An Attempt at Gaining Control
A guest post from writer Wandy Ortiz. Wandy is a writer living in NYC , and you can find more from her at wandyfelicita.com.
I struggle with picking at acne on my face; I have since I was about eleven or twelve years old. Round-faced and olive skinned, I was ever envious of the girls in my class who had long, slender faces clearer than milk. Meanwhile, I washed my face religiously, didn’t get bangs for fear of oiling up my skin, and spent most of my days in class without makeup on.
The older I got, the more conscious I became of my imperfections, all over. Along with high school came harrowing issues of emotion and anxiety. It didn’t really matter any more that my face was a darkened, patched mess because everything else seemed to be, too.
I felt like I wasn’t the best daughter, the best student, or even the best friend. I didn’t dance the best at show rehearsals, I wasn’t the most naturally talented and I had to work my ass off to be just as good as the girls who seemed to be all that they were, effortlessly. Meanwhile, my classmates appeared to get into college without issue, have boyfriends without drama, and be fit without even going to the gym.
I picked at my face. I picked for my mediocre Math grades, I picked for friends I had lost. I picked for envy of the long-legged girls at practice, for the colleges I didn’t make it into and for the boys who thought I was too feisty and fat to date. I picked because I butted heads with my mom, because the other girls were best friends with theirs. I picked for all the feelings of insecurity and resentment I kept bottled up.
I picked my way into my twenties. Looking in my dorm room mirror, I’d stand and watch each blemish swell - become pink and hard with puss and dirt. I would do this on the phone with my mom while we fought about when I’d come home from school next. Clenching the phone between my jaw and collarbone, I’d use both hands to squeeze as hard as I could until the zit would pop. Sometimes it would burst a clear liquid, other times, it oozed white or bled crimson.
For each issue I faced or argument I had, there seemed to always be a new opportunity to pick at my face until it scabbed and scarred. Every time I did it, I knew it would hurt and I knew the outcome would be the same: permanent damage.
Somehow, it felt good.
Picking at my face always made me feel better, at least for a little while. It would briefly ease my pain and the pressure, even if the clean-up afterwards was messy. It was disgusting, it was grotesque, and for all intents and purposes, it made my skin look worse .Even so, I needed to do it.
Sometimes, I still need to do it.
A psychiatrist might call this a sign of “excoriation disorder,” - this is akin to Obsessive Compulsive. Some pick at their faces unconsciously, but for me it is to cope with depressive episodes and issues of anxiety in many forms that I have been avoiding for years.
I am stressed, I am sad, I am feeling less than, and I am lonely. I carry all of these things inside of me that offer almost no tangible, visible solution.
When you look at me, you cannot tell that I am broken on the inside.
The only thing I have to cling to, the only sign of my brokenness, the only thing that I can see as coupled to my pain, is my acne. Picking at my acne has had its appeal and still entices me because it is a quick fix to a permanent problem. There in part due to puberty, in part due to stress, and there to stay in full due to me. The state of my face is one of few things that I can control.
When I decide that I don’t want the ugliness publicized for all to see, I attack it. I deserve to have a say in who sees my imperfections. I leave no pimple untouched. I mutilate each and every one until I’m satisfied with the damage. Each time I touch my face, I am noticing that I do it because I feel badly about things inside of me that I cannot control.
I want control. I pick at my face because I want control.
Deciding to finally see a therapist feels like I’m trying to gain control, without hurting my body. To me, it’s also a lot like trying to cover up my picked acne with makeup. For a while, foundation will look nasty and cakey over discolored skin that fades into scarring. Maybe it will always be obvious I’ve screwed up on my body enough times that the scarring will never go away, or maybe I’ll always feel some remnants of my sadness - even though I’m asking for help. I call it a “sadness” because I don’t know what to call it. It feels like a lot things that I cannot handle as just one person.
I don’t expect to stop picking at my face because I am finally addressing my mental health, but I do hope that where complexity manifests itself in my blotchy skin, the healing process might do so, too. Picking at your skin is normal but taboo; other people do it. Managing mental health later on in life than you would have liked to is normal but taboo; other people do it.
We all have scars we don’t deserve.
But I deserve control, and you do too.