Bay Village High School
Instructor: Kristen Srsen Kenney
I stopped in my tracks when I saw the photograph hanging on the picture display. Parents from the band and Rockettes had decorated the display case in our school to commemorate our season. Covered in streamers, tissue paper, and photos, it was a stop in the hallway that students liked to explore. As I approached, I was horrified by the close-up picture of my friends and me. My face, coated with red, inflamed acne, made me think I was looking at a different person. Flustered with embarrassment, I slid the glass door open and snatched the photograph out of the display. No amount of guilt could override the shame I felt over my face.
For most of my teenage years, my skin was flawless, clear, perfect. Sure, I'd run into some random breakouts, but they were surface-level and vanished within a few days. I was comfortable, even confident, in my skin. Then, the summer going into senior year, my skin dramatically changed. First, my chin: a few deep cysts that multiplied and became more painful. Then, after a few weeks, the cysts crept up to my cheeks, my nose, my forehead. And, then, before I knew it, my entire face was covered in irritating pimples... As I waited for someone, anyone, to help me, I cried in pain: the itchiness on my body felt agitating and the dread in my mind felt draining when I looked in the mirror.
Masks were my primary protection, from covid and exposing my face. I wore them whenever I could, hiding myself, so no one could see what was beneath.. I felt helpless; there was nothing I could do to change my skin. My mind would drift and spiral into haunting thoughts:
Did others see me as gross?
Did they feel that I was repulsive?
The embarrassment and shame overwhelmed me.
It was easy to tell when others stared at it, and some would even make comments. During almost every babysitting job, I would have a child ask me, "Why do you have bug bites all over your face?" or "What's all that red stuff on your face?" My acne was all that people saw when they looked at me. I felt like a monster. Why did everyone only see my skin when I hadn't changed as a person?
As I started to fall to an all-time low, my mom got me an appointment with a dermatologist in only a month. Once the appointment came around, the doctor told me exactly what I was expecting: I was suffering from severe acne and needed to apply for Accutane. I went on the medicine, and slowly watched my skin start to heal.
During this waiting process, I had a friend contact me, describing her breakouts and sharing her shame and anxiety around her skin. She had asked me for advice, so I started typing.
"I understand, and thanks for coming to me. I'd love to offer what I have. The shame and anxiety surrounding acne are very familiar topics to me. Two things helped me: 1) My acne forced me to learn where true beauty comes from and where I was finding my worth. I found that I was letting too much of my worth be determined by what I looked like. When the cysts started to cover my face, my self-esteem immediately crumbled. This was a hard realization, but I was finally able to see that my worth and beauty aren't determined by my looks but rather by who I am as a person. Acne doesn't make me lesser; it's just another stage in my life to learn from, so that I can be wiser for the next chapter. 2) I read somewhere once that when trying to deal with insecurity, it helps to embrace it because once you've put it out and are proud of it, the shame fizzles away. Of course, I still like to wear makeup from time to time, but opting for a natural look has made me more comfortable with my skin at this stage of life. I also started to talk about my acne openly, just as I'd talk about any other experience in my life. Bringing this insecurity out of the darkness eased the embarrassment and made me proud of my skin, acne-covered or not. Practice being grateful for your healthy body and all that it does for you. When you think about it, we have so much to be grateful for."
After I sent the text, I sat there in disbelief. This text was the first time I'd genuinely reflected on the lessons I'd learned from my journey. At that moment, for the first time, I felt gratitude. I was thankful for my skin and all that it taught me.
Now I can look at pictures of that girl, with or without the spots, and love her regardless. I'm proud of that girl.
The past. The future. That's where my head was at - stuck in a game of tug-of-war. I led a shallow life, always caught in the impact zone, when right beneath me, there was calm. I was deeply attached to every emotion that surfaced:
The worry: swallowed me.
The guilt: dragged me down.
The anxiety: kept me fighting for air.
My appearance defined me, or so I thought. Clothes, hair, skin, and brands slapped a value on me. The relationships in my life clouded my mind as well; the status of them could either drown me or push me high above the surface. I clung to drama to keep my brain distracted from the longing I felt deep inside.
Longing for calm in my life.
When situations unfurled in front of me, all of them needed a reaction. My thoughts kicked and thrashed until I was too exhausted to hold myself up anymore. I didn't have the awareness to see back then, but my lifestyle had only ever driven me to greed. selfishness. guilt. worry. pain.
Most of all, fear.
This habit of living unconsciously manifested itself in all kinds of situations in my life, not just the dramatic ones. When I was with my family, laughing, I still found my attention somewhere else, thinking about the next event. I lived for 3:11 when the bell rang, for the weekends, for summer, and so on. Nothing was ever enough; there was always a
nothing satisfies it.
I was always seeking the next thing that I thought would fill me up.
But how could I live any differently? The entire world around me was constantly nudging me and saying,
"Buy this and you'll be happy"
"Look like this, and you'll be happy"
"Post this and you'll be happy."
And, I believed it.
Eventually, after struggling and gasping for air every day in my ocean of unconsciousness, I gained enough awareness to see that I was in a debilitating cycle. I wanted out.
And, then. Sophomore year. I caught a glimpse. It started by reading. I had never been exhilarated to read before, but I was beginning to see the appeal. I poured myself into new books. These were different: they had treasures and new life intertwined in them. And among all the books I read, there seemed to be a common denominator.
Live in the Now.
Immediately there was a shift in my life when I tried to apply the message. Firstly, I became intensely more aware of my emotions. At first I started simply; my goal was to notice my thoughts and feelings. When I was doing something I loved, I'd stop to recognize my contentment. When I was anxious, I'd stop to recognize my fear. When I was angry, I'd stop to recognize the root.
From there, I'd tune in to everything that was happening around me: the environment, the people, the feelings, and the senses. For example, if I were collecting sea glass at my cottage, I'd explore the moment. Feel the warm air. Listen to the soft waves caress the shore. Watch the shimmering lake glitter. All of this grounded me in the present moment. My mind could be nowhere else except the quiet beach. I watched my happiness grow and my worries fall away.
At first, this practice was difficult for me because I was impatient and forgetful, so I'd run through the moments without remembering to breathe them in. But when I remembered, and I found my mind running through the millions of ways a situation could turn out badly, I'd simply pull myself back into consciousness.
Can you know for sure that these situations will become a reality?
Are things this bad, or is it all in your head?
Why are you arguing with what is?
As I stopped to realize, I started to be still.
And then, the storm turned calm.
Next, I began to differentiate between my ego-driven unconscious self and my conscious, awakened self. It was clear to me that I was allowing my ego to carry me through my life every time I lost myself in emotion. From there washed up the fear and pain. So, like usual, I'd pull myself back to consciousness and practice disidentification from situations.
I'd feel, instead of prognosticating.
As time elapsed, the worry and impatience slowly washed off me. I no longer needed to react to every situation, and I quickly learned to let things be. I still cared for situations and people, but I learned that I only had so much control over my life; I can only do so much until it's time to hand my situations over to a greater source. And with that came immense, electrifying freedom.
Life is meant to unfold the way it's supposed to.
Now, I welcome the storm.