‘I’d PANIC when my father pulled up to the school. ‘Wendy is going to see the PIMPLE doctor!’: Woman overcomes acne and mental health struggles

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“The word ‘acne’ was never part of my vocabulary, nor do I recall hearing the word, until I was impacted by this chronic skin condition firsthand. All the more, the shame and disfigurement I felt as a result of my cystic acne hindered me from wanting to even vocalize the truth: ‘I have acne.’ As common as this skin condition is, it has the power to leave an individual to feel isolated and lonely, and finding the courage to be seen and heard when you suffer from acne can be a brutal uphill battle. But as with every struggle in life, we have a choice. After 20 years of living with cystic acne and scars, I made mine.

woman posing
Courtesy of Wendy Lewis

My first breakout was at the age of 13 when I was in the eighth grade. I remember being pulled out of Math class for my first dermatologist appointment. As I stood up from my desk, a friend of mine announced to the entire class, ‘Wendy is going to see the pimple doctor! She’s having a doctor look at all those pimples on her face!’ I was mortified. Kids can be so cruel, even those we considered friends.

The appointment, I remember, felt uneventful, quick, and lacking. I was prescribed a topical cream to use on my face and told to come back in a few months for a follow-up. The cream stained my clothes, towels, and bedding, but did very little to improve my skin. After a few months, my breakouts were worse than before. My cysts were incredibly painful; just the slightest touch on a cyst would bring me to tears. I was given a new prescription for a face wash and a different topical cream. But after months of usage, there was still no improvement. I felt frustrated and helpless.

I also felt like an outcast, unrelatable to the people in my family and social circle. I grew up with three siblings, none of whom had acne. My parents didn’t have acne when they were younger. My cousins didn’t have acne. Aside from a pimple here and there, my friends didn’t have acne. I couldn’t understand why I was cursed with such problematic skin.

woman showing acne scarring
Courtesy of Wendy Lewis

At some point during my freshman year of high school, I subscribed to a series of young women’s magazines (and unbeknownst to my parents, a subscription to Cosmopolitan.) I was inundated with pictures of famous actresses, models, and advertisements of women with perfect skin. And next to many of those advertisements were more advertisements from brands like Neutrogena, Noxzema, and Clean & Clear for skincare products like face washes, topical creams, lotions, and scrubbing pads for acne. They all promised one thing: clear skin. And because of their clever marketing ploys and highly photoshopped models, the desperate part of myself completely bought into this. Throughout all of high school, I was a secret skincare junkie, trying every over-the-counter skincare product I could get my hands on in hopes that my acne would finally disappear. My bathroom sink was lined with face washes and scrubbing pads, creams, and toners. I had a ritual every morning and every night that I never skipped. In addition to using pharmacy-bought skincare products, I had also started to use Proactiv and temporarily switched from using heavily scented body washes, shampoos, and conditioners to using mildly-scented or scent-free shower products. No matter how much time or money I spent fighting to become acne-free, my skin stayed angry.

My youth was exhausted by many struggles. I was devastated at age 12 when my parents divorced, and for years I took it upon myself to step up as a parental figure for my younger siblings on many occasions. I suffered from chronic, debilitating migraines that forced me to miss a lot of school and twice put me in the hospital. I had no control over my acne and I watched as it took over my face and confidence. I dealt with a lot of emotional and physical pain in my teens without realizing that I was mismanaging my mental health in the process. I would often save face by portraying myself as the responsible, level-headed one, but I was only fooling everyone around me. Without much guidance or support from others, I continued to suffer. By the time I was 15, I was suffering from an eating disorder, depression, social anxiety, cutting, suicidal ideation, dermatillomania (skin picking), and permanent hearing loss and tinnitus in my left ear (now thought to have been brought on by my migraines.)

School had grown increasingly difficult for me and I dreaded being there. I can recall many days where I struggled to get out of bed and would not show up to school until the second or third period. There were many days where I would panic as soon as my father would pull up to the front of the building and I would struggle to catch my breath, sobbing, and begging him to take me home. My anxiety would take over and the thought of facing my peers was too much for me to handle.

feeling alone
Courtesy of Marcela Sabiá

When I become emotional, I lose my appetite. I can recall many meals thrown away without being touched, or portion sizes decreased from full to child-like. Measuring at almost 5’6” in height, my weight dropped below 100 pounds, hip bones protruded out. People would often comment on my “bony” appearance. But the truth was, I liked the comments. It was the closest I was going to get to all those models I’d seen in those magazines. Up until my face broke out, my dream was to become a model and actress. For years, I kept journals of newspaper and magazine clippings of models; on my father’s typewriter I would type up scripts for myself and my siblings to act out; I would spend hours out of my day acting out commercials or characters I’d create and perform them in front of the mirror; I would dance and imagine I was in music videos to songs on the radio; I’d record cassette tapes of myself singing. I even changed the way I walked to mimic models I’d seen on the runway. When my skin broke out, I felt robbed of this dream, and instead of emerging into and shining a light on my heart’s desire, I pulled it in, packed it up, and threw it into a black hole. I told myself – convinced myself – that I was ugly. Nobody would hire me to be their star; nobody would want to photograph my face, let alone touch my face. Nobody in these magazines or on TV or in movies represented me and my skin. My dream was over before it even began.

My mental health continued to suffer during my high school years. I became self-loathing and had fallen into a very dark place at this point in my life. I was ruled by the worst physical pain from my migraines and a deep emotional pain brought on by my acne. I would spend hours in front of my mirror picking at my skin, attempting to pop cysts that could not be popped. Sometimes, entirely out of frustration, I would squeeze my skin so hard my hands would shake and my eyes would water. As a result, my jawline, cheeks, and chin are covered in white, pinch-like scars.

The tricky thing about mental health is that we often don’t realize we’re slipping until we’ve completely fallen. The cuts on my arms, night after night of crying, the loss of joy in things I was once so passionate about – like writing, art, and music – were all clear indicators that I was not okay. At 15, I asked my father if I could see a therapist, and he immediately set me up with one. I went on anti-depressants after I was diagnosed with depression and GAD (generalized anxiety disorder); however, I hated the way I felt on anti-depressants and stopped taking them after a few short months. School continued to be a challenge for me and I was failing my classes, struggling to concentrate, and didn’t find any joy in being there. I asked my guidance counselor if I could leave school and finish the year taking independent studies from home. It was arranged and I felt relieved that I didn’t have to see people for a while. It was the break I needed. When I returned the following year, I was in a better headspace which helped me until graduation.

woman modeling
Courtesy of Wendy Lewis

Within a month of graduating high school, I moved out of state, looking for a change of scenery. I began experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and quickly threw myself into the dating scene, desperate to feel love and acceptance, and placed a whole new level of importance on my appearance. I wore makeup as I had never done before, from using a green concealer to cover the redness on my face, to applying foundation on the entirety of my skin, then applying concealer on top of those two layers, and finishing with setting powder. I hated the way my skin felt with so much makeup on, but the alternative for me was unthinkable. I hated the way my skin looked both bare and covered up. Yet I struggled to leave the house without makeup. No matter what I did, I simply hated my skin, I hated my reflection, I hated my face.

The insecurity I felt from having acne was so poignant to the extent that I would never wash my face when I would stay the night at my boyfriend’s place. Some mornings I would wake up early enough to reapply my makeup on top of the makeup I slept in, and then get back into bed so that I could look ‘pretty’ for my boyfriend when he woke up.

For years I believed that acne disfigured my face. It left me full of physical and emotional scars and robbed me of my happiness and confidence. Not once did any dermatologist ever ask me how my mental health was doing. Not once did any of my friends or family members ask me how acne might be impacting my life. It was a lonely journey for me that, quite often, I struggled to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The impact that acne has on mental health is complex and full of layers. There is far more going on beneath the surface than meets the eye. It has the power to influence our thought patterns, manipulate our truths, and navigate the directions we take in life. Many people believe that acne is a trivial and superficial skin condition that develops when teens hit puberty and then goes away sometime after. This couldn’t be further from the truth. What many people don’t understand about having acne is that we experience things like shame for living in skin that society is constantly telling us to fix and is represented as ‘bad’ and often seen on villains or criminals in film. We experience guilt for not knowing our triggers and being able to find something that works to heal our acne. We experience low self-esteem from feelings of unworthiness and rejection and seeing a lack of representation of our skin in the media. We experience depression from feeling helpless. We experience anxiety from worrying that people will stare at our skin, judge us, and ridicule us. Acne is far from just a surface issue, and the emotional and mental consequences, as a result, become deeply rooted in our psyche. It took me a long, long time to come to terms with the damage that acne had on my mental health. And I had grown sick and tired of feeling like I didn’t have control over my life. I knew I had to make changes.

Sometime in my mid-20s, after having given up on dermatologists and skincare products to treat my acne, I finally rejected the narrative that our worth is determined entirely by the way we look. I had been adhering to this idea for so long that it was making me physically and emotionally sick. Instead, I began practicing what I now understand to be skin neutrality. I began to appreciate more what my body could do for me and focused less on what it looked like. I started taking better care of my body, exercising four to five times a week. I became more mindful of what I was feeding my body, my eyes, and my mind. This shift in mindset and attitude had a profound impact on my overall physical and mental health. I was happier and more confident than ever before. Even while still suffering from mild breakouts of cystic acne, I stepped out of my comfort zone and did some unpaid modeling, and played a small role in a short film. It was both intimidating and liberating to regain some control in my life. It was around this time that I had the realization that I wanted to use my experience and knowledge with acne to help others who were suffering from this chronic skin condition.

woman smiling
Courtesy of Wendy Lewis

In December of 2019, I started The Acne Effect. I quickly discovered there was no other account online that was devoted entirely to discussing the impact that acne has on mental health. I knew this was my calling. I have made it my mission to raise awareness and educate the public about the dark, emotional side of having acne, and how prioritizing and treating your mental health should be mandatory with this skin condition. I discuss the dire need for psychology in dermatology and the importance of speaking up about your struggles so that you can receive the help you need. If we aren’t careful, our emotional scars can last much longer than the acne itself, and that can be even more challenging to heal from. This is why it is crucial to prioritize your mental health.

Something I am very proud of is my on-going partnership with a very talented illustrator named Marcela Sabiá, who I commission to create acne and mental health awareness illustrations to help get many of my ideas and messages across to my audience.

someone hiding themselves
Courtesy of Marcela Sabiá

In addition to raising awareness about acne and its impact on mental health, I am also outspoken about the toxic conditioning beauty standards have had on our psyche and inform young women on how to move away from its grasps by, for example, leading life with your core values, practicing self-compassion, and how adopting skin and body neutrality might be the kind of empowerment you need in your life.

I have found a deep sense of purpose in my life by devoting my time to helping others. My experience with acne and acne scars spans over two decades; I understand firsthand how complex and distressing this chronic skin condition is. To have a greater impact on helping individuals with their acne related mental health struggles, I will soon be going back to school to continue my education in Psychology. In the meantime, I have goals of starting local acne meet-up groups when it is safe to do so, to speak publicly at middle and high schools about prioritizing mental health during acne breakouts, and a long-term goal of creating an acne wellness camp for teens and young adults who are struggling with their mental health as a result of their acne.

Acne awareness, education, and an online community did not exist when I was suffering the most. As difficult as it is to live with acne, we are privileged with today’s technology, readily available resources, and online communities that provide aid in our healing journeys. To personally be able to contribute to the acne community and help individuals heal from their acne has become one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to date. No longer do I feel victim to my skin’s condition but rather hopeful that my more than 20 years of living with acne and scars can be used to empower and liberate the lives of others.”

woman modeling
Courtesy of Marco Franchina

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Wendy Lewis  from DFW, Texas. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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