It was a late night in my freshman dorm. A warm silence fell over our dark room — like cozy a blanket after a very loud night of chaos — and, happily exhausted, I was on the cusp of sweet, simple, 19-year-old dreams.
“Maria… are you awake?” It was my roommate from the top bunk.
“Yeah…” I answered, hesitating because sleep was right there.
“So, if you could wish for anything and it would come true, what would it be?”
Oh, no. Becca was a thoughtful, profound soul underneath her carefree, bubbly personality. As a political philosophy major, I expected her answer would be something like: “Justice for the Bosnian genocide,” or “ending famine in Uganda.” And I knew she was expecting a similar humanitarian response from me.
But I was just so tired — far, far too tired. So I told her the absolute truth, revealing my deepest of yearnings.
“I would cure acne,” I said bluntly.
And she laughed and laughed and laughed.
The absurd obsession
It’s been a decade and Becca still brings up this story — and she still laughs. “It wasn’t just that it was your wish — it was the fact you fiercely defended it!” she explains to me (and all of our friends) over some bubbly wine.
And so I did. After she initially laughed at my dream of an acne-free world, she then laughed much, much more as I went on to explain my twisted logic that — no seriously — if acne was cured, people would have more confidence; people would have more time in their morning routine; people would spend less time and money distracted by the lies of the makeup and acne-curing industry and therefore be less likely to waste their life going down the rabbit-hole of vanity. Without acne, we would be less self-absorbed and time-crunched, and we would then be less likely to take out our facial frustrations by being cruel to others; we would be less depressed; we wouldn’t resort to drugs and addictions to make us happy; etc, etc. (I mean, I went on.)
First-world problems, right?
“It would basically be a precursor to world peace,” I said confidently that night, concluding my rant. So much for sleep, I was fully awake and ready to fight for the cause of an acne-free world!
Obviously, I knew I was being a little ridiculous, but deep down, I did truly did believe that if everyone had blemish-free skin, many of our world’s sorrows would be annihilated. I was so caught up in my own problems, I entangled society’s problems with them. Admittedly, I was a tad deranged.
Focused on the mission
During my formative, teenage years, my skin always had problems. I realize now I didn’t always suffer from the worst case in the room — but it sure as heck felt that way. There was always some spot that needed cover-up. Some pulsating feeling of pain on my face, signaling to all: “She has no control; she’s dirty; she’s not pretty.” Or, at least that’s what my insecure inner-narrator told me.
I lamented that I was some sort of mythological acne creature and this was my curse — and my fated quest. Like some adventurer in an Indiana Jones movie, I was obsessed with finding a cure. I traveled far and wide to places such as Sephora, Ulta, Walgreens, and CVS. I bought products — a lot of products. I was constantly trying new products. And, like many fellow acne survivors know, most of them don’t work. Maybe for a time, but as your skin gets used to the treatment, the acne is back, and you’re quickly investigating the next product that will solve all your issues.
It was exhausting, frustrating, and totally consuming. Not to mention, really soul-sucking.
As time passed, acne came and went. My focus intensified, and waned, depending on the season. But eventually, after lots of tweaking and tinkering, I finally had a clear face. Despite what dermatologists kept on repeating to me — that what we eat has nothing to do with acne — I found out that what I ate actually had a huge effect for me. For example, beer (which was basically a food group during my college years) made me break out like crazy.
I also discovered the secret world of Korean skincare routines. I thoroughly enjoyed how these many steps forced me to slow down at night, allowing me to pause and contemplate my day. On a practical level, this taught me that my face wasn’t a battlefield — it was simply a part of my body, and I needed to first take care of it as such. Skin became less of a goal and a focus, and more of an indicator that helped me understand myself better.
But on an existential level, it taught me so much more.
Running into pesky, life-changing lessons
“So tell me — what is your skincare routine?” is a question I am sometimes asked by my female friends. While it’s been years since I had any semblance of acne, this question still makes me choke up a little because they’re telling me my skin looks good. (My skin!)
And before I give them an overwhelming sermon describing products and processes I swear by, or share the absurd amount of detailed research I’ve done to find a routine that’s kind to the face and the budget, I always think about warning them: Don’t let this take over your life!
Obsessions start in the small whispers we tell ourselves. We take trite disappointments and make them bigger. We pile all our hopes and expectations on unrelated problems, and then we start brainwashing ourselves into believing if we just solved XYZ, everything would be better. We then see the world with tunnel-vision, convinced that our little storyline is the cure worth fighting for.
Some of us obsess with acne, some obsess over careers, cars, houses, social media accounts, wardrobe, relationships, or even hobbies. We strive for perfectionism in things that provide only fleeting satisfaction. Caught up in a cycle of seeking more of this and more of that, we lose sight of true things that do matter and replace them with distractions. Racing in our little tunnels, it’s no wonder that so few of us see eye-to-eye.
Of course, I’m still prone to this tunnel-vision. And I’m sure I’ll obsess about something else very soon, only to be reminded, once again, that fixing these “problems” doesn’t do much good beyond a temporary satisfaction.
For me, struggling with acne was a wake-up call that made me discover the patterns of obsession — and how we must intentionally break through them if we’re to live a truly meaningful life.