Taking my skincare routine seriously started with accidentally telling my immunologist I “hadn’t registered” any pain or “feeling of really anything at all” when I gave myself 120 intramuscular injections over the course of two months. She said, “Nothing?” And then verified, “Nothing?” And then made me pull up my shorts to show her my legs to prove I’d been giving myself the shots. My blood work indicated that I had, in fact, been following orders, and so did the little jab holes in my thighs.
“You don’t feel anything?” she asked again.
I said, “I mean, I feel annoyed when I bleed and have to use up my Hello Kitty Band-Aids in a spot no one will ever see.”
She checked out my reflexes and ran through a quick sensory test, decided that was all fine, and asked, “What does it mean to you if I tell you to listen to your body?”
I sighed. This again. Why was every doctor working with my Long Covid obsessed with me listening to my body? I couldn’t even hear the phrase in a regular tone of voice anymore. Everytime a healthcare provider said it to me, it came out of their mouth like that SpongeBob meme. LiStEn tO yOuR bOdY. Well, and I was tired of hearing what my body had to say. Over the course of the last year, my body had been screaming nothing but pain and fatigue and confusion at me. Long Covid affected everything. Everything! My heart was yelling, my brain was hollering, my joints were screeching, my gastrointestinal tract was hooting, my lungs were yelping, my skin was howling, my nervous system was squawking. My entire body was a cacophony of baffled misery. I didn’t want to listen to it! I was exhausted from living in it! Trying to listen to it more closely was like sticking my entire head inside a tuba.
I guess my face said all that for me, because my doctor said, “I want to challenge you to find one way to get back in touch with your body over the next two months. It doesn’t have to be anything big, I just want you to see and feel and hear what’s going on with your body in one small way, and to try to find some joy in that one thing. A small thing.”
I heard: LiStEn tO yOuR bOdY. But I also heard: I challenge you.
Maybe it was irony, or maybe it was destiny, but the intramuscular injections had caused my face to break out like I was 16 years old all over again. Angry, red, inflamed, painful cystic acne. And so I decided that would be the thing I would do for 60 days. I would listen to my body’s skin screaming at me from my own face and try to figure out how to calm it the fuck down. I went home and I glared at myself in the mirror and I said, “What do you need, you damn skin?”
My skin didn’t say anything back to me.
So I asked Google instead.
Google sent me to a Reddit sub called Skincare Addiction where over one million people were in varying states of shouting at their faces or listening to their faces shout back at them. Also, though, there were people who were whispering to their skin and getting these gentle caresses back. People posted pictures of their pores and got advice, posted pictures of their products (called Shelfies!) and got feedback, posted stories of success and stories of frustration and also just a lot of general encouragement. Unfortunately, Skincare Addiction speaks an entirely mystical language, full of esoteric abbreviations, information about more acids than you’d find in a bomb lab, and lots of words that sound like Pokémon (Peptide, Retinoid, Jojoba). I started panicking the deeper I dug, and ended up ordering two recommended products because the packaging looked sophisticated, like the kind of bottles a skin whisperer would have sitting on their little standalone vanity. The kind with the lights around it like a movie star. Or maybe some little succulents and low, diffused light because skin whisperers don’t even need to see their skin in the mirror to know what it needs.
Unfortunately when the products arrived, the instructions on the bottle were in Korean so I had no idea what they were or what to do with them. But they did cost one hundred dollars, total, so I knew they were good.
I texted my sister and asked her to help me decode Skincare Reddit’s ancient and arcane mysteries. I picked out products with numbers on them, so I would know exactly when and how to use them. I ordered the Travel Pack of the products, so as not to repeat my previous mistake, and faithfully used them every single morning and every single night. At first, they made my skin much worse. But I didn’t quit because Reddit said I was purging and to relax. And then, they made my skin better. And better. The cysts started getting smaller! New acne was appearing less frequently! It hurt much less!
And then my face started peeling off.
“You have destroyed your skin barrier,” several Reddit users told me.
“But I did what the products said!” I shot back. “Every day and every night: One (cleanser), two (AHA), three (BHA), four (moisturizer), and in the mornings five (sunscreen). The numbers are on the bottles!”
“No!” they said. “No! No! No! You cannot use an AHA and BHA on your skin twice a day every day! Are you outside of your senses! You can’t even use an AHA and BHA on your skin once a day every day!”
“So I should do one, two, four, five; and then one, four; and then one, three, four, five; and then…”
They said, “Skincare isn’t math. It’s science, but it’s also art. LiStEn tO yOuR bOdY!”
And so I went back to the goddamn mirror and stared at myself some more. I have hereditarily problematic skin. My face is my dad’s face. It’s aging exactly like my dad’s face. He, too, has struggled his whole life with acne and scarring and these tired anxious hounddog under eyes. Thinking about my face as my dad’s face, and my dad’s face as my grandpa’s face made me feel a little bit more tender toward it. And the more tender I felt toward it, the more I could hear what it was saying. Well, not saying. More like whimpering. More like ouch, ouch, ouch. So, okay. My face was reacting so badly to my injections that it was in pain. Actual pain. Fine. Fine. I was in pain. My face was flaking off, and it was red and almost bruised-looking and swollen. I hated the way it looked and most of all I hated the way it felt. It hurt. It burned. I was in pain.
I said to myself in the mirror, “Okay. You’re dehydrated, huh? Let’s figure out how to get you something to drink.” And I did. I looked some more and said, “You’re really sore; you need a gentler cleanser, don’t you?” And I got one. I read and read and read and read, and learned that my injections were causing an overload of bacteria on my skin, so I bought a nice benzoyl peroxide leave-on treatment to use every other day. I read more, and finally understood what BHA meant; I ordered a good salicylic treatment with anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that would complement my other acne treatment. Slowly, slowly, slowly, my skin got less and less painful, more and more clear — and then one morning, at the age of 42, for the first time since I was a child, I woke up without a single pimple on my face. “We did it,” I laugh-cried into the mirror. “We did it!”
On some level, I knew that if I started listening to one part of my body, I was going to have to listen to every part of my body. And my skincare journey bore that out. When I let myself hear ouch from my face, I was opening myself up to hearing ouch from my lungs. But the more I sat with the cries of pain, the more I began to decipher them from each other. It was all a knot before I started fiddling around with face acid, but then it became smaller knots, and then it became individual threads, and when that happened I was able to learn whether or not the pain was one I could do something about, or one I needed to simply manage for the time being while I worked on some of the others. Sometimes I just needed to sit up straighter, stretch my neck, or lie with my legs up against a wall. Sometimes I needed pain medication. Sometimes there was nothing for it.
Weirdest of all, I have developed such an affection for my face — and that affection is bubbling over onto other parts of my chronically ill body. I’m not only noticing when I hurt, I’m also now noticing when I don’t hurt, and wallowing around in gratitude about it every time. I learned to use those expensive Korean skincare products, and on the days when I do, I feel like a prince. My face doesn’t just feel good to the touch; the skin on my face feels good on my face. And so I have begun to indulge other parts of my body too. I think if a slow-and-steady, trial-and-error process can help my lifelong problematic skin, maybe a slow-and-steady, trial-and-error process can provide relief for many of the myriad symptoms Covid left behind in my body.
Last week, I got my second Covid vaccination. When the nurse jabbed me, I jumped a little bit. She said, “Oh, did you feel that? Did it hurt?”
Under my double masks I grinned wider than my face had grinned in as long as I can remember. “It did, actually,” I told her.
She said, “I’m so sorry.”
I said, “Please don’t be! It’s a wonderful thing!”