Skinned alive… surviving by the skin of my teeth

For a great many years, I contemplated suicide on a near daily basis. That I didn’t actually follow through on these ideations had much less to do with principles or consideration for others than with an abiding terror of disappearing forever into the yawning abyss of the unknown.

I suffered from severe acne from the age of 13 until I was over 20. The affliction shattered what little self-esteem that I had mustered during childhood, already in tatters from years of being mocked by my father, teased as a “fatboy,” then bullied for being a “browner” and what would be dubbed today a “nerd.”

There is plenty of available literature concerning suicidal ideations and acne (a few links are appended at the end of this text*), but a dearth of personal accounts.** I want to share my experience of these horrors so that my wife and sons will understand me better and in solidarity with all those who have suffered torments similar to my own.

I’m nearly 72 years old and the memories of my teenage acne years are as searing today as the scorching heat of a branding iron newly applied to sensitive, flayed flesh.

When my face began to “break out,” my parents reacted true to form, my father constantly drawing attention to my condition (“look at all those ‘pinkles’… your face is a mess”) and my mother valiantly attempting to help with what she termed “skin problems,” her initiatives proving futile when not counter-productive. During my adolescence in the 1960s, “the science” concerning acne involved remedies including Noxzema, a greasy unguent that my mom urged me to slather on at night, as well as various ointments and soaps, particularly an indigestible lump called Fostex cake, and of course Clearasil, a magic elixir whose ads bombarded tv screens and the airwaves, featuring jingles and slogans that people of my generation still remember today: ”When a blemish appears/ And you’re nearly in tears…/ When a faulty complexion is sheer frustration/ Be a Clearasil girl… A clear skin beauty/  Feel pretty, feel pretty again.”


By the ripe old age of 13, my moods were entirely determined by the condition of my face, and of the rest of my body, since the scourge soon spread to my chest and back, exposed during excruciatingly humiliating showers that were mandatory after phys ed class in those days. Being taunted in the changing room as “pizza face” was common currency, fueled no doubt by the tormentors’ own inchoate sense that “there but by the grace of God go I.”

For several years in high school, we had phys ed classes first thing in the morning, and I remained acutely and miserably aware of the inflamed condition of my face for the rest of the day.

There was nobody to talk to about this epidermal torment. I was too embarrassed and humiliated to discuss it with my friends (guys didn’t touch such subjects with a proverbial ten-foot pole) and confessing to my parents was out of the question. We didn’t have a school nurse or psychologist in those retrograde times, and ”health” class was dispensed by shamefaced phys ed teachers who had their hands full, as it were, with explaining the confounding intricacies of genitalia, or by the guidance counselor, who was simply a brute.

So I invented all sorts of strategies to get through my high school days. Early on, I stopped looking in the mirror, except after showering in the morning, at which time I applied purloined face powder, nicked from my mom’s cosmetics drawer, or baby powder, which I purchased surreptitiously at the local drug store. I had to feel like I was “doing something” so as not to give in to total despair.  I squeezed and picked, then scalded my face under the bathroom tap or shower, before turning the water to ice cold, literally dozens of times a day. I eschewed eating chocolate or potato chips and devoured about eight oranges on a daily basis since I had heard or read somewhere about the anti-blemish powers of Vitamin C. (There were all sorts of myths circulating then as there are now about how to curb acne and why it afflicts some poor souls and not others.)

By the time I reached Grade 12 in 1968, Beatlemania had given way to hippiedom, and long hair and beards were the order of the day. At 16 years of age, I wasn’t able to coax a decent beard, and early attempts at shaving severely aggravated my acne, but I did grow long hair, especially to cover my ravaged forehead. ( I looked for all the world like a bedraggled, inverted dust mop.)

Notwithstanding these daily agonies, I somehow managed to get through school and even to win a scholarship to study in Neuchatel, Switzerland in 1969. My “Neuchie” classmates were brilliant and witty; the opportunity to finish high school in Europe was a godsend; and the travel opportunities were astounding, especially in those pre-mass-tourism days. Yet my skin issues worsened in a new context, with a new diet, and with new (bad) habits. I took up chain smoking to hide behind a ubiquitous brandished cigarette and its noxious billowing fumes. I also escaped into alcohol consumption – wine, beer, and spirits being readily available to minors in those more libertine European circles – and pot smoking, anything to deaden the obsessive thoughts of suicide. As was the case during my earlier high school years, I sought out darkness, the nocturnal world of bars and theatres where I felt like my affliction was less evident to the naked eye.

In Neuchatel in 1969, showers were at a premium, as were simple baths. I was billeted in a house with two other guys and we were allowed one bath per week each. For the rest of the time, I would scald my face under the bathroom tap… until I devised a couple of novel strategies.

It turned out that our Madame and Monsieur had a tiny swimming pool on their property, so every morning during September and October, at 6 a.m., I would plunge into the freezing water, in order, I believed, to help my skin heal… hope bathing eternal. (The Swiss family feared for my mental and physical health, for all the wrong reasons.)

When the weather simply became too frigid for my diurnal dip, I concocted another strategy with my friend and classmate, a dude called Salty Dog. Salty (or Dog) was of course not his real name, but nobody that I knew called him anything else. Salty was a nervous bearded gent, a fine fellow and a good friend who lived in the same village as I and was subject to the same bathing restrictions. He chafed under these strictures, not because he suffered from “skin problems” but simply because he felt sweaty and uncomfortable without having access to a regular shower. So Salty and I availed ourselves of the Neuchatel public baths on a weekly or bi-weekly basis during the chilly months of late fall; we were ushered into our own private shower stalls by an ancient crone who also provided a clean white towel for the bargain basement price of a Swiss franc (25 cents).

Our forays into the Stygian depths of the public baths were only interrupted by a school trip to Spain and Morocco during the festive season, a voyage during which we stayed in hotels and I would shower and scorch four or five times a day, making up for lost hygiene.

Unfortunately the public bath caper came to a crashing conclusion in early January 1970 when I severely fractured my leg and ankle in a major skiing accident, entailing a hospital stay of three weeks and home confinement for over two months, during which time my acne issues went through the roof.

When I could finally hobble about outdoors on my damaged leg, I would limp along the village streets for hours until the ankle swelled enormously and the pain proved unbearable, a distraction from the psychological torment of what I felt was my terminal ugliness and the manifestation of a compulsion to stay outside, buffeted by the frigid winds of late winter so as to bring a camouflaging ruddiness to my despoiled visage.

My happiest moments during that seminal year in Europe occurred whenever I thought that the problem had lessened, usually after I had spent the better part of a day inducing a sunburn by roasting myself to a crisp on a beach or a glacier.

I would have taken any measures, swallowed any toxic concoction, if I had felt that it offered the least bit of hope or solace.

My skin issues have determined my life trajectory, of that I’m convinced. Feeling irremediably hideous and being abjectly unpopular in high school, with no girlfriends or invitations to parties, left me craving friends and attention, and led to my becoming what my wife calls, tongue-in-cheek, “nauseatingly friendly.”

In addition, I’m sure that I became a junior college teacher with a genuine love for adolescents due in large part to my acne issues.

These acne torments and the concomitant low self-esteem also led me into a first marriage at an early age, a union that lasted eight years and was marked by my wife’s serial infidelity. Throughout my teens and twenties, I felt like two cents, né pour un petit pain, as Quebecers would say; in other words, born for a pittance: condemned by fate to a life, if not miserable, at least reduced to little happiness.

It’s only owing to my kind and lovely wife Anne and my wonderful, witty sons, Dan and David that I’ve survived, even thrived.


On a recent trip to Thailand to visit our younger son, I contracted a tropical skin infection, which eventually turned a sickly green. My teenage agonies, always so near the surface, re-emerged in full force. I felt ugly and disfigured – and 15 years old once again.




Acne and suicide


*Bad acne linked to suicidal thinking in teens –

Suicidal Ideation, Mental Health Problems, and Social Impairment Are Increased in Adolescents with Acne: A Population-Based Study – ScienceDirect

Myths about acne


 Janis Ian “At 17” a song with references to “skin problems”



I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired

The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth

And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone

Who called to say, “Come dance with me”
And murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems
At seventeen

A brown eyed girl in hand-me-downs
Whose name I never could pronounce
Said, “Pity, please, the ones who serve
They only get what they deserve”

And the rich-relationed hometown queen
Marries into what she needs
With a guarantee of company
And haven for the elderly

Remember those who win the game
Lose the love they sought to gain
In debentures of quality
And dubious integrity

Their small-town eyes will gape at you
In dull surprise when payment due
Exceeds accounts received
At seventeen

To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball

It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
When dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me

We all play the game, and when we dare
To cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone
Repenting other lives unknown

They call and say, “Come dance with me”
And murmur vague obscenities
At ugly girls like me
At seventeen

Robert McBryde Author: IndieReader approved, adolescence, acne, hippies, pop music, 1960s, 1970s, blogging, social media,  CBC radio, literary non-fiction, tales, short stories, vignettes, immigrant experience, Quebec anglos, living in France,  childhood and animal stories, creative memoirs, satire, autobiography, family relations, fathers, raising children, aging, facing death, travel, social commentary, love and marriage, translation: English-French; French-English

Publisher’s Note:  Funny, manic, and wistful… self-deprecating creative nonfiction…The author, Robert McBryde, a professional translator, has been compared to David Sedaris for the sometimes-snarky autobiographical satire characterizing his literary sketches. Many of the stories in his new book, titled My Time with You Has Been Short but Very Funny, have been featured on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio network.


Author’s Note:

I’ve written a new book of creative non-fiction titled My Time with You Has Been Short but Very Funny, recently published and now on the market. The book is based on stories that I told over the years as a writer/ broadcaster and host on CBC radio based in Quebec City, Canada.

The book is available via my website. The purchase links are at the bottom of the home page.

Normally I will post at least two morning blogs per week. Stay tuned!

If you purchase a book via the platform of your choice, please leave a review!

Here is an excerpt from my IndieReader review:

“[This] memoir is… an enjoyable and touching read. Radio listeners in Quebec are already familiar with the wit and wisdom of Robert McBryde. The non-fiction collection, MY TIME WITH YOU HAS BEEN SHORT BUT VERY FUNNY, gives the rest of the world access to the author’s inimitable style.”

“Please note that [this] book received a rating of 4 stars or above, making it “IndieReader Approved”, a designation we created to make it easier for readers and booksellers to identify quality indie titles. Post the sticker proudly, knowing that your title was judged by top industry professionals—not as merely a great indie book—but as great book, period.”

Here is a link to a cool group book review blog:

My Time With You Has Been Short But Very Funny, a review by Di


And this is a link to Goodreads. A great place to learn about new books and to read reviews.

Di’s review of My Time with You Has Been Short but Very Funny


And, finally, a review from Amazon…


A Spirited Dive into Life’s Laughter and Tears (

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