak to someone. Whether it be a friend, a professional or a stranger on an online support group.
- Create time each day dedicated completely to you, no matter how short it is!
- Manage your screen-time and unfollow accounts that don’t make you feel inspired, happy, thankful or connected.