Not Right Now, I'm Washing My Face
My journey to self-love through skin care.
It was a deceptively ordinary Seattle day when the CDC confirmed the first official case of the coronavirus in the United States. It was the 21st of January 2020. I lived a short four miles away from the aforementioned case, I was high-risk for complications, and I worked at Bath & Body Works (aka ground zero for the hand sanitiser-hoarding panic) where I was being exposed to hundreds and hundreds of unmasked, frantic customers each day.
It was an unseasonably frigid day in Seattle on the 10th of March 2020 when I got a call from my boss that the mall we worked in would be closing for at least a week due to several cases from other stores in the mall. Because the closure was outside the store’s control, I would be receiving compensation for the hours I would have been working. This was when my quarantine started, weeks before my family in Phoenix, St. Louis, or California.
It was a dark, unforgiving day in Seattle when I was informed that I would be furloughed without pay- indefinitely. It was April 2nd of 2020 and from then on, I would only slip deeper into the vicious pits of my already grave depression. I was slipping out of myself and watching every part of me that I’d ever loved die while everything I’d hated thrived. I didn’t shower, I didn’t get out of bed, I didn’t eat, I didn’t apply myself in any capacity to anything but self-destruction.
Oh, and my acne was getting really bad.
I know that sounds trivial in comparison to the more severe health issues I was facing, but adult acne runs rampant in my family and it’s not the “take care of it and you won’t have any” sort, it’s the “take care of it and you’ll probably still have quite a bit” sort. It’s cystic and painful and frustrating and endless and at that point in my life, I was helpless against it.
That’s how it all began.
I can’t necessarily say how I went from searching for new acne solutions to falling down the rabbit hole of intense skin care education, but something very strange happened when I did: the hunt for information broke up the monotony of days that passed like weeks and weeks that passed that days. Learning first about the 12-step Korean skin care routine and then about the benefits of specific ingredients sparked a fire under me to get up every day, take notes, practise new routines, search for new products, and build an unobtainable wishlist. In a strange way, it gave me purpose. Every single day, twice a day, no matter how severely I was suffering, I brought myself to clean my face, feed my skin, and quell my soul. It was something I did just for myself, a time when I could close the door to reality and treat myself to a sensory feast: the light citrus of the cleansing balm tickling my nose, the warm lick of the water on my cheeks as I washed off the cleansing product, the soft music filling my ears and taking me from the burning world outside, and the shining gleam of my healthy skin when I finally pulled my hands away.
It was the only thing I did for myself- or rather, the only thing that I did for myself for the right reasons.
Then, toward the end of July 2020, many things happened in quick succession.
On August 1st, still furloughed and now forced to resign, I moved from Seattle to Spokane with my partner of five years who was in the military. On August 22nd, I found the courage to end things with said partner. On September 1st, I moved again- this time (and for the first time ever) all on my own. On September 3rd, I checked in to a mental health clinic in California for depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, two congruent eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse.
It was a sixty-day residential program and one that drastically changed my life and if this were any other story, I’d write endlessly about it. Instead, all you need to know is that alone time was- to put it lightly- hard to come by. I had a roommate at the shared house and travelled with the other dozen women everywhere we went. Despite being the site of intense personal growth, there was not a place I could go by myself, to think for myself, to work only on myself, to be myself.
Except, of course, the bathroom.
My skin care routine was the one and only thing I could do for myself. I couldn’t listen to the music I wanted to listen to, I couldn’t watch the shows I wanted to watch, I couldn’t even have a private conversation with the people I wanted to have a private conversation with, but when I locked the bathroom door and pulled out my skincare products, I was wholly in control.
I was able to inspect and diagnose my skin, gauge how it felt and how it looked and decide which products and ingredients I would use to best serve it. Some days it needed moisture, other days, hydration. Sometimes it needed soothing, calming ingredients and other days it needed stimulation. It was a science, a bi-daily commitment to being intentional with my self-care and analyzing the ways in which my body was asking for something and a dedication to providing exactly what it needed.
There was a whole lot that went into my recovery outside of the simple act of self-care through skin care. I had to unlearn a lifetime of codependent behaviour, recognise and correct cognitive dysfunctions, confront trauma I’d repressed, and shift my entire perspective of the world and what it meant to be human. I am certainly not claiming that skin care provided me with mental stability, but what it did provide me with was a firm beginning and end to each day. When I was happy, I took care of myself. When I was sad, I took care of myself. It was a nonnegotiable, a simple and splendid activity to bookend each day of my life with dedicated time to mindfulness.
I came home from that facility nine months ago and am happier now than I ever knew I could be. Realistically, I owe my recovery to science and therapy. Yet in the way that a flap of a butterfly’s wing can cause a change in weather halfway across the world, my expedition into the world of skin care changed the course of my life completely. What started as an accidental mindfulness exercise led me to the path that transformed me from a timid, miserable huddle of apathy into an autonomous, passionate, and brave woman.
Oh, and I still have acne. After all, I did tell you that it was the sort to linger even when it's well taken care of. The difference now is that I'm not concerned with killing it, I'm concerned with treating it.
I don't hate my acne. I don't hate any part of myself anymore. When I started down this path, I was obsessed with all the things I wasn't and would have crossed through hell to change into the person who I thought could be happy at last. I thought life had to exist in the extremes but I understand now that life is not black and white, it's every brilliant shade of colour. My acne does not have to be evil or beautiful, it is allowed to just be.
It is a lesson that radiated through to every corner of my existence: there is nothing I should or shouldn't be, there is only who I am and how I live in alignment with who I want to be. I am allowed to exist, in this moment, without constant crippling self-criticism. I control what I can control (my daily habits and behaviour) and accept what I cannot (genetics and other people) and in that, there is serenity.
When most people think of mindfulness, they think of meditation. But to me, being mindful is being present, aware, and intentional with your thoughts and your actions. In every way that matters, practising mindfulness and doing my skin care routine are one and the same. It isn’t an escape, it’s a refocusing on myself. It isn’t a daily task, it’s a creative outlet to create myself.
I don’t do skin care to create myself in the way that others use makeup for the same purpose. I do not say this as an insult toward makeup in any capacity. All I mean to say is that if makeup is writing a brilliant scene, skincare is writing a book- you need patience, foresight, an understanding of what you’re trying to do for yourself in the future. Makeup makes your skin look great and consistent skin care makes your skin look great. My point being that makeup and skin care are both actions of creation. Makeup is a beautiful painting on the canvas of your own face and frankly an art form that eludes me wholly. Skin care is a sculpture that is formed intentionally, slowly.
I am creating me.