In 6th grade, my teacher Mrs. Miller pulled me aside in the hall just before lunch. She peered down at me and said, “What are your parents doing about your skin?”
I felt my cheeks grow warm and I knew I was blushing. “I just started going to a dermatologist.”
My teacher was referring to the skin on my face, which was so covered in acne that there wasn’t one square inch of it that was smooth beneath my fingertips. Bumps, pimples, blackheads smeared themselves across my forehead, cheeks and chin like some sort of purple fruit jam.
Mrs. Miller nodded at that news. “Well, thank goodness they are doing something!”
Even at the time, I understood my teacher’s intent was kind, if not slightly harsh in delivery. She was trying to convey that she was worried about me, but in the process she also communicated just how hideous my face looked to others. Of course, I already knew this. I had a mirror, after all, and seeing those big red bumps with yellowed tops littering my complexion sent a fear through me that I might end up like my sister.
My sister, Leslie, who was eleven years older than I was had such bad acne she had gone through a procedure where she was admitted to a hospital in Dallas (75 miles from our home in a small north Texas town) and, after being sedated, the doctors had completely removed the skin on her face. By the time I saw her, she was wrapped in bandages and looked to me, 7-years-old at the time, like the cartoon character, Casper, the Ghost. When she changed her bandages, however, her face was skinless and looked like chilled tomato aspic.
By the time I was twelve and in Mrs. Miller’s class, Leslie was 23, married and already had a baby. She also still had pitted skin from her adolescent acne despite the surgical procedure. (The doctors told her it would have looked much worse without the surgery.) As a result of Leslie’s experience, the minute that I started getting blemishes, my mother took me on the 25-mile trek to the nearest dermatologist and a series of treatments began.
I went twice a week from the time I was twelve until I was seventeen, and every visit was the same. First, a nurse would put on blue rubber gloves and swab my face with alcohol. From there, she would systematically push the point of a sharp instrument into each of my pimples then squeeze out the pus. Once finished, she again swabbed my face in alcohol and then she would notify Dr. Lily, the dermatologist, that it was his turn. He was a nice looking older man who arrived in a white lab coat. He asked me how things were going, and then picked up a piece of dry ice with his gloved hand. The first contact was the hardest. I could feel the sizzle of my flesh underneath the small block of ice, and this sizzle would continue while he covered every part of my face. I would leave red-faced from the burn of the ice and that burn would result in a peeling of the burned skin over the next few days.
I went every week to see Dr. Lily until a day when I was 17. On that particular day, he seemed preoccupied, and he kept going over one of my cheeks, over and over and over as if he had forgotten what he was doing. Finally, I pulled away from the dry ice and he stopped. I went home and discovered the burn was far worse than ever before. I refused to return to him from that moment on. It was over a year before the dark red splotch on my cheek finally healed and faded away.
My sister Leslie bore her acne scars until she died a couple of years ago. I, on the other hand, continue to receive compliments on how pretty my skin is. I have my sister to thank for that. After all, she came first and the mistakes my parents made with her motivated them to change their ways by the time I came along. I wonder how many other areas of my life are better because I was the fifth of six children? To her credit, my sister never once complained about how I was the recipient of such good fortune. Instead, she simply loved me. I loved her back. I also thought she was beautiful.