My 10 Year Journey Living with Acne and Why Anyone Still Living With Acne Should Care

I have had acne since around 5th or 6th grade. I was early to the puberty game and “lucky” enough to have genetically oily skin. I don’t have many images of myself in my younger years. It should come as no surprise that any and all images of my skin looking terrible have been removed from the internet wherever possible. Except this one, from the King Richard’s Fair of 10 years ago, that my mother has unfortunately kept locked away.

It’s terrible, I know, but I’m trying to pave the way for others with acne to step up and I’m willing to share my embarrassing past in order to do so.

Growing up with acne was one of the most emotionally scaring experiences of my life. Kids weren’t very nice to me when I had bad skin and excess weight. I was the target of a lot of bullying and teasing. I had low periods where my skin was so bad that I wouldn’t leave the house. In 5th grade a boy called me pizza-face. In 7th grade I tried using too dark concealer and a group of boys, laughing, pointed out that my face was a drastically different color than my neck and chest. In high school a group of “friends” drew a picture of me on a particularly bad day…

The result of 10 years of acne gave me crippling insecurity, which I hid behind my verbal confidence. But I couldn’t make eye contact with people for very long or be too close to someone’s face without feeling as though they were staring at my blemishes. I adopted photo editors very early on as I tried to fix my face before posting them online. I would ruin my skin and cause countless breakouts from using concealer and harsh chemicals. I would constantly delete images where my skin looked bad and even requested that friends let me have a go at photos before posting them online. It was a terrible way to live, especially as a teenager.

I had tried countless topical creams, face washes, oral medications, and even tried to stop using anything at all. Nothing worked. Then one day my boyfriend pointed out that there was a medication called Accutane that I should try. At 22 I had all but given up but I figured, I’ll give the strongest acne medication on the market a try. Below is a photo of me, a few months before starting the Accutane to help paint the picture.

Accutane, known also as Isotretinion, is a very strong drug that exists to rid oneself of existing acne.

The drug is heralded as a game-changer for many and an omen by others. The side effects can be bad but the outcomes can change a life. That’s what it did for me and this is a 6-month break down of that experience.

Month 1: This is only the beginning.

Starting Accutane entailed that I stop using all other forms of acne treatment and take a pill, with food, in the morning and at night. Simple. But the problem was, since I didn’t put anything on my face to treat it, my skin began to ran rampant and ended up looking worse than it had before. The only photo I have of this horrendous time period is near the end of month 1 where my skin had simply started to blister all around my lips and nose. Below is the overall bumps and blemishes and then a little bit of the blistering.

I know it doesn’t look “that bad” but imagine this x100. I wouldn’t let people take my photo and didn’t go out most weekends during that month because of it. My acne wasn’t even close to the worst out there, I know. But although it may not seem so bad, during this time I couldn’t touch my skin or wash it with anything except water, my joints were constantly in pain and my back was killing me. I remember calling my dermatologist after this photo was taken while on a ferry to Sausalito, CA asking if I was going to be okay. She reassured me, as she would for the remaining 5 months.

A few disclaimers for women planning on taking Accutane:

  • You have to wait 1 month to start the medication to prove you’re not pregnant and can stay baby-free for a month.
  • You must visit your dermatologist once per month, in-person for the duration of the medication
  • Once you start, you have to take a monthly pregnancy test (sometimes blood test and sometimes urine) at an official facility
  • You have to take a monthly online multiple choice test that asks very basic questions before picking up your next month of medication (which must be picked up within a window of time)

There are a lot of rules that I had to follow. It was annoying but believe me, it was worth it.

Advice for month 1: Buy a tub of Vaseline and never go anywhere without it. Have some over-the-counter pain killers on you to deal with the muscle and joint pain. Don’t get discouraged and stay out of the sun!

Month 2–4: The battle to the top of the mountain.

There’s a reason that online forums solely committed to Accutane exist. Staying on this drug was very difficult. My muscles and joints eventually got used to the struggle but my skin got drier and drier to the point where my lips were cracking every time I smiled, my head became a desolate wasteland of dry, dead hair, and the tops of my hands and outer arms became increasingly drier. Even the outer parts of my ears started to get so dry that they itched…it was terrible. I developed small spots of excessively dry skin, which were expected but incredibly uncomfortable to deal with. I was basically a dry sponge and it sucked, literally. I wanted to give it up altogether for those entire 3 months and the only thing that kept me going was that my skin, for the first time, started to clear up.

My skin started to pull in a new way over my face and my pores stared to look different. I stopped picking because there wasn’t much happening besides the dryness and red spots where acne used to be. And my lips were always, always, always shiny (thanks, Vaseline).

But damn, by the end of month 4 I looked better than I ever had before. Except my lips…my damn dry lips.

During this time, people started to point out how much better my skin looked. It was such an amazing feeling that I almost cried a few times. I forgot what it was like to pick at my face. I was however, constantly itching, reapplying vaseline, and avoiding washing my hair too often for fear that it would simply dry up and fall out. But it was all worth it because I was about to reach the top of the mountain and begin my decent.

Advice for months 2–4: Buy non-sulfate shampoo and conditioner. Only wash your hair once or twice max per week. Keep up the Vaseline but ditch the pain meds. Buy a daily moisturizer with SPF in it, apply that stuff every morning, and generally stay out of the sun. Remember, you’re almost done!

Month 5 & 6: It’s all downhill from here.

Ah, the final stretch. At this point, my skin looked absolutely amazing and I started staring at myself in the mirror in utter amazement, wondering if I was dreaming. Here are a few phrases to describe life at that point:

  • My selfie album was almost as large as Kim Kardashian’s
  • Every photo angle was a good angle, even candid
  • My morning regimen was cut in half (no more picking or concealer)
  • I felt like screaming from a mountain about how far I’d come for this

Everything was great. Except of course my lips, scalp, and body were still incredibly dry and all forms of lotion had become my seemingly permanent best friends. But at least I could smile knowing that I finally looked the way I wanted to for ages.

On a more serious note, one side effect that is commonly referenced by those taking Accutane is the presence of a mild to severe depression. I know that sounds terrible, but hear me out. I experienced some of this during the last 2 months and although it was very frustrating and uncomfortable to feel sad for no reason or get overly sad when I shouldn’t have been, I was very aware of what was happening and picked up stress relieving activities to combat it. I was very honest with friends and family so that they could watch out for signs that I was struggling. Thankfully I didn’t hit a low point and made it through just fine. I just had to stay aware of myself both physically and mentally.

By the end of it I wanted to stop taking the medication altogether because hey, I was flawless now. At the same time the thought that was looming in the back of my mind was saying, “Is this going to last when I stop taking it?” It was and still is a concerning thought and there’s no guarantee that it will last but the chances are slim that my acne will ever come back. If it does, I simply do it all over again. That sounds awful but again, chances are slim.

Advice for months 5 and 6: Be conscious of your mood and talk to people to make sure you’re okay. Find things to fill your time and try not to spend too much time sulking on any one thing, especially stress-inducing things. Enjoy your skin, don’t forget to take your medication, keep applying the vaseline and moisturizer, and do not expose yourself to too much sun!

Post Accutane: A Whole New Me

I’ve only just finished the Accutane but I’m already experiencing the amazingly positive side effects of my clear skin. I’m a new person with even more confidence and a new appreciation for my skin and how I treat it. I don’t hate looking at myself in the mirror anymore. I no longer edit my photos obsessively and I actually enjoy taking photos with people. I’m so thankful that I finally found the solution to my skin problems and I want to share this with everyone because no one should have to live with the pain of acne.

Accutane is, as I’ve said a few times already, a very serious drug and it shouldn’t be taken by just anyone. I encourage you (and so will your dermatologist) to try different medications to see if they work before jumping straight into it. The side effects are real and people have had some bad experiences, some of which you should review, but with a grain of salt and after speaking with your dermatologist.

I have nothing but positive things to say about Accutane and its affect on my physical and mental health. My outer image finally matches my inner self, proud and beautiful. I’ve talked a lot about myself and done some serious bragging but I honestly can’t help it. I want to be a resounding positive addition to the conversations about Accutane across the web.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who endured this journey with me and who helped me stay strong through the tougher times. Thank you to everyone who told me that I looked good even when I knew I looked like a dried up mess. Thank you to my mom and boyfriend for sticking through it with me emotionally. And thank you to my dermatologist, Megan, for guiding me through this journey.

If you’re taking, have taken, plan to take, or decided not to take Accutane for any reason, please share your questions, reactions, and/or experiences in the comments.