“Everybody has scars. It’s just that most people wear them on the inside” – M.W. Stromberg
At Fourteen, I didn’t have any big life dreams other than to fit in with the rest of the 80’s misfits in high school. In a sea of Member’s Only jackets, leg warmers, pastel Izod polo shirts and Z Cavaricci jeans, you’d think it would’ve been easy. But hearing my nick-name, Freddy Kruger because of a skin disease on my face, over and over through the halls punctured my sense of self. With every Kruger calling, internal scar tissue seeped through my bones, weaving its way throughout my teenage years, and even in adulthood. As it turns out, my Pee Chee folder force field and Trapper Keeper sun visor I used while walking to class – not helpful.
My only dream at that time was having Brooke Shields, Cosmopolitan Magazine cover, flawless skin. And even though my face wasn’t magically cured, when I walked on the stripping stage for the first time just five years later – it sure as hell felt like it was.
I don’t remember what life was like before having scars on my face. Their presence has been tattooed on my soul, far deeper than what my skin allows. The familiar grimace when greeting my reflection, the slight panic when my eyes lock with a child or walk in a crowded elevator, the slick dinner candle maneuvers; placing them as far from under my chin as possible. It was all autopilot defense in what personal history has taught me. The mirror will always be unfair. Children, in their innocent brutality of truth, will question why something looks different. And shadows, tucked inside my skin, will never, ever be my friend.
It’s hard to believe it all started thirty years ago with a pea-sized bump on my cheek. This wasn’t something I could just pop, either. Much like my love for Chachi Arcola and Shaun Cassidy, this was deep, and it was real. And as if looking like I was shot with a BB gun wasn’t awesome enough, this…thing hurt like mad. It felt like a nasty bruise and every time I smiled or spoke, someone pressed it – hard.
Within days the tiny bump wasn’t so tiny. It filled with blood and was now close to the size of golf ball. It was also no longer alone – almost overnight, it seemed to have multiplied all over my face. I didn’t see any other kids’ faces in school resembling anything close to mine, so I was truly baffled, not to mention irritated. It was putting a major dent in my plan of becoming a Solid Gold dancer after graduation.
Most every teen on the planet (except, maybe Brooke) gets to live through the lovely coming-of-age meat grinder of adolescence by having acne (not to mention braces, body odor, mood swings, menstrual periods, random hard-ons, and sprouting a wild jungle of pubes), but this was something else. It seems I won some kind of puberty jackpot. I learned (during the first of many doctor visits) that my case was an extreme and rare form of acne called Stage IV Acne Vulgaris (also known as Acne Conglobata, a very serious skin disease complete with nodules and blood-filled cysts).
As soon as Doctor Vulgaris broke the news to mom and me, my eyes welled up. And with the voice of a guilty teenager begging for mercy, I sat up on the tissue-paper covered table and vowed on back issues of Hi Life magazines to never eat chocolate, greasy fries, pizza or Chinese food again. But Dr. V just shot me half a smile with I’m sorry dear in his eyes. He explained to us that this horror had nothing to do with diet. This was a blood disease and was hereditary. I was grateful for his honesty, but he could’ve at least broken the news with a Snicker’s bar or deep-fried won tons.
After assessing mom’s flawless skin and raven-haired, hazel-eyed beauty, the level of disdain I already had for my scar-faced father percolated. It’s one thing to fall in love with a Pan Am stewardess, bail on your wife and two babies, move to Canada to avoid paying child support – but to give me THIS – thanks, dad – you’re the best.
“I hate him.” I could barely get the words out between hyperventilating through my tears. I had not seen him in years but envisioned my father at the bottom of the elevator shaft in the hospital. I wanted the cables to snap, causing us to plummet eighteen floors right on his selfish, Vulgaris-riddled face. I knew he didn’t do this to me, but something about knowing my dad’s genes were a variable in the equation of my pain induced a type of heartache that didn’t feel human. “I really, really hate him.”
“I know, honey.” The fluorescent lights above her angelic face reflected against her glasses, but I could still see it in her eyes; I knew all too well, the look of worry when it came to disappointment from him.
It didn’t take long before my face was covered with red and purple cysts that oozed blood with the touch of my finger. And they didn’t just leak where I pressed them. It was a maze of gore, connected deep under my skin; an ant farm of Freddy.
One night propped up on my bathroom counter in boxer shorts and my favorite Blondie t-shirt, I folded my legs and planted myself in front of the mirror, one ass cheek in the sink. I wanted to get a closer look at a particularly massive cyst on my temple next to my left eye. It was so huge and purple, almost black – that a kid in school announced to the class earlier that day that it looked like I got punched in the face (which I didn’t deny, because beaten was better than ugly). I could barely see out of the corner of my eye so I decided to drain it myself.
After lighting a match to the tip of one of mom’s safety pins from her sewing kit (I don’t know why I thought that would make it more sterile), I went to work. I barely pierced my flesh and in a second, I heard a hissing sound, like air being let out of a balloon and the cyst exploded, splattering blood all over the mirror and walls. It looked like a crime scene. But there was still more blood in the wound. I held my breath, not knowing what would come next and pressed the edges around the cyst gently. Then something freaky happened. The skin under my chin tracing my jaw ripped open and before I knew what was happening, I felt blood dripping on my thigh. It was from a cyst I wasn’t even touching. Fascinated and mortified, I couldn’t call out to my mom or even cry. I spent the next twenty minutes using every bathroom tissue in the box wiping up the evidence.
A couple of days later, more cysts. This time, in addition to my face, they showed up on my neck, chest and back. My throat would ooze blood if I stretched my neck to one side. This time the tears managed to come. I was wearing a Halloween costume that was impossible to take off.
Somewhere between the bathroom crime scene and waking up with bloodstained towels covering my pillowcase every morning, I did something religious for the first time in my life, without feeling like I had to.
God, if this is you, if you really do exist, I know it’s not Christmas or Easter or anything, and I’m nowhere near a church, but if you can hear me, if you’re not too busy with that whole Kingdom of Heaven gig, I’m begging you – please, please – don’t wake me up.
No matter where I was – in class, the cafeteria, the gym or walking home, those days were tainted with a chant that still haunts me to this day: “Kruuuuger! Kruuuuger!” Sometimes I still hear it; when I give my fear exclusive sabotaging rights over my willingness to take a risk. It’s the serenade of self-doubt when the beads of sweat from belief and worry exhaust themselves from the tug-of-war within the space of my courage. The bellowing melody of cruelty, which wraps me in pain, suffocating my strength when faced with any challenge in my adult life.
It didn’t take long before cutting class (behind moms back) seemed logical. Why roam the halls dodging bullies when I could hang at home, listen to The Smiths, and get loaded off Chablis and Fresca? Besides, compared to Erica Kane, my life somehow didn’t seem as bad.
The next couple of years were a blur of at-home, alcohol induced pity parties nestled between monthly doctor visits (complete with blood tests, cortisone shots, dry ice sticks, Tetracycline and Accutane doses) and even a couple facial surgeries. Accutane was a new pill on the market, still in the testing phase, but Dr. V suggested I give it a try. The side effects were brutal: the skin on my palms, bottom of feet and lips peeled like rice paper, and my scalp was so dry I could “make it snow” like Ally Sheedy’s character Allison in The Breakfast Club, but I didn’t care. My cysts were nearly gone. The only problem was the crater-like scars left it their wake. Over 80 percent of my face looked like melted wax. No longer bloody, but far from Brooke Shields smooth, my skin took me from Freddy Kruger to Moon Face. And still, another year of high school to go.
Before twenty-first century laser beams and magical serums were invented, 1986 for me was spent mostly recovering from the same surgery – twice. This archaic procedure, called Dermabrasion (not to be confused with the micro-Dermabrasions of today) took me under general anesthetic while the skin on my face was sand-blasted with a wire brush. The idea was to smooth out the deep craters as best it could, but I was warned that the results were going to be less than perfect.
Moon Face – Forever?
On the plus side, I discovered Demerol. It’s one thing to shoot back wine all day when I should’ve been conjugating verbs and mastering algebra, but adding pain killers to the mix was a total game-changer.
Then – senior parties, fake IDs and night clubs. Somewhere between the pills and booze, the 80s glam drug cocaine found its way to my wheelhouse. Self-anesthetizing my pain with chemicals became my safety net from suicidal fantasies, which is how I justified walking the graduating line with a half gram of blow tucked inside the cup of my bra.
If it wasn’t for my beautiful Barbie Doll friend, Angela convincing me to join her in entering a wet-t shirt contest at nineteen, I never would have stepped foot on the stripper stage. My face was still heavily scarred but I could at least leave the house. Besides, my 1987 Chaka Kahn hair served me well, replacing my Trapper Keeper shield. And with the help of some new drag queen friends from the dance clubs, caked-on theater make-up became my friend.
With my cellulite-free, size four body and natural dance moves, I was a hit on stage. Every dollar bill tip in my garter was validation. For the first time in my life, I felt…pretty. I was finally home.
Freddy and Moon were far from dead, but they were definitely muted with my new-found life of velvet ropes and VIP rooms. Two years flew by and with my 21st birthday on the horizon, I had no idea where my rock-star life would take me, but I was more than ready to find out.