“Ma’am, you really shouldn’t have your kid sitting on the coun-”
“Mommy, what’s wrong with her face?” the small child interrupts me.
“-Ter. It’s not safe.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say out loud,” the mother scolds.
“Really, ma’am. I must insist,” I repeat.
She shifts her focus to me and narrows her eyes before lifting her six-year old off the concession counter. As she finishes paying for her popcorn, candy and Coke, she sneers at me, “You know. They make this stuff. It’s called Clearasil. Maybe you should use that.”
She walks away, feeling proud of herself, never realizing how much her words sting me and wreck my perfectly fine day. It won’t be the last time it happens. I’m eighteen.
It’s my third trip to the nurse’s office this year.
“Your teacher said someone reported you had ring worms?” the nurse says.
“On my neck,” I say into my hands.
The inflamed, scaly skin that lines my neck itches and looks angry.
The nurse inspects it with cold gloves. I jerk at her touch.
“I’m sorry, Melony. I don’t have anything to help with it. I’ll tell your teacher that there’s nothing to worry about here.”
I cry in the halls of the junior high before returning to my desk. I’m thirteen.
Dr Jolly looks at my skin and scalp.
“You have seborrhea,” he explains after I’ve told him that we know I have seborrhea because Momma has it. “It causes that red skin, the flakes on your scalp, and may be the cause of your cystic acne. Unfortunately, there’s no cure. Just management.”
Five minutes later, I leave with prescriptions and $60 less. I’m nineteen.
“I’m sorry, Mel Belle,” Momma says. “I was your age, too, when I had my first flare-up. You just have to ignore the urge to scratch it.”
I’m sobbing now. My itchy skin is pestering me. Swollen welts line my forehead. My scalp is both sticky and solid in places. Blood lines the tips of my fingernails from where I’ve scratched and peeled away the surface of the flakes.
“Make it go away,” I say between stammers and sniffs.
“It won’t. You just have to live with it.”
At thirty-five, my skin journey has certainly not ended. I still worry about first impressions. They mean everything, and I fear every new person I meet only sees the scars of a lifetime of skin problems.
There’s a perception that someone with acne is unclean, but there are points in my life that I wash my face twice a day, to ill-effect. My scalp doesn’t have simply dandruff, and no amount of shampooing can diminish the amount of flakes that fall from me when I shake my head. I can’t wash my hair every day for fear of drying out my scalp too much, but other times I can’t find a happy medium to stop the giant patches of flakes that accumulate.
Then there’s the patches of flaky skin that still come and go on my forehead, neck, and ears. It all still itches something fierce.
I spent countless years trying to rid myself of just the adult acne, though. Accutane was toxic as hell and had some horrible side effects, but in the end, it stopped the acne.
I live with it. As I was instructed from that young age. I hate that I feel like my life is defined by the way I look, and that barring surgery, I will never know what it’s like to have an unblemished face. Whomever said beauty is only skin deep was a jerk.