What’s got you so red in the face?

Adventures in social mortification.

You’re on a first date with someone very special.

Dinner is going well, and the conversation is flirtatious and flowing like the second glass of wine you just started. No awkward silences indicating a struggle for a topic of mutual interest, you’re both very interested in each other and the connection is obvious.

The antipasto is long gone, the remnants of the house lasagna are waiting to be noticed at the side of the table, and your conversation is wandering beyond the dessert menu to what her bedroom looks like… when she abruptly stands, throws her drink in your face, and storms out.

Shock. Incredulity. Embarrassment.

You realize the entire restaurant is looking at you. A woman shakes her head in disgust. A man snickers at your obvious change of plans for the evening.

Your feel the warmth in your neck as the blood flows to your face, spreading till your cheeks are a ruddy ruby red. There is no concealing your shame and humiliation.

This, unfortunately, happens to me every day.

Not so much the ill-fated first date (I’ve been happily married for 15 years to the most wonderful woman one could hope for), but the earth-shattering, mortifying, embarrassing flush of the cheeks that is the result.

I’ve struggled most of my life with Rosacea, a disorder that manifests differently among the ~5% of the population that experience it. Many have rare bouts where their cheeks flush temporarily under certain conditions. Others have bumps or irritations that appear on their noses and faces. Eye redness can occur. Some have nearly permanent redness that gets worse when triggered and never seems to quite get back to normal.

That’s me.

The cause of Rosacea is unknown. Some ascribe to the theory that an immune disorder is the root cause. Others a vascular problem. Still others blame mites & microbes. No one is sure, making a cure improbable in the near future.

Treatments vary… Antibiotics. Salves. Ointments. Creams. Makeup. Lasers.

Most commonly treatment suggestions include the avoidance of triggers that can cause flushing bouts. Triggers like caffeine, stress, sunlight, cold weather, hot weather, spicy food, public speaking, confrontation, alcohol, sex, pain, lack of sleep… You know, basically everything.

I remember high school well. Mostly because I spent it hiding my face. Whether due to the embarrassment of being called on in class or the exertion of lugging a ~40 pound bass drum around for marching band, I knew what was happening just below my eyes by the looks from the people around me.

I know adolescence isn’t a picnic for anyone, but for an introvert who preferred the well worn pages of a novel to the sharp corners of newly testosterone-d teenagers, it was hard not to view my face as some sort of cruel target for mocking.

Yet, somehow, I survived.

In my career, you’d expect that I’d do something that was low stress and didn’t involve speaking publicly or being in confrontations on a daily basis.

HAHAHA NOPE. Software Entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs live on caffeine and alcohol. We thrive on stress. Confrontation is our currency. Public speaking is our medium.

Being an introverted entrepreneur with a persistent case of Rosacea has not been an easy existence. I lost count of the times my red cheeks (or fear of them appearing) nearly tripped me up long ago, but I’ll remember many of the worst scenarios for the rest of my life.

SXSW in ~2010
It was hot. Sunny. Crowded. A bad combination. I had a “beer” meeting with a potential partner and was punching above my weight class and nervous. Things were going well and I felt comfortable enough to have a second beer.

Bad idea.

It wasn’t obvious how bad until I left the meeting and ran into the CEO of a startup that I deeply respected. He loudly exclaimed to my co-founder that he should “Get him indoors and take care of his sun burn.” I tried to laugh off the comment by saying I had just had one too many drinks and salvage the chance meeting by talking about our product, but I was entirely too mortified.

VC Pitch in SF ~2012
It was a beautiful day in San Francisco and it was cool enough that I thought I could walk to my afternoon meeting downtown.

Nope. By the time I got there I had a bead of sweat on my brow and face that could be mistaken for a stop sign.

It’s always telling when the receptionist asks “Do you need a water?” before even asking who you’re there to meet. I’m confident, but not enough so to recover from that first impression.

Techstars Demo Day 2014
The most nervous I’ve ever been was prepping to pitch in front of hundreds of people at Techstars Boulder Demo Day 2014. Since the day we got into Techstars, I had been dreading what was to come, and just knew my cheeks would be on fire in front of everyone.

Happily, over the course of the program I was able to practice our pitch extensively and in front of numerous large groups, making the final day of pitching less stressful and sans redness in most respects.

I’m not looking for pity. I’ve learned to cope. I chose my career path.

Growing a beard has helped cover up some of the offending zones. I found that certain alcohols don’t have the same level of negative effect. Iced coffee counteracts the caffeine with cold. Instagram filters. My friends all know that I flush when excited and don’t care. As I get older I get worked up about fewer things.

But, I’m not alone. There are many others who struggle with the same issue. They’re insecure, worried that you’ll notice, and embarrassed if you comment.

What can you do?

Next time that kid just out of school comes in for an interview and his blush seems to just never stop, remember this post. Be kind. Offer water. Put them at ease.

When your blind date flushes after that first sip of wine, don’t judge. Be patient. It will pass. If your night later includes other “activities” and it happens again, take it as a complement.

When you see me out walking my dog and having a damn great day, maybe don’t ask me, “What’s got you so red in the face?”

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