— Mental Health Matters

My skin is still recovering from PTSD

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April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Trigger warning: Mentions of sexual assault and self-harm

Have you ever walked barefoot on a sticky kitchen floor? Thanks to my PTSD, my skin felt like that for years.

And it looked like that for years. I had pimples, blackheads, and – most notably – scars from where I used to scratch myself. I was ashamed of it, disgusted by it in the same way you’d feel disgusted by a sticky kitchen floor.

Despite the fact that my nails are usually cut really short, I scratch and scrape myself throughout the night. I used to think it was because I was allergic to something, but it turned out my scratching was fueled by my incessant nightmares.

I was assaulted at the age of 12, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder. From then until now, I’ve had persistent nightmares that seemed to trigger fits of scratching.

It took me years to connect the dots between my PTSD and the way my life changed.

young woman
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Suddenly, I struggled to wear tight clothes, because the restriction reminded me of my assault. I hated paintings of sunflowers, because there was a painting of sunflowers in the room where I was raped. I couldn’t stand being touched by strangers, even accidentally.

There was another particularly odd result of my PTSD: my skin got really awful.

The reason why was twofold. Firstly, we know that stress leads to break-outs. My constant state of panic after my assault probably contributed to my skin getting worse. But secondly, I became weirdly obsessed with personal hygiene after my assault, resulting in me washing and scrubbing my skin so much that it backfired.

As a result, I literally wear my mental health on my skin. My lack of confidence regarding my skin is also a reflection of my mental state.

In a video for Everyday Feminism, Celia Edell speaks about why the pressure to have clear skin is a feminist issue. She explains that it’s an issue relating to class. This is because many medications, clear-skin eating plans, and skincare treatments are expensive. There’s also ableism involved here, because unclear skin can be caused by a range of different medical issues.

Additionally, people – even complete strangers – tend to offer you unsolicited advice about your skin. This usually stems from the assumption that you haven’t tried everything and that you don’t know what’s best for your skin. It’s also really not okay to make unsolicited comments about someone’s appearance. Yes, random soul in the supermarket, I tried Neutrogena. And surprisingly, I do know that I should drink a lot of water.

I often scratched my face and picked at pimples without even realizing it. A fancy new skin cleanser or drinking three liters of water a day wasn’t going to help me if I was obsessively scratching my skin every night.

As Celia points out, many people think those of us with bad skin don’t wash their face – an assumption that’s really not true. For me, my bad skin was exacerbated by the exact opposite behavior: I washed my face far too frequently. I scrubbed my skin until I bled. I showered in excessively hot water and used strong antibacterial fluids. One reason why I did this is because I desperately wanted clear skin, but another reason is that I constantly felt dirty.

When people offered comments about my skin, it felt like they were judging my mental state – even though they had no idea how the two were connected.

Trigger warning: Mentions of sexual assault and self-harm

I was always uncomfortably aware of my skin as it felt like it showed people how corroded and unbalanced my mental state was.

One afternoon, when I felt particularly depressed, I did something quite extreme that changed the nature of my skin for weeks to come. My flashbacks were getting worse, and I couldn’t sleep properly because I was having awful nightmares. No matter how much I washed my skin, I felt like I was covered by a layer of grime.

So I used the strongest stuff I know: surgical spirits. I soaked a cotton ball in the strong-smelling liquid and swept it across my skin. Because I already had a lot of scarring from scratching and over-exfoliating, the spirits burnt my face. But I kept trying to sterilize myself, despite the physical pain it brought me. Of course, this made my skin dryer and more sensitive than ever before. It felt completely raw, like some kind of severe sunburn.

When I recalled the incident to my psychologist some years later, she validated my experience.

“For people who have been assaulted, it’s common to constantly feel dirty,” she explained, confirming what I had read in many forums. “It’s usually linked to someone feeling ashamed about their rape, whether that shame is conscious or subconscious,” she said. “The first step in dealing with it is recognizing that it’s a problem.”
writing in journal
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For me, the second step was a combination of therapy, journaling, and radical transparency about my mental health.

Using mindfulness and meditation, I learned to recognize my anxieties and deal with them in a healthier way.

My supportive loved ones have helped me find peace and self-acceptance.

It might seem silly – vain, even – to worry about my skin after the ordeal I experienced. But in a world where people are really judgmental about appearance, struggling to accept imperfect skin is quite common. In this sense, the state of our skin is a political matter.

My scars still exist, and my skin is far from perfect. On occasion, I still feel deeply ashamed of my scarring and spots – but for the most part, I’ve made peace with the fact that my skin is never going to be clear. That’s progress.

Fortunately, I no longer feel the incessant need to scrub myself clean. I no longer damage my skin with harmful chemicals and loofahs. I’m slowly getting better.

With a lot of love, support and hard work, my scars are beginning to heal, both inside and out.

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