My 9 year battle with acne, confidence and self-esteem

Money, academic qualifications, a great job, a new house, a faster car, overseas travel; these are some of the common goals that people strive towards in their life and all of these are worthy objectives to pursue as each and every one of them is fully admirable in their own right. However, contrary to popular belief, for about the past 9 years or so, none of these items have been on the top of my priority list.

So what have I wanted for the majority of my adult life you ask?

The answer: Clear skin.

Me in 2007: I was such a pretty boy with such flawless skin.

Background: The calm before the storm

Going into high school I was a fresh-faced, chubby, slightly confident, young boy, ready to tackle the world head-on. I had heard rumors of this puberty thing but I was fully convinced that I would be one of the exceptions to the rule. Our parents have always made it a point to make us all feel like special human beings and I still have very vivid memories of our Father faithfully reiterating affirmations like “we are winners” to us on a daily basis. He would also never ask me “how’s it going?” or “what’s the situation?”, he would look me straight in the eyes and confidently say to me “big man, are you winning?”. Up until recently, I hadn’t actually realized how much of a positive impact this had on my psyche. Thus, throughout my childhood I strongly believed that nothing could ever go wrong with me, I was a winner, I was special, I, Benjamin Jacob Mmari was The Chosen One.

It was only after I heard the stories of what some of my older siblings had gone through during their battles with puberty that I decided to finally accept my genetic predisposition. Thankfully, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, as my sources were quick to inform me that there were some positives to the situation. Word on the street had it that over and above the hormonal acne, the overall puberty package also came with:

  1. A deeper voice.
  2. More facial hair.
  3. And growth (in a lot of different areas 😉 ).

The growth spurt was more than welcomed, because, throughout my primary school years, I was always one of the shortest boys in the room.

However, despite all the horror stories that I had heard up until then; no one and nothing could have ever fully prepared me for the chaos that was about to ensue. Circa 2008, while I was in Grade 11, I started to cross the chasm, into the deep dark abyss known as puberty. To be fair, all the other upgrades were really great and as I said, they very welcomed but the only thing I couldn’t handle was the acne, oh dear Lord why on Earth did you give me the acne? And why so much?. Why, why whyyyyyyy????

It begins

And thus it was upon me, the beginning of the most challenging phase of my entire life. It started off slowly, 1 pimple, 2 pimples, 3, 4, 6, 9, a qunatupleTrillionHexabazagillion to the power infinity. Whiteheads, blackheads, scars, cold sores, cysts – you name it, I had it. In what seemed like an overnight transformation, I went from being a cute, fair skinned, hopeful, naive, little child to a rough-skinned, confused, emotionally-battered, young adult with a vendetta against mother nature and her much lesser known evil sister, aunt acne.

Psychological effects: The continuous nightmare

In the world that we live in, beauty plays a big role in our daily lives, especially with the media bombarding us from all possible angles, constantly feeding us images of the ideal face, body, smile, eyebrows, weight, height etc. Through years of exposure to company branding, marketing ads, TV shows, movies and music videos, we have all developed a preconceived notion of what it is to be pretty, beautiful, attractive, healthy, and dare I say it – normal. On top of this, it is during the senior years of high school that everyone is trying to outshine everyone else, the cool kids are getting girlfriends, the pretty boys are receiving their first kisses and some of the alpha males are even getting laid (for the record I was much more of an alpha nerd than an alpha male). So as one can imagine, regardless of how common it is for this age group – this is still a very difficult time to be suffering from something so trivial as pimples and bad skin – even as a boy.  

Showing no mercy whatsoever and without any respect at all for my emotions or personal well-being, acne shamelessly plagued me throughout my final two years of high school and it is only in hindsight that I have realized how much of a deep-rooted effect on my psychology this has had on me over the years.

Depression, anger, sadness, fatigue, short-temperedness and lethargy…these were just some of the by-products of my disastrous face. Every single day became a challenge for me, a challenge to make it to the end, to survive, to refrain from breaking down in public, in front of friends, in front of family and even in front of random strangers.

It’s such a traumatic experience and I honestly don’t think anyone who hasn’t personally suffered from prolonged acne really knows how this feels. Having it as a teenager is one thing, but having it as an adult is a whole different ball game and it is honestly something that I wouldn’t even wish on my worst enemy. In this material world that we currently live in, your face is basically the entrance to your soul. Your emotions, thoughts, and feelings are all expressed in one way or another through your face. When you meet people, first they see your face and from that basis alone they make most of their judgments about the type of person you are and this – whether they are conscious of it or not – determines whether they like or dislike you.

What I have only recently realized is that, due to my seemingly non-existent levels of self-worth and my dangerously low levels of confidence, I learned to develop many people pleasing tactics. I did this  – albeit subconsciously – because I desperately wanted people to like my personality as I had assumed that they probably didn’t like my physical appearance. This meant saying yes, when I actually wanted to say no, laughing instead of crying, smiling instead of frowning and prioritizing other’s people’s feelings, opinions and emotions over my own.

This permanently concealed, deep, inner sadness coupled with my complete lack of self-tolerance, left me constantly searching. Searching for acceptance, searching approval and always searching for love from other people. Because when you don’t accept, approve of or love yourself, you obviously have to depend on someone else to do it for you.

Coping mechanisms

coping mech2

When you are faced with difficulty in life – whether you are conscious of it or not – you develop many different approaches to dealing with the pain and the trauma, purely as a coping mechanism. Some people that struggle with life’s overall meaning and purpose faithfully turn towards God and religion. Some people that are dealing with pain, depression, and sadness, depend on stimulants like medication, drugs, and alcohol. Some people that are dealing with a lack of self-love and self-acceptance put a lot of energy into fostering relationships with other people, both platonic and otherwise.

Naturally, as the human being that I am, I too developed many coping mechanisms in an attempt to get myself through the difficult days. As an example of this: for the sole purpose of achieving a self-induced delusion; there were many occasions where I used to go a whole entire week, sometimes two weeks without ever looking at my own face properly in the mirror. And if I absolutely had to look in a mirror then I would make sure that the room was sufficiently dark enough so that I don’t get a clear reflection of myself. My reasoning was that if I can’t see how bad my face is…then it’s not that bad..right? (if a tree falls and there is no one there to hear it, does it really make a sound?). And while this certainly helped me sleep at night, it didn’t stop people’s eyes from wandering around my face during a face-to-face conversation, which made me feel extremely uncomfortable. So to counter that, I developed the habit of looking away when talking to people (or just not talking to people at all 🙂 ). So if you were to have a conversation with me, I would actively avoid making any form of eye contact with you because I didn’t want to see your look of disgust. I didn’t want to see you empathize with my pain and suffering. I didn’t want to see my face through your eyes.

Everybody’s an expert

As if dealing with bad skin wasn’t enough I also had to constantly deal with bad advice as well. I always find it funny how people that see you going through a difficult time in life – regardless of whether they can relate to you or not – all of a sudden become qualified experts in the matter.

To give you a better idea, the following are some examples of some skin-related advice I have received over the years:

  1. One of the caretakers at the boy’s hostel in high school told me that the reason my hormones were acting up and affecting my skin was because I wasn’t having any sex. :/ Like really dude? Even in the extremely unlikely event that this would have helped with my situation; in between studying, playing soccer and trying not to get poisoned by hostel food, when on earth was I supposed to find the time to perform acne-curing coitus?  
  2. A friend said I should use beeswax on my face and he was – obviously – quick to tell me that he knew a guy that knew a guy, that could organize it for me. I declined this offer because it sounded a bit too ludacris to me.
  3. A QUALIFIED doctor in Swaziland told me to use Vaginal Cream ON MY FACE :/ and I actually tried it out. Unfortunately, it was a fruitless exercise for the most part. The only thing that came out of this experience was awkward explanations of how and why I, a young adult male, was in possession of vaginal cream (prior to this recommendation I wasn’t even aware that vaginal cream was an actual thing?).
  4. A teller at Pick n Pay once suggested that I use some arbitrary traditional product on my face, I don’t even remember what it was called. I wasn’t really paying much attention to her because I was too busy trying to deal with the fact that a random stranger who didn’t even know my name, was making suggestions to me about my skin. Like really fam?? Aren’t you just supposed to ask me about plastic bags and smart shopper cards?? When did we become friends?

Next stop…university

Going into university (UCT, Cape Town, South Africa), the situation only got worse. My aesthetic dilemma was now directly affecting my academics as well, because instead of fully focusing during lectures, there I was thinking about my face. And not just thinking about my face in a petty, narcissistic manner. I was literally feeling the physical sensation of my face because it was extremely sore and painful. When you have inflamed skin, you can literally feel the puss pushing out against the boundaries of the pimple, and trust me, it hurts! So not only did I wake up and feel like shit, I was constantly reminded – all day every day – by my diligent pain receptors that there was a war being waged all over my face.

And to make matters worse, there are so many pretty people in university, so one can’t help but compare yourself to them. As I walked around campus on the daily, I used to curse people that had perfect skin (I guess this would technically be classified as face shaming?), because they honestly looked like they bathed in milk and honey, while I, on the other hand, looked like a destitute victim of war, desperately seeking asylum in a foreign land.

Not only was this affecting my academic performance but it was also affecting my social life because as the unhappy, unconfident and low self-esteemed person that I had become, I wanted to see less and less of my own – pretty, beautiful, perfect skinned – friends over time. So when I didn’t feel like forcing an empty smile or struggling my introverted self through a social interaction, I would just stay in my room, hiding behind the easy excuse of coursework, academic pressure and studying, constantly wondering why I was the one who picked the short straw and why this one particular aspect of my otherwise overwhelmingly blessed life just seemed so horribly unfair…

The saga continues

In the next post, I’ll talk about my different approaches to dealing with and trying to sort out my acne and some of the insightful realizations that I have come across along the way.

One of the many lessons that I have learned from this battle of mine is the fact that every single person that we come across in life is going through their own personal journey. We each have our own hardships and challenges in life and even though we may not always show it on the surface, there are wars being waged within us all – whether it be physical, psychological or spiritual. I have learned the hard way not to judge people before I find out their story and I have come to terms with the fact that sometimes they themselves might not even be aware of the challenges and obstacles that they are facing on a daily basis.

“Be kind to people and don’t judge, for you do not know what demons they carry and what battles they are fighting.” ― Vashti Quiroz-Vega

“The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others do not know anything about.” ― Jonathan Harnisch


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