The hot shower splashed my face, and anticipation washed over my body as my boyfriend soaped my back and thighs. I remember how great it felt then to be young, healthy, attractive. Suddenly, without warning, Craig dug his thumb and forefinger into my back and squeezed. I let out a yelp and whirled around. He grinned and said that he’d just popped an enormous zit. It stung like hell. I thought it was an incredibly rude thing for him to do. He apologized, but suddenly I wasn’t in a very forgiving mood. What I wanted to do was smack him. Instead, I got dressed and went home, a romantic evening ruined. That was in October of 1986.

Patient illustration

Court Patton

For the next several months, I was busy attending classes at CSU-Sacramento during the week, then commuting to San Diego every weekend to work. I had so many things to keep track of, I was barely aware that the spot my boyfriend had squeezed had become a tiny open sore over which scabs formed, then fell off prematurely. It was frustrating and annoying but not painful. It was small (narrower than the tip of my pinkie) and located where weird contortions in front of a three-way mirror were required to view the damn thing, so it was easy to ignore. I hoped it would eventually go away.

By January of ’87, my bank balance was so low that I decided to take a break from college and return to San Diego to work. Soon I noticed four or five similar sores on my back and chest. I began using various over-the-counter products that promised rapid healing. None of them worked. Months slipped away, but my condition remained virtually the same. Then, literally overnight, several much larger sores appeared on my face. I looked as though I’d been spattered with hot bacon grease. I’d never seen or heard of anything so bizarre. I became terrified of falling asleep at night for fear of what I’d find the next morning. There was no more room for denial — this was serious. I had to see a doctor.

I didn’t have a family physician since I’d always been so healthy. A friend recommended Dr. A. During the initial consultation, I learned he was a firm believer in holistic medicine. After a brief examination, Dr. A concluded that my liver was the culprit. He placed me on a high-fiber vegetarian diet to rid my body of toxins. I returned for a couple of follow-up visits; but when there was no improvement in the way I looked, I decided to get a second opinion.

More of my face was opening up. I had large, bright-red splotches on my cheeks, nose, and forehead, where the top layer of skin was missing. The brightness and texture reminded me of a peeled tomato. Desperation set in. Perhaps a dermatologist would be better qualified to help me.

I found a skin-care clinic in Mission Valley that accepted walk-in business. Dr. B was available. I had misgivings about him from the beginning. He hobbled in to see me on crutches, with one foot in a cast. At the time, it struck me as comical to see a doctor looking more like a patient. I made a little joke about it, which he took the wrong way. We were off to a bad start. Later, when I removed my top so he could examine my back and chest, he made no effort to hide a look of disgust on his face.

According to Dr. B’s diagnosis, I was suffering from seborrheic dermatitis. Acne? Impossible! It didn’t look like any acne I’d ever seen. But then what did I know? He sent me home with a prescription for a topical cream and told me to schedule my follow-up appointment at his private office. I raised no objection, since it was closer to home. Later, I found out that his private office fees were substantially higher than those charged by the clinic. It seemed unfair, but I didn’t complain. I continued to see Dr. B once a week for about a month and a half and observed no improvement in my condition. In fact, I looked worse. My face was disintegrating, and Dr. B obviously hadn’t a clue about how to stop it. On top of that, his attitude left much to be desired. Dr. B was not kind or sympathetic in the least. When his treatments failed, he did not pursue other medical answers. Instead, he accused me of self-mutilating and suggested I see a shrink.

I’ll admit I did pick — couldn’t help it. It was extremely itchy. I spent hours in front of the bathroom mirror just staring, crying, and picking off all the thick, scaly plaque buildup. In my mind, rosy, raw cheeks were somehow more acceptable than cheeks covered with strange greenish-brown scabs that made me appear reptilian. It was possible that this behavior might exacerbate the problem, but in no way would I accept the blame for having created it. Nevertheless, I made an appointment to see a clinical psychologist.

I still remember the looks I got from people in the elevator as I rode up to the psychologist’s suite on the top floor of the high-rise professional complex. This psychologist serves a primarily upscale clientele. Luckily, her sliding fees made those sessions just barely affordable. I began seeing her once a week, mainly because by then most of my friends had deserted me, and I desperately needed someone to listen and at least pretend to care. When the first episode of Beauty and the Beast aired on television and Ron Perlman’s character was introduced, I remember how bitterly I wept. "He looks better than I do,” I thought. "Sure he’s ugly, but at least he’s not diseased!”

It saddens me to acknowledge that I turned to a psychologist for friendship. Like a guy going to a prostitute for love — I didn’t get what I really wanted, but it was better than nothing, I suppose. I was definitely not the typical neurotic yuppie she was used to dealing with.

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