Do you remember that kids’ board game where you had to whack little neon-coloured, protruding creatures on the head with a plastic mallet? You’d hit them and they’d disappear and then one would pop up somewhere else and you’d whack that and others would pop up and you’d bash them – Blam! Blam! Blam! – faster and faster, until they’d submit or you’d give up and go find something better to do? (When I conceived of this post, I thought that game was called Hungry Hippos, but I have just remembered that Hungry Hippos is the one where you manoeuvre a hippopotamus head to gobble up marbles. The name of the one I’m on about escapes me. Perhaps I’ve made it up.) Well, imagine that game turned biological and you have just pictured the 19-year battle I’ve been waging against my skin.
It started somewhere in my preteens, with blackheads dotted across my nose and chin, which my Dad would gleefully squeeze, despite my protests. (He’d display the tiny, spongy tubes on the end of his fingernail; calling other family members over to inspect my emissions, as though they were fascinating, deadly insects he’d found on a rainforest expedition.) And then, the summer before I turned fourteen, a violent outbreak of spiky yellow pimples, right across my forehead. Then came the fuchsia zits on my chin and cheeks; the giant, bruise-coloured cysts on my jaw and hairline. Sometimes, if I poked and picked at them they’d become infected and erupt, oozing green pus until, finally, they’d fade to a deep, red scar that’d hang about for months, or years, or, sometimes, forever. At some point in my late teens – just as I had begun to tame my horrific, pizza-like visage with topical medication and makeup, so that boys wanted to have sex with me, finally – the spots spread to my shoulders and down my back. And then, in my mid-twenties, when I had accepted that my face and back would never be entirely spot-free, but with daily intervention were just about manageable – I began to erupt, for no discernable reason, with cystic boils, right between my cleavage.
There have been good and bad days.
When I returned from a particularly glorious holiday in August 2014, my face completely clear, and I managed to snap the only selfie that has ever made me want to fuck myself. That was a good day. The time when I had a purple pustule, the size of a two pence coin, smeared right across my cheek, and an old drunk came and sat by me on the bus, staring intently at my face before whispering, ‘I’m looking at your spot’. Bad day. Any time a friend or family member tells me, ‘skin’s looking good!’ Bad day (if you want to complement an acne sufferer, DO NOT mention our skin. Compliments only serve to remind us that our skin usually looks so fucking terrible, it’s the first thing you notice).
Boyfriends and lovers have mostly been silent on the subject of my acne, preferring to compliment my peachy arse and pert, perfect titties, lest I shun sex with them. (Apart from the most recent, who occasionally asks, ‘how’s that spot on your shoulder getting on? Talking yet?’ I don’t think he likes me very much. But I’m not really ready to tell you about him. Too raw.) Still, it matters, nonetheless. I blame my acne for the terrible state of my love life because my bad skin is all tied up with my low self-esteem and my general sense that life’s great purpose – to meet and procreate with a kind, reliable, hot-backed male – will elude me, forever.
I never got over the trauma of being a teenager (which was when all this shit started. I was a self-assured, smooth-skinned, if precocious, child), despite my now having not been one for longer than I was one. But how are you supposed to get over your teens when you are – for all intents and purposes – still, actually, a teenager? With the bad skin, and the unsuitable boyfriend who doesn’t really care about you but it’s too painful to admit yet, and the borrowing £80 off your mum because you spent all your wages on a dress you didn’t need because you want to look beautiful even though you don’t really go anywhere, and the Nike Air Force, and the relentless self-obsession, and the social smoking, and the petty falling outs with your oldest friends, and the mouldy sandwich under your bed, and the inability to cope with any emotional upheaval whatsoever, and the sobbing with self-pity in the street even though you are safe and warm and well fed and intellectually fulfilled and there are people dying in wars and watching their babies starve to death right this very second, and the sporadic, disappointing sex, and the bitmoji conversations with your bffs, and the Taylor Swift fixation, and the feeling that real life is really, really far away, and the kind of believing things will get better, even though you’re in your 30s now and you watch the news and it’s pretty clear we’re headed for a nuclear apocalypse and, oh, did I mention my terrible skin?
Someone call a therapist, or a dermatologist, quick. Only proper medicine can help me now. That much is crystal clear (unlike my face).
* I think the header image I’ve used, ‘Acne is Enemy of Woman’, by SweetCrisis at freedigitalphotos.net, is the best thing that’s happened to me this week – scrap that, it’s the best thing that’s happened in my entire life, including the time my sister’s mate told me I look like a Sleepless in Seattle-era Meg Ryan.