I Broke Up With My First Love Because I Had Acne
It turns out vulnerability is essential for connection.
When I was a kid, I had a lively imagination. My parents were divorced, and my dad was in prison. I couldn’t even begin to touch the pain buried inside, so I escaped into a vivid fantasy world. I had a subscription to one of those teeny-bopper magazines and spent every waking minute swooning over the boys on those pages.
I became particularly enamored with Taylor Hanson — the beautiful blonde boy with the keyboard and angelic voice. My inner world was consumed with daydreams of being kissed and adored. It was an emotional anesthetic. Those thoughts made me feel alive, and I craved that feeling like a drug.
I dated a couple of guys as a freshman and sophomore but never felt anything close to the feelings I could evoke in my inner world.
Until I met Jonas.
I was sixteen. I had recently moved from a little desert town to the big city to live with my granny and granddad. I needed to spread my wings, and Phoenix was a fresh start. The anonymity of the city was exhilarating. I felt like a crisp new version of myself.
I wanted to make some friends, so I started visiting a nearby church. Jonas was the cute, curly-haired boy playing guitar in the praise band. I was intrigued by him, but my crush intensified after I had the most mesmerizing dream. In that dream, I had an indescribably passionate connection with Jonas and was overcome by emotions I’d never felt before. I woke up beaming like the flash mob scene in 500 Days of Summer.
For the next two years, I secretly and desperately wanted to be close to Jonas.
I’d listen to Dashboard Confessional while journaling every delightful thing about him. He was kind, witty, talented, and a little shy. He was perfect.
When I was around Jonas, I was too nervous to talk to him, so I lived for his glances in my direction. I ached at the thought of laying my head on his chest. At night, I’d fall asleep kissing my hand, imagining it was his lips. (Please tell me I wasn’t the only one who did this!) I wrote this sappy song about him, and I swear all those love hormones made me do it.
It’s clear now that the intensity of my unrequited adoration doesn’t fall neatly into the category of “young love.” Maybe it was that, but it was also about the emotional anesthetic I mentioned. I had some painful baggage I wasn’t ready to unpack. I preferred to occupy my heart with those hopeful longings.
After years of subtle glances both ways, Jonas surprised me by finally asking me on a date. As I’m sure you can imagine, I melted into a puddle of awe and bliss, mixed with a hefty dose of anxiety. I rushed out to buy a new outfit. This was the moment I’d been waiting for, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Just a few months earlier, my mom died of cancer. I was holding her hand as she took her final breath. That night, I screamed myself to sleep. The person who loved me most in this world was gone. I would have to find a way to live the rest of my life without her.
I needed some relief, and Jonas was a highly effective painkiller.
One date led to another for about eight months. Jonas was as perfectly wonderful as I had imagined he’d be. I felt like I was walking wide-awake through a dream. It was all so sweet and pure. We held hands at the park, laughed and flirted at a drive-in movie, talked over coffee. He gave me a silver bracelet engraved with my name. And then, on one particularly glorious day, he kissed me, and fireworks exploded in my soul.
I was happy but guarded. I worried that I wasn’t good enough for Jonas. I spent hours trying to conceal my acne. All I wanted was for him to see me as captivating.
In a freshman college class, I overheard a girl talking about how a strong medication called Accutane cleared up her skin. I went home that day and made an appointment with a dermatologist. At that appointment, I was told Accutane would make my acne worse before it got better.
I couldn’t bear the thought of Jonas seeing me that way.
I remember the puzzled look in his eyes as I handed him that folded yellow piece of paper. I don’t know my letter’s exact words, but I remember saying I was still reeling from my mom’s death and needed time to heal. Later that day, he called and told me he would be there if I needed him. I avoided seeing or speaking to Jonas for the next few months.
Accutane did a number on my skin. My acne went from fairly standard to the painful cystic kind. I’d cover the sides of my face with my hair to go to classes, and then I’d drive home and hide out in my bedroom.
My idealistic heart held onto hope that Jonas and I would find our way back to each other once I got through the acne nightmare.
Over the next few months, my skin cleared up, but the cystic acne left scars. This was nothing like the sparkling image in my mind of finally having clear skin and feeling flawlessly beautiful.
I missed Jonas, and I desperately hoped that he still had a place in his heart for me. I decided to give him a call. My friend Shannon came over for moral support. I was nervous and excited to hear his voice again. We could rekindle the spark between us.
All these years later, that call is a blur. I remember being crumpled on the carpet, trying to hold it together as Jonas told me it was over. I asked if there would ever be a possibility of reconnecting in the future. He said there wouldn’t. I mumbled that I understood, and we said goodbye. I sobbed uncontrollably in Shannon’s arms.
How had things gone so completely wrong?
I can see it now.
The root cause was shame.
Shame was a slithering snake hissing in my ear that I was flawed and, therefore, unworthy of love. Yes, it was shame that irreversibly unraveled our connection.
Even before meeting Jonas, I knew I eventually wanted to be married. I remember assuming that I would always have to wake up before my husband so I could put on my makeup before he saw me. I was afraid of being seen as ugly or undesirable. Shame ran deep. From where did it come?
I’ve had a long string of encounters with shame.
I felt that same kind of feeling in 1st grade, hiding in the bathroom stall, mortified after peeing at my desk.
It washed over me again when an adult told me I was disgusting for wetting my bed.
I remember begging for braces after a popular boy in junior high pointed out that one of my front teeth was bigger than the other.
My most profound encounter with shame was at eleven years old when my mom told me my dad would be spending the rest of his life in prison. I was terrified that my classmates would discover I was the “daughter of a murderer.”
Here’s the thing, shame is part of the human condition. We all have an innate need to be accepted and loved.
So what are we supposed to do when shame threatens to sabotage our relationships?
Brené Brown, a leading shame researcher, says, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
Through two decades of research, Brené discovered that those who have a deep sense of love and belonging believe they are worthy of those things. They dare to be imperfect. They’re willing to be vulnerable. They courageously and wholeheartedly choose to love, even when the outcome isn’t guaranteed.
It turns out vulnerability is essential for connection.
Looking back, I can see that there’s no way I would have let my guard down with Jonas. Fierce self-protection kicked in. The thought of being rejected was excruciating, so I pushed him away instead.
Thankfully, our painful breakup was not the end of the story. The name Jonas means “a sign,” and he was, indeed, a sign to me — revealing both my intense desire to be loved and my need for healing from all that toxic shame.
In my early twenties, I found a community of friends who’ve come to know me genuinely. They’ve seen me at the heights of joy and depths of despair. They were with me when my volcano heart finally erupted. These friends encouraged me to contend with all the painful baggage I’d been lugging around. They supported me financially so I could take time off work and start processing my life story with a professional counselor.
Brené Brown describes vulnerability as risky emotional exposure, and I can’t think of a more accurate description of the season I found myself in.
I lost fifteen pounds because I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t even brush my teeth without crying. My roommates would curl up quietly beside me. I tossed and turned through the night, begging God to fill what felt like a gaping chasm that spanned the entire length of my torso. And somehow, right there in the middle of all that pain, I felt held, protected, and loved. Everything seemed more vivid and sacred.
As I laid bare my heart, it started to heal.
My friends and I have been learning to love and accept each other, not perfectly but consistently, for close to thirteen years. In this context of love and belonging, I’ve become brave. I can risk exposure because I know my value isn’t dependent on being perfect. My vulnerable places allow others to love me for who I truly am.
I did end up getting married, and I’m relieved to report that I don’t wake up early to put on makeup before my husband sees me.
Do I still have insecurities? I do.
Do I still experience that dreadful feeling of shame? Sometimes.
The difference is that shame isn’t nearly as successful at bullying me into self-judgment and hiddenness.
I used to be terrified of exposing some of the things I’ve shared with you here. Now, I’m able to call upon my courage because I’m convinced that a level of raw emotional exposure is essential for connection —
and connection is the very thing that heals our wounded hearts and infuses life with meaning and joy.
I hope this story pulls back the curtain on the destructive nature of shame and illuminates vulnerability's healing power.
Vulnerability is risky, but it’s also what allows all the love to get through.