Author's Note: While this post may not, at first, seem to have anything to do with the flute, many of my friends and followers are aware that I struggle with acne. My "Tips on Picking Your First Flute" video briefly references my most recent battle with cystic acne. I ultimately decided that I would publicize my thoughts on the experience, in the hopes that at least one more person out there will know that they are not fighting this battle alone.
**Warning: Do not read if excessively pimply pictures make you squeamish.
Fearfully and wonderfully made. I wondered if I was that.
My last breakout occurred in late December 2007, and I was prescribed a special mix of pimple cream that could only be mixed at the pharmacy, as well as a tiny yellow pill I had to take every evening. It took about a year to fully recover, after which I slowly weaned myself off the prescription medication so I could just use over-the-counter acne products.
I thought it was over, then. I thought I was done with feeling disgusting in public. I thought I had reached that wonderful stage of youthful beauty that all my middle-aged friends can never talk enough about, and I was going to try to stay there as long as I could.
But then cystic acne showed up.
It’s kind of like zits on steroids.
Cystic acne revealed something very interesting to me: the mirror is a strange thing. It doesn’t care how you feel; it always shows exactly what you look like in the moment. The most horrible moment about looking at my pimply reflection is not when I’m looking at the mirror—it’s when I leave it. I know I’m going out into the wide world looking the way the mirror just showed me.
February 17, 2012.
Soon after, I went to see a dermatologist. She read my face like a crystal ball. My acne was caused by hormonal imbalance, i.e. stress, most likely due to my relocation to San Francisco. She confirmed that I indeed had cystic acne. Those bumps you see on my temples are actually cysts under the skin. I wasn’t able to move the skin around it without making them hurt. It was hard to pull any kind of facial expression.
It was physically difficult to smile.
I was prescribed a temporary antibiotic to calm the inflammation, a pill to control my hormones, and a topical gel to help the skin turn over faster.
February 29, 2012.
The acne, obviously, escalated quickly. It does something strange to your brain when you watch your face deform so dramatically in a matter of 12 days. You start to question a lot of things about yourself that you never thought had anything to do with the way your face looks.
Will I be able to make videos anymore? Can I teach students with a face full of zits staring them down? Will my potential employers think I don’t take care of myself? How can I confidently stand on a stage to perform now? What do my fellow orchestra members think of me? What do my new church friends think of me? How do I update my friends back in Vancouver about my life down here without telling them that my face is being eaten up by zits?
Physical beauty is a fleeting thing. It comes and goes as it pleases, and sometimes, as quickly as it takes to put on or wash off makeup. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are. Physical beauty is a cruel thing.
I tried to take pictures with makeup.
Makeup can’t cover everything, especially bumps. But you pack it on anyway. You reason with yourself: Hey, at least you resemble yourself more this way. You know you should take off all that sticky foundation and powder as soon as possible, but you never want to because you’ll see what you really look like underneath.
The truth hurts, and you already know it.
I started to look further inside myself.
Who am I, without this face?
Quite suddenly, I started thinking about a whole lot of other things that I also never knew had anything to do with my face.
I knew I loved teaching. The looks on my students’ faces when we succeed in mastering a new skill or concept—that look of wonder, that twinkle they get in their eyes, that smug grin on their faces when they realize they learned something their friends probably don’t know—it makes it all worth it. I realized that I forgot about the zits every time I taught a lesson.
Orchestra was the same. I soon discovered that I was the only one who cared how my face looked. Obvious, I suppose, but the mind is deceiving. I had been so worried that everyone thought I looked disgusting. But it was no use worrying now—the zits were out of my control. I decided not think about them as best I could. It was then that I finally heard my new orchestra friends telling me that they loved the way I played. I realized I had been judging my playing based on the way my faced looked. It didn’t make any sense, and it was strange to discover it.
A composition major invited me to perform one of her pieces at her graduation recital. For some reason, I found that really funny: a flutist who couldn’t go all-out diva onstage because her zitty face prevented it.
It was liberating, in a really weird way.
And so, I began to smile more, with or without makeup. Or tried to, whenever the cysts didn’t hurt as much.
March 3, 2012.
I knew I was on medication that probably wouldn’t show signs of improvement for a while, so I tried to be optimistic. I noticed how my dad would flinch every time he’d see my face without makeup. He would inspect my face every morning at breakfast, and I let him. I think it hurt him to see me like that. His only source of comfort was to reassure himself that his daughter’s face improved everyday.
The opposite, in fact, happened. Due to the nature of my acne, many of the pimples were actually buried deep under many layers of skin, so it would take a long time for the skin to turn over enough times for those pimples to be exposed and done away with.
March 9, 2012.
It was difficult to smile. I didn’t actually want to. For one, it hurt. But I forced myself to do it and took a picture. I stared at it for a long time afterwards.
I slowly started to see that I still did look like myself, as long as I smiled.
April 8, 2012.
The cysts had calmed down at this point, so while my face felt better, it looked worse because all the zits were uncovering themselves.
Now that the physical pain was over, I could deal with everything else.
So what did the way I look on the outside have anything to do with the inside?
My outside certainly made me think about my inside.
If, God forbid, something even more horrible happened to my face—acid, smashed in from an accident, burns from a fire—would I still be me?
From somewhere deep inside of me, I found that I was able to answer: Yes.
I’d still edit videos for fun. I’d still love to eat my mom’s mushy broccoli and beef. I’d still be marginally obsessed about the flute. I’d still be attracted to great deals on large earrings. I’d still watch makeup videos on YouTube. I’d still bother my brother and sister-in-law on Skype. I’d still dress up to go to concerts with Dad.
I’d still remember how I was cuddling with Dad and listening to his heartbeat when he was whisked away to the hospital due to a minor heart attack.
I’d still remember how he likes to peel an orange in one long strip, put it back together again sans the fleshy inner part, and we’d all laugh ourselves stupid about it at the dinner table.
I’d still remember how my brother had to take Mom to the hospital when she woke up one morning with a minor stroke and announced as if she were drunk, “Hey, guys, everything is going to the right, but I’m all right. I’m going to go down to make coffee now…”
I’d still remember when Mom complained that she “lost” a giant stuffed animal dog that she had dreamed during her nap, and Dad went and bought her the largest stuffed dog he could find and placed it in the front passenger seat of our car. I’d still remember how loudly she screamed with delight when she saw it.
I’d still remember when I had to rush my brother to the hospital because of food poisoning.
I’d still remember how my brother and I would go for early morning breakfasts at UBC for no good reason.
It wouldn’t matter how my face looked. I’d still remember all of that.
I’d still be me.
It wasn’t a smooth uphill from there. It was a lot of jagged rocks that somehow managed to slope upwards.
April 19, 2012.
This was the last phase of the “bumpy” stage. Following this, my skin finally did smooth out.
Makeup became fun again. It wasn’t a necessity anymore.
I couldn’t help playing dress up when I discovered this. It was weird to rediscover all these different sides of me again. I loved it.
May 15, 2012.
June 21, 2012.
July 22, 2012.
August 13, 2012.
Today, I decided to take a picture sans makeup. I hadn’t done it in a while.
August 14, 2012.
I’m not lying or exaggerating when I say that I probably have over a hundred tiny scars all over my face. You can see them for yourself.
But it’s all right. They’re kind of like battle scars, and in a strange way, I’m sort of proud of them. But they, too, will disappear over time.
As odd as it sounds, I don’t regret having cystic acne. I learned a lot more about me than I would have any other way. Acne stripped off my walls and forced me to look at who I really am—the me beyond what the human eye can see.
Acne has become a part of me. My soul knows it very well.