Hormonal Rage

Just to recap: I’m from Los Angeles, but I’m currently in the UK, two years into a very fish-out-of-water experience. Being an expat is no joke. I’m not exaggerating when I say that almost everything is different in England than it is in California, where in my homesick memory, even in the traffic is more tolerable.

I’m in England because I’m working on a PhD about childbirth intervention. Somehow, I managed to convince an academic department to fund my project, and now I actually have to DO this massive thing.

Finally, I’ve just had my first baby.

So: 5,000 miles from family + PhD student + new mom. I have no local family support, I’m working on a doctorate, I haven’t slept more than 4 consecutive hours in 7.5 months, I carry/cradle/pick up/put down/walk/dance/bounce my son all day long, I am still exclusively breastfeeding, I am ten pounds lighter than I was when I got divorced and stopped eating for three months, and until two days ago, when I passed my UK driving test, I couldn’t drive here and was walking/taking the train/catching buses with a child strapped to my body whenever I had to go anywhere. So, I’m fucking exhausted and sometimes I can’t think straight or make decisions or get through a driving lesson without coming home and losing my shit because everything is just DEMANDS CONSTANTLY.

Thus, I find it really offensive and dismissive when people tell new moms that it’s okay to feel upset because our “hormones are still settling.” As if not loving every second of our insane new lives could only be because us ladies are forever at the mercy of our hormones. We accept that a person who hasn’t slept well overnight or has a cold might be negatively impacted, but we feel the need to excuse mothers who feel bad. Don’t worry, Mom. You’re just hormonal. I understand that some women really do suffer from hormonal imbalances post-pregnancy, and I don’t at all mean to disparage them. However, patting a new mom on the the head and telling her that all her fears and anxieties and complete exhaustion are just by-products of her hormones does two things:

  1. Ignores that having a baby explodes a woman’s life
  2. Dismisses the very real and very visceral physical and emotional trauma of that explosion

I feel crazy sometimes because I’m sleep deprived and physically drained and walking around with eighteen pounds of squirming, grabbing baby attached to my skeletal frame all day long. I snap at my husband because as much as he loves us, he doesn’t understand what this is like for me. I am uncomfortable with the way I look because I look really different. I get angry or weepy or temporarily mean because I am tasked with something damn near impossible and I am just one human being and I am tired.

Being overwhelmed by a new baby is normal, because a new baby is overwhelming, not because women just can’t hang. I pushed a person out of my body and am now responsible for taking care of him. I think I’m entitled to have some real feelings about it.

Skin Is In.

A lifetime ago, I dedicated lots of blog space to the condition my skin was in, because I’m generally a vain and horrible person who thinks strangers on the internet care about my acne. I’ve heard tell that the Youngs these days (you know, the spry, energetic college undergrads who use SnapChat and listen to Miley Cyrus ironically) call this day of the week “Throwback Thursday,” so I figure today I will post again about my face skin and what it’s been up to, just for old times’ sake.

When I was 19, after living for five years with persistent, permanent, and absolutely unfortunate acne on my face, chest, and back, I was prescribed Accutane. The prescription came after much begging and pleading with my dermatologist, who eventually referred me to a physician’s assistant who specialized in Accutane paperwork. (Yes, the drug is such a tremendous pain that, at least at that time nearly a decade ago, people needed to be Accutane specialists in order to feel comfortable enough to hand it over.) I left the appointment with the PA with a prescription for this acne wonder drug, a huge smile, and an enormous three-inch binder full of warnings and precautions.

I spent the next six months having routine blood tests to check that I wasn’t pregnant or dying of liver failure and watching my face dry, peel, and crack into a bleeding mess. I stopped smiling, because a genuine grin was enough to split the corners of my mouth. I stopped wearing contacts and battled sties and pink eye on the regular. And yet, I was thrilled. I’d spent years cycling through antibiotics and prescription acid creams and various face washes tens of dermatologists promised me would work. I’d been on hugely high doses of hormonal birth control, which made me feel dizzy and spacey and ballooned out every part of my body so quickly that my college dorm floor thought I’d gotten breast implants. I’d subjected my body to so much nonsense, and none of it had worked. Despite how miserable I was on Accutane, I felt I was finally doing something that would help me. I was finally miserable for a reason. (And yes, I am aware of how pathetic that sounds.) I would be done with acne forever and I could put all the pain and crushing self-hate behind me.

And I was right. I got off the big orange pill, and my skin was gorgeous. Very shortly afterwards, I fell in love and got on hormonal birth control for the second time, albeit at a much, much lower dose. I was on birth control very happily for about five years, with glowing skin. It was the first time I felt worthy of attention, and if I’m honest, of love.

I stopped taking hormonal birth control in May 2012, 1) because I was having strange chest pains and headaches and I was concerned I may throw a clot to my brain and 2) because I was planning on having a baby. Luckily, I did not die of an embolism (there’s still time!). I also did not get pregnant.

In addition to failing to die or get pregnant, I also experienced acne for the first time since I tortured myself on Accutane for the privilege of never having to see it again. For a long time, I was in full panic mode, expecting every morning to wake up with an upper body (face, back, and chest) covered in angry cystic pimples that would force me back into high-necked t-shirts and constant makeup application. I’d wake up from dreams about break outs with my hands on my face, reassuring myself that it wasn’t real the same way most normal people do when they wake up from nightmares about normal people things, like zombies or home invasions.

While things never got that bad, they also didn’t improve. For the first year post-hormonal birth control, I was also trying to regulate and get pregnant, so I was taking things like Clomid and progesterone replacements, which I figured were not doing wonders for my skin. And then, at the end of June 2013, I left home for an archaeological field school in Ireland, where despite having my face in giant dirt holes all day, my skin was perfection. Thank you, manual labor outside in the lovely UV radiation of the summer sun.

By the time I came home, however, my life had completely fallen apart. I was getting divorced, I was finishing a Masters thesis, I was leading a classroom, I was living with my parents. In a desperate attempt to gain some control over my life, I started looking into natural ways of regulating my hormonal acne, which by this time was back in full force. Having spent all my teenage years sitting in dermatologists’ offices, I had been of the mind that what you eat doesn’t influence your skin. Doctor after doctor had told me that my diet had no impact on my face, and that the only thing to do was slather on some more benzoyl peroxide and hope for the best.

However, as a person who has put every synthetic acne treatment in existence both on my face and in my body only to be physically hurt or deeply disappointed, I started to think that maybe pharmaceuticals weren’t the answer. I cut out sugar and started taking supplements like agnus castus (an herbal progesterone regulator), beta-carotene (which is converted to vitamin A in the body and is essentially nature’s Accutane), and cod liver and flaxseed oils. I saw lots of improvement in my skin, but I was also buried by stress and anxiety, and losing terrifying amounts of weight. I wasn’t at my healthiest in any sense.

Then, I moved across the world to England. I was tired and crazed and yet finally, mercifully, eating again. I started drinking double-shot lattes and eating delicious English cookies. I stopped taking the supplements, because my skin was better. I adjusted to a new routine, and vitamins weren’t a part of it.

Until my face starting boiling. That is the best, most evocative description I can manage. Huge, cystic pimples on my chin, that flared up, became enormous, and then healed just in time for another one or two to take their place. For a while, I thought it might have been the weather here, which is decidedly less sunny than Los Angeles, or the stress of the move. I kept waiting for improvement. Instead, it kept getting worse, until my acne was the worst it had been since I was 19 and carrying that three-ring binder.

So, I started tracking the flare ups. I’ve never done anything like that before. I am usually content to just float through my life in my body, not really taking much stock of what is causing various reactions. For my entire adult life, I have been amazed by women who can tell when they are getting their periods or if they are pregnant, just simply based on how they feel.

Now, though, I am normal human woman (physically – not mentally, obviously), so I could finally make some assessments. And the results? My skin gets worse after I have dairy, sugar, and caffeine – all things that are known to aggravate hormonal imbalances. All those days drinking at least one double-shot latte? Wreaking havoc my face.

I am currently conducting an experiment. I have not had sugar, dairy, coffee, or black tea since Monday morning (when someone very kindly bought me a latte and I drank a few sips, to be polite, okay?). I am drinking tons of green tea and eating more whole foods. I have had not one new pimple. (And that there is saying something. We were on a day-by-day basis just last week.) Those I did have are healing up and going away.

COULD THIS BE WORKING? After all this time, is it possible that what you put in your body does matter?

That remains to be seen. I think most scientific journals will require progress that lasts more than three days.

On Saturday, my package of herbal supplements and teas is finally arriving. When I get it, I will lay out all my hippie granola freakshow purchases and take photos and then tell you all about them.

Get excited.

Facial Topography.

Disclaimer: this post is going to make me sound insufferably obnoxious. I know this. If you don’t want to read an ode to my ridiculous first-world problems, maybe skip this one and hold out for tomorrow, when I tackle such heavy hitters as “the six months my now-husband was dating someone else.” Proceed with caution, everyone. And please don’t like me any less when you’re done.

Lately, my audience has expanded a little beyond just those incredibly wonderful and gracious followers who have been with me since the beginning, when all I wrote about was whether or not I was pregnant (read: the answer was always “not”) and what my face skin was up to. Due to this broadened readership, I’ve tried to make my posts a little less myopic.

However, I am still getting visitors daily, daily, from Google searches of the words “chest acne” and “hormonal pimples,” so I think it’s about time for a blast from the archival past.

This is a Chin Skin Update.

Last summer, despite being off the pill for a few months, my face was still flawless (in terms of blemishes. Even then, at the height of my glory, I had no upper lip). In the fall, after I jambled my insides with progesterone replacements and Clomid doses, I was reintroduced to having at least one active volcano on my face all the time. At times, I’ve had up to seven giant Vesuvii at once. Always around my mouth and always enormous. Nowhere near what my acne once was pre-Accutane, but still upsetting. People take Accutane for a reason, and that reason is not that we all loved getting monthly blood tests to make sure our livers were functioning while having our skin crack and bleed and flake off.

The breakouts ebb and flow. There is no rhyme or reason to my hormones right now, so I don’t know what the deal is, but sometimes I have raging zits and sometimes, I get a two-week reprieve, when I can wear no concealer and feel free to touch my face at will.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, the skin thing doesn’t upset me. It is obviously hormonal and out of my control and will probably be a problem until I either get pregnant eventually or just decide to go back on birth control. My husband is contractually obligated to say things like, “I don’t even see anything,” even when it’s really bad, and he’s the only person who gets to see it unmasked. Usually, I am irritated, I am occasionally in minor throbbing pain, I am unfazed.

Except for right now. Tonight. When, out of the clear blue, after weeks of relative calm, I’ve got two massive eruptions brewing. This wouldn’t be a surprise, or even a blip on the radar – in fact, these sneak attacks has been happening for months and I haven’t written about them because who cares? – if Wednesday wasn’t the first time in my entire life I was going to “model” in front of a camera.

I’m one of three women participating in a promotional photo shoot organized by the insanely talented photographer who shot our wedding photos and I’m already terrified because we keep getting referred to in group messages as “the talent” and the only talent I have is to be hugely awkward all the time. Am I going to be expected to smize? (That’s “smile with my eyes,” for those of you who haven’t seen every progressively-more-insane season of America’s Next Top Model.) Am I going to be expected to know what I’m doing? Do I have to have TALENT???

In addition, and most importantly, one of the other “models” is an actual gorgeous model, so totally no pressure.

I can’t wait to be the only person there who has no talent and actual facial topography.

Lovely.

I was a hormonal mess as a teenager.  I had terrible skin (which I cured with Accutane – not pleasant) and terribly greasy hair.  Post-Accutane, my skin/hair normalized almost entirely due to hormonal birth control.  So, you can imagine the joy that is now, as I have been off the pill for four months and am at the mercy of my whacked out hormones.  (Also: hormone, hormone, hormone.)

I give you “Things I Didn’t Know Could Happen To My Hair (And/Or Face)”:

1) I had no idea I would go from perfectly normal, three-washes-a-week hair to completely-unable-to-wash-clean hair six weeks after stopping the pill.

2) I had no idea I would then spend the next 10 days washing my hair with three different kinds of “stripping” shampoos, before trying baking soda pastes and Dove bar soap in desperation, only to discover that my hair was still greasy immediately after drying post-wash every single time.  I took two showers a day for ten days and my hair was never clean.  It was the worst.

3) I had no idea I would be attending my best friend’s baby shower, a graduation at the school where I had just been hired and several family events in those ten days with (still filthy) hair I just washed with a bar of body soap.  (Spoiler alert: I looked like a crazy person.)

4) I had no idea I would solve this hair trauma with a $2.50 bottle of Suave Daily Clarifying Shampoo and I could never have predicted the sheer joy I felt when my hair dried for the first time in what seemed like fifteen years and was actually clean.  (As it is, though, I still can’t go more than 24 hours max without a shampoo.  Screw waiting for positive test results – the grease factor is really the worst part of trying to conceive.)

5) I have had at least one active pimple on my face at all times for five weeks.  I’m hesitant to even complain about this, because when I was sixteen, I would have traded anything to have only one pimple at a time.  However, I’m a month shy of 26 and have been acne-free for five years and there is something really distressing about suddenly having to worry about whiteheads and bright purple facial scars again.

Basically, I’m feeling pretty beautiful right now.

Normalcy.

On Wednesday, I got a call from my doctor with the blood test results and I am, across the board, a normal human being!  Yay!  Apparently, both my blood glucose and my hormones are within the normal range and I’m not a carrier of any of the genetic diseases I was tested for, including cystic fibrosis, which is a huge relief.

I also spent the entire day yesterday with my family and even my brothers are dropping hints about babies.  Either I haven’t been nearly as secretive as I thought I’ve been or everyone really is  on board.