Sebaceous activity best characterized my teenage years, so that I remember in brightest detail the glare of oil off my skin in my bathroom mirror. I took to shedding my glasses at the door. A fuzzy perspective soothed my whining self-esteem, and I genuinely found that seeing the oil slicks of infected zits through blurred eyes made me feel better about them. That, or I simply couldn’t face the reality of excessive teenage hormones.
In time, pimples came to define the lines between which I lived my life. Like a forager to storm patterns, so was I equally helpless to and obsessed with the unpredictable condition of my face. Clear skin made a good day; bad skin marked God’s absence from my body’s temple. Every morning, afternoon, and evening, I studied my face through naturally weak eyes, checking on the development of established zits, scanning for red newcomers surfacing like gopher hills. In the clarity of my 20/30 vision, habitual anxiety first announced itself in my life as a plug of oil and dead skin squeezed into a pore.
Any ancient man turns to expression of control in the face of unavoidable pain. Rain gods to ease anxiety over drought, love gods to protect the heart from loneliness. A houngan once offered me a potion concocted of unlabeled chemicals and ground skull bone that would, for the equivalent of ten dollars, make me invincible for six hours. I am too scared of the unknown to drink a houngan’s potions, but had I really believed in his healing powers, I’m sure I would have. Drinking a potion is certainly simpler and cheaper than the complex web of cures and prevention I developed in the face of bad skin.
Naturally, I turned to skin care first. The particular brand of products I used is no longer in business, and often as I saw the name embossed across the fifteen or so bottles I needed daily, I’ve forgotten it. They were French, began with a “D”, were derived from plant products. My mother used them, and it is undoubtedly from her that I learned to vilify acne. To this day, my mother is obsessed with skin, and in her case obsession paid off. Her skin is almost perfectly preserved at age 57. We had an implicit and unconscionable contract that, with every day I came home from school and swim practice, she would pop my whiteheads. She’d drag me to the bathroom, stand me against the cold tile wall, and flatten my head with the force of her fingernails, boring resolutely into my face. When I complained, she threatened to withhold dinner.
Brand name or not, I remember my routine fifteen years later. I washed my face with a mud soap every morning and evening, after which I swabbed my face with a brandy-hued toner, applied lotion, then a product that burned like ethanol and seemed to suck the oil from my pores. At lunch, I’d sneak through the halls of my Catholic all-boy school to reapply in a bathroom stall, a habit which earned me the reputation of jacking off at school. Humiliating though that was, it never stopped me lathering skin product over my greasy forehead in the narrow school stall. At night, after the immediate procedure, I dabbed an oily goop onto my finger and smeared it everywhere. Then balm.
Truth be told, I didn’t understand what any of these products did. My mother got them from a woman who worked the makeup counter in a nearby clothing store, special ordered and freakishly expensive. The woman, Donna, handed out free samples, which I hoarded in case my stock ran low. By freshman year in college, it occurred to me that the constant waves of alcohol-based tonics may be doing more to irritate my skin than soothe it. One day, I simply stopped using them, and, shortly thereafter, started keeping my glasses on when I looked in the mirror.
The fact that I didn’t even know what my skin regiment did is an argument for humanity’s non-rational response to stress. We are so seldom in control of the forces that threaten us, from acne to genetic disease, but our lives are a constant pilgrimage to fashion the illusion of immunity against harsh winds. Many of my high school friends took Accutane, a treatment that seemed to work like radiation therapy, the side effects of which were assuredly worse than living with potmarks. Just to squeeze a little control out of the world’s flailing clouds.
Skin products were my base level strategy. When I quickly realized they weren’t enough, I turned to wilder blueprints. By my junior year, I’d compiled a playlist on my iTunes, which I patented as “Good Luck Songs.” When listened to, these songs cured pimples, and I chose them through a comprehensive, methodical process. On clear skin days, I combed through the songs I’d listened to and added them to the playlist. My evening ritual of absorbing emotion through music was a balance between known entities and potential newcomers, diligent as the cure for cancer.
There was a particular shirt, a navy secondhand emblazoned with the words “Arkansas is a Natural.” I didn’t particularly like the shirt, until it coincided with a night of clear skin. After that, I reserved it for occasions I deemed important enough, times when I needed to seduce someone, occasionally wearing it under pressed dress shirts. Rarely did I hold the outcome against it. An evening of striped, irate marks couldn’t rob the shirt of its adorned power, else I’d have to admit that all of it, the litany of cures, were ineffective and pointless.
My father lectured me from time to time on obsession. “Just leave your skin alone,” mildly irritation and heavy judgement. “Maybe it’d clear up if you did.” Unwelcome though his advice was, I see the kernels of wisdom there now. Perhaps the nomad would have saved himself the trouble, had he accepted the nature of his situation in reference to nature. Too bad behavioral therapy wasn’t around. I’m sure I would have been a happier teen had I just stopped worrying and let the whiteheads flourish, but the tiny, anxious zit still un-popped, contends. “Happiness? What’s that got to do with living?”