August 23, 2013
The other day I had a pimple, a zit, a carbuncle, a pustule, a clogged and inflamed pore. And to make it even worse this particular pimple was right on the edge of my lip so it was excruciatingly painful. Not that pain and pimples are necessarily a bad combination. Most of who have ever popped a pimple probably know theres a certain perverse satisfaction in it. First theres that blinding, searing pain, but then theres that moment when pus or little nodules of crud pop out and a sweet endorphin rush. I know youre not supposed to pop pimples, but the combination of pain and pleasure makes it hard to resist. Having popped pimples I understand why some people cut themselves, even though Im too much of a coward to do that. I even understood it in high school when one of my friends would cut himself regularly. This was before cutting was a widely discussed condition that many people suffer. My friend, to me, wasnt a cutter; he was Justin, who always wore long sleeves, listened to a lot of Pink Floyd, and was going prematurely bald.
I understand diagnosing a condition is often the first step to treating it, but I also worry that sometimes were too quick to apply a label, to reduce an individual to a behavior, but thats another story. Its unfair that I still get pimples. There ought to be a law against it. Well, maybe there is. We do treat pimples like dermatological criminals. Popping pimples is capital punishment even though were supposed to rehabilitate them with benzoyl peroxide. Thats what I did with this latest zit, and fortunately it went away after a couple of days, although I know there will be others. It doesnt just annoy me because Im in my forties and well past puberty. I also think I already had more than my fair share of pimples when I was a teenager. Remember how when you were a teenager there was that one guy you knew at school who you called pepperoni face? Yeah, that was me. Thanks for at least having the courtesy to not call me that to my face. And maybe you looked at me and wondered, Does he know what his face looks like? Yeah, I knew, and if you ever really did think that then every time you looked in the mirror you saw that you had one gigantic zit masquerading as a head. And your fly is open.*
And I didnt just know how I looked. I looked at Manuel Noriega, and thought, there but for the grace of Retin-A go I. The closest thing I had to a hero, complexion-wise, was Bill Murray, but the best I could hope for was that my acne, like his, would eventually go away. At times it seemed more likely Id grow another twelve inches. If you wondered why I was quiet and always had my nose stuck in a book its because I was convinced I was constantly being judged by my appearance. I assumed everyone found me repellent, and I felt that way about myself, and that sapped any energy I might have had for self-confidence, but at least a book provided a barrier between my blotchy face and the rest of the world. At home I did everything I could to clear up my complexion. My parents did too. One night my mother smeared my face with some kind of cream that was supposed to dry the skin and open the pores, or tighten them, whichever is better when youre fighting the pubescent plague. And the worst part is I had to leave it on for an hour and it itched like crazy. It also was probably the sort of thing I should have been using before my face broke out in blackheads. Finally my parents took me to a dermatologist. My friends told me some crazy stories about dermatologists, like that liquid nitrogen would be applied to my face. How exactly would it be applied? They didnt know, but I imagined having to bend down and dip my cheeks into a bowl of it, and I wasnt looking forward to it. Id seen Mr. Wizard dip bananas in liquid nitrogen and smash them with a hammer. A clear complexion wasnt going to do me a lot of good if my face was in a thousand pieces. So I was nervous until we actually got to the dermatologists office, which was in a nice office building surrounded by trees. I doubted some kind of back alley quack wielding liquid nitrogen worked there, and I was right. The dermatologist was a nice guy in a white doctors coat. When he leaned in close to examine me I noticed he had a few light scars on his cheeks. My father later speculated that maybe hed had bad acne as a teenager and that had been his reason for becoming a dermatologist. Maybe his reasons were more complicated than that, but I didnt ask.
He gave me a prescription for a topical ointment and another for a round of antibiotics and told me hed see me again in six weeks. Six weeks later I went back, but the guy Id seen on my first visit was on vacation, so I saw his substitute instead. The first thing I noticed when she came in was that she was wearing thick rectangular tortoiseshell glasses, the kind you didnt see anybody wearing in those days. Of all the dermatologists in the world I was lucky enough to get the one who was a proto-hipster. She had her white coat buttoned up, but underneath it she probably had a t-shirt with that picture of Einstein sticking his tongue out. And she looked at me and the first thing she noticed was something I hadnt realized, since Id developed a habit of avoiding mirrors and other reflective surfaces: my acne had almost completely cleared up. She said, Why are you seeing a dermatologist? And I replied, Would you like to go to the prom? It was a natural reaction because it was the nicest thing Id heard from a member of the opposite sex in months. Having terrible acne had made me pretty reticent about interacting with anyone. Its part of why in four years of high school the only person I ever asked to the prom was a dermatologist. But, hey, based on her glasses she was a cool dermatologist. She politely declined, which is probably just as well. She could have shown up looking like a cross between a Victorian daguerreotype and an extra from The Road Warrior and calling herself Demoiselle Deathmasque, because thats the sort of thing she did on weekends. Yes, I know, Im extrapolating wildly from nothing more than a pair of eccentric glasses, but at the very least its just as well I didnt go to the prom with a date who could have spiked the punch with liquid nitrogen.
*Made you look.