Seeing myself through newly sober eyes forced me to confront deeper questions.
My skin was my map to the night before. The morning after, I checked my eyes first. I rubbed them, squinting against the harsh morning light. If there was mascara or foundation smudged on the back of my hand, there was a good chance I was in someone else’s bed. I struggled with cystic acne in high school, a special kind of anguish that only fellow survivors can understand, so even in a blackout stupor, my brain was hardwired to wash my face when I made it back to my own bathroom. Smeared makeup meant the night had taken a different turn.
I was a blackout drinker: I didn’t drink every day, but once I began, I didn’t know how my evening would end. I woke up missing portions of my memory, the events of the night before a twisted blur. Despite a Brooklyn zip code that was conducive to my work hard, play hard lifestyle, I got the feeling that my drinking might be veering into problematic territory. My friends seemed to know when to switch to water and head home while I was usually rearing to keep the night going. And my hangovers seemed to last days, smothering me in nausea and anxiety. So when I turned 28, I made the decision to get sober.
People tell you that giving up alcohol has a magic effect on your skin, hair, and overall well-being. This is mostly true. During my first six months of sobriety I was less puffy, more hydrated, and getting better sleep. Even still, everything didn’t transform overnight. I thought I was nice to my skin before: I cleansed, moisturized, and took birth control pills to keep my hormones in check. But now that I wasn’t drinking, I had to face certain realities that alcohol had helped me ignore.
Without the fog of alcohol, I saw myself clearly for the first time since high school. When I woke up the morning after binge drinking and eating greasy pizza, it was easy to rationalize dry skin or a new zit. It was all temporary, like a messy bedroom or an unreturned email; something for my future self to deal with later. But when my future self got sober, she became all too aware of every blemish. I wasn’t camping out in dark bars anymore; in the bright light of coffee shops and city parks, it was harder to hide that I had sensitive, acne-prone skin.
I worried that people would think I was less fun without alcohol, so I decided my outsides had to look perfect. If I wasn’t going to be Carrie Bradshaw sipping on a cosmopolitan, I would be Rory Gilmore in all her fresh-faced glory. I got monthly facials and bought serums with fancy ingredients. I exfoliated, applied clay masks, and studied my pores.
I grew dismayed every time I woke up and saw a spot on my face, like it was a personal failing. On my first weekend trip with a new boyfriend, I woke up with a pimple on my chin. It objectively wasn’t a big deal; I covered it up with concealer and we went off to get breakfast. But I couldn’t stop ruminating on it, stealing glances at the bump on my darkened phone screen. I snuck off to the bathroom and panic-ordered five new products. Was my boyfriend looking at my pimple, too? Did he think I was hideous now? Had he changed his mind about wanting to date me?
I knew it was self-absorbed and ridiculous, but panic coursed through my body. Of course, it wasn’t about my boyfriend. Without partying as my defining character trait, I picked up impossible standards of beauty and they were making me as sick as my drinking had.
As I moved through recovery, I worked to uncover the deeper reasons I drank excessively, like my fear of abandonment and a gnawing concern that I was unlovable; many of these worries overlapped with my desire for perfect skin. If I could control my face, maybe I could control how other people perceived and treated me. My twisted logic left me on the receiving end of a lot of self-imposed cruelty and impatience. Ironically, when I saw someone else with a pimple, I didn’t think any less of them. On another face, blemishes told a story and offered a reminder of how humans can connect through shared flaws and vulnerability. Perfection could be boring; real skin provided texture.
Today, four and a half years into sobriety, my skin-care routine has transformed. I still use serums and moisturizers, but instead of applying a full face of makeup every day to hide my blemishes, I try to let my skin breathe. I provide my insides with the space to heal–and for the first time, I’m giving my outsides permission to do the same.
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