my greatest lesson learned in 2015

Last year was, for lack of a better term, a bitch. If 2015 were a person, it punched me in the gut, lifted me by the neck, spat in my face and dropped me before demanding me to stand again. It was the most difficult year of my 25. Within it I realized one of my life’s most valuable lessons: Do not allow vanity to overshadow the importance of your overall well-being.

Let me explain. February 2015 marked an exciting time in our lives. My husband and I finally closed on the house we had sank tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of work into flipping. We waited on pins and needles for over a year before the “For Sale” sign was removed from our lawn. We didn’t feel financially secure enough to immediately purchase another home, nor did we want to simply settle on something we weren’t absolutely in love with. So, when his family said we could move into his great-grandmother’s lake house, we were ecstatic.

The house had been vacant for more than 7 years. In that time, as one can imagine, bugs, mice and critters of all kinds took up residence. The place was still fully furnished, clutter strewn about. The deal was simple (or what seemed so at the time): pay our rent in labor. It would be a big job fixing up the place but, in our minds, it would be worth it. It didn’t take long before we realized we were getting in over our heads. We worked an hour-and-a-half away, meaning we woke at 5 and didn’t get home until after 7 p.m. We were exhausted and useless most nights, leaving weekends as our only time for renovations.

In the short (but seemingly never ending) 6 months we lived there, we walked on plywood floors, battled an ongoing infestation of ladybugs, crickets, and roaches, showered with a hose in the basement/garage, and refused to cook anything due to mice. It was miserable.

What made it worse was my hard headedness. The move from one house to another that I was less than enthused about (and whose living conditions, as you can see, were not the healthiest) stressed me out. It stressed me to the point of a breakout. Now, let me take a minute to address your eye rolling: this was no ordinary breakout. This was a breakout that took over the lower half of the left side of my face. I’d never had anything like it. I invested gobs of money into acne creams and washes. Nothing worked. In fact, it just got worse. I had large welts under my skin that began to spread to my other cheek and forehead.

I caked makeup on like it was going out of style – primer, concealer, liquid, powder. It was embarrassing. I was 25 with acne that made me look and feel as self-conscious as a 13-year-old. Dermatologists gave me oral antibiotics and creams, telling me we needed to start slow and build up. Again, nothing touched it. It only grew worse.

It wasn’t until I sought the opinion of another dermatologist that things began to look up. She diagnosed me with cystic acne, one of the hardest acnes to treat. She laid out all my treatment options, including the one I was looking for – Accutane – the strongest drug on the market to treat severe acne.

I’d done a bit of research on the drug beforehand. It had an extensive list of side effects. I’d heard a mix of good things and bad. The good: no acne. The bad: brain swelling, kidney and intestinal damage, severe birth defects and suicide. I was desperate and without a second thought, I signed my life away. And when I say I signed my life away, I literally mean it. If you’ve ever gone skydiving, you know what I’m talking about. I was given a packet of paperwork stating I understood the risks.

I was on the drug for about 4 months, 2 months shy of what was to be my full treatment cycle. (I’ve been off it now for about 4 months.) In that time, I was required to consult with my doctor in-person, review my side effects, take a urine sample, blood sample and an online test – Every. Single. Month. When I say this was some dangerous stuff, I mean it, but in my mind, it was worth it. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

To put it simply, if I were to have the same breakout again, I would never again touch this with a 10-foot pole. I don’t know what I’d do, but giving this drug another shot would not be an option. Did the drug do its job? Yes, but in the end, the side effects far outweighed the end result. Plain and simple: it wasn’t worth it.

If you’re contemplating Accutane, I encourage you to do your due diligence and research it. I’ve read enough to know I’m not alone. And although what I went through was hell, there are many out there who had it (and still do have it) much worse. Know as much as you can before going in. Weigh your pros and cons. This shit does not mess around. I can’t stress that enough.

Here, in order of occurrence, were my 10 stages of Accutane (a.k.a. 10 reasons I will never again take Accutane):

1.  Dry skin
Dry skin is the most common side effect of Accutane and one that is to be expected. In a way, it’s a good thing, because you can see the drug take effect. It proves it’s working. It drastically decreases your oil production and shrinks your pores, allowing your acne to begin to heal and prevent future breakouts. I have extremely oily skin (well, had). At the beginning, I got a little dry. It was kind of nice not having shiny-face halfway through the day. But that only lasted a couple weeks. Then it got drier, drier and drier. And it wasn’t just the skin on my face, it was all over. My legs itched and were scaly and ashy in color. My arms and hands developed eczema. My skin resembled the ground of a severe drought zone, all stretched and cracked. I invested in creams, lotions and salves of all kinds to counteract the dryness, especially for my face. Nothing worked. It got to the point were I was wearing a Vaseline mask to bed each night and it still wasn’t enough.

2.  Cracked, bleeding lips
As if dry skin wasn’t bad enough, my lips dried out. No, not chapped lips – dry, painful, cracked, bleeding lips. They felt like they had a thick, nasty film on them that I couldn’t get off. The last two months I was on the drug the corners of my mouth never healed. It didn’t matter what I put on them. They were always deeply cracked and bleeding. For a 25-year-old woman who already had low self-esteem due to her horrible acne, this sure didn’t help.

3.  Random nosebleeds
Due to the dryness, my nose would bleed. Typically it was when I blew my nose, which was often, due to the fact that my mucus glands had dried up along with everything else. My nose burned every time I took a breath, kind of like when you have a really bad cold or sinus infection. It felt like fire in my nostrils. (I’m surprised I didn’t take the form of a dragon.) Because my nose was so dry and would bleed constantly, I began to develop scabs. It would bleed more and then it was like scabs on top of scabs (Inception scabs). If I wiggled or scrunched my nose, it was stretch and break the scabs open which caused yet more bleeding. I wouldn’t be surprised if my nose is scarred on the inside.

4.  Extreme dry eye
I’d never had a problem with dry eyes until this drug. I wear contacts and when you wear contacts and develop dry eye, it feels like sandpaper every time you close them. Eye drops burn and once the burning subsides you’re left with a goopy, sticky-feeling eye. A few weeks ago, I went to my optometrist. She said my eyes were extremely dry but not to the point most Accutane patients get. Luckily, at this point, I’m just looking at a 6-month eye drop and fish oil regimen. I’ll take that over the hundreds-of-dollars prescription many Accutane patients end up taking.

5.  Skin-crawling sensations
Some people get phantom tingles, itches or twitches. I get those occasionally, but this is different. This is the sensation that tiny spiders, or something with small, hairy legs, are crawling beneath my skin (think chestburster scene from Alien). It’s usually on my legs. If I’m in bed when it happens, I’ll rip the blankets off and find nothing. The first time it happened, I thought I was going insane. Unfortunately, this is one of the few side effects I still have today. It’s extremely frustrating when you’re at work or someplace in public and have pants on.

6.  Worsened eyesight
While I was at the optometrist, I learned that my script worsened by 0.25. For someone who’s 25 and script hasn’t changed in years, that’s a huge drop. I asked if it was permanent. She assured me it was. When you take an oral drug and it permanently affects your vision, take it as a sign.

7.  Excruciatingly painful headaches
I have chronic headaches. I get them all the time. They range from slight headaches to raging migraines. I’ve known for a while that I’ve needed to see a doctor but haven’t yet. Now I’ve had some horrible headaches in my time. I’ve had headaches that have required me to rest in a dark, quiet room for hours and others that have temporarily taken my sight. But I’ve never felt pain in my head quite like this. It’s a sharp, intense, shooting pain that goes up one side of my head and lasts for about 10-30 seconds. It’s like a wave of immense pain that makes you stop what you’re doing, nearly double-over and just as quickly as it came, it’s gone. Typically, they happen about once every couple weeks. Unfortunately, this is another side effect I still have today.

8. Hair loss and thinning
I’ve always had thick hair, so I should be thankful that when I began to lose my hair, it wasn’t too noticeable. I would brush my hair and 30+ strands would come out, enough to have to empty my brush each time. In addition to my hair falling out, the drug stunted its growth. My hair used to grow fast, extremely fast. That’s not the case anymore. And the dryness… Just like my skin, my hair is extremely oily. It sounds disgusting, but toward the end of my Accutane cycle, I could leave my hair in a bun for four days and it would look the exact same – no grease. And my eyelashes suffered. They became so brittle that when I removed my mascara at the end of the day, six or more lashes went with it. I eventually had to stop wearing mascara. Today, my lashes are back to normal and my hair is back to its oily nature, but it’s still thinner than it was before. It’s only been a few months since I’ve been Accutane-free, so I have hope my hair will return to its normal thickness in time.

9.  Mental breakdowns
I could be crying one minute and screaming the next. It could be triggered by a harmless comment, a thought or nothing at all. One day, for no reason, I stormed outside and threw rocks, flower pots and whatever else I could get my hands on. After a minute of maniac tendencies, I felt better – guilty but better. I had so much unnecessary anger pent up at no one and nothing in particular that I felt as though I would burst if I couldn’t find a way to release it. Apparently, physical rage seemed like the only reasonable answer at the time. I’m not a violet person. It was terrifying.

10.  Severe depression
Depression was by and large my worse side effect. It consumed my life. There’s a distinct difference between sadness and depression. The best way I can describe it: I felt like I was stuck in a perpetual fog that followed me from the moment I opened my eyes each morning to the moment I closed them at night. I felt like I was asleep, simply going through life in some dreamlike state, unconscious, surrounded by nothingness. Nothing mattered. I simply didn’t care. I lost interest in everything and everyone I loved. I hated my job. I felt uneasy, self-conscious and anxious. I harped on my failures and weaknesses and saw only negativity. I worried those around me and felt guilty for it even though there was nothing I could do. It was like a nightmare I couldn’t wake from. At my lowest point, I wondered what would happen if I crashed my car into a concrete barrier. My first thought was: good, I won’t have to go to work tomorrow. My second: would anyone care? I want to be clear that I wasn’t wishing death upon myself. I was desperate for someone or something to “shake” me and “wake” me up, to prove that I wasn’t asleep, that this was real life I was living and messing with. My severe depression is what forced me to cut my Accutane cycle short. After talking with my doctor about my symptoms, she agreed that I should stop immediately. Thankfully, about a week or so after stopping, my depression subsided.

I said all that to say this: If you’re considering Accutane, please think it through. Read other people’s experiences. Ask yourself if it’s truly worth it. Explore other options first. If I can talk one person out of taking it with this post, I’ve done my job. I understand where you’re coming from. Honestly, I do. When you look at yourself in the mirror, it’s all you can see. You feel ugly. You’re desperate and willing to do anything to get rid of it. I get it. I was there, did it and regret it. It will do its job, yes, but it will come with a cost. Be smart. Be safe.

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