I didn’t meet Ethel until after the events I’m going to talk about here and no her name isn’t really Ethel. Thing is I know she’ll never read this but I it would be a sin to let her real name get out there. She’s not a freak and lord knows she’s suffered enough. I want however many days she has left to be peaceful ones.
But, I can’t not share her story. It haunts me.
No one ever intends to become an addict but all it takes is that first sip of wine at dinner or a sampling of an illicit pharmaceutical at a party for an unlucky individual to start down a path of self-destruction. Drugs and alcohol aren’t the only thing that can prey on the weak willed or unlucky, shopping, food and gambling have all made people miserable at one time or another. Whole industries have sprung up to help men and women from all walks of life take back control of their lives. But Ethel’s addiction was an unusual one, there were no recognized treatments or easy explanations.
Ethel, you see, was addicted to popping pimples. It began with a YouTube video that her friends shared amongst themselves. A woman with a cyst on her back the size of an apple. It was the kind of video that was sent with the header of, “Can you watch all the way through?” or “Super Gross Out!”
The woman in the video, Ethel never saw her face or heard her name, was in what looked like a doctor’s office. Hands in latex gloves covered the oversized blemish with antiseptic and made sure plenty of gauze was nearby. Then a sharp scalpel came into view. It cut the skin and white-yellow fluid all but burst from the wound. It went everywhere some even landing on the camera filming the event. The person using the scalpel kept working, rolling the tip of the instrument around, coaxing more and more of the noxious-looking fluid out until all the flowed from the wound was blood.
Ethel was riveted, she watched the video dozens of times.
That YouTube video led to others, link after link of squeezing fingers and lancing instruments. The videos led her to Reddits and forums, to exclusive Facebook and Pinterest pages.
Watching kept her up late at night, sometimes she never went to bed at all.
She remembered being a teenager, the occasional breakouts and her mother cautioning her not to pick at her face. Compared to the other girls she had been lucky; there were some that had hidden their faces behind the books they were caring, who had endured insults like ‘Pizza Face’ and worse. Everyone said Ethel was one of the prettiest girls in class.
But she was thirty years old now, bored with work and marriage, The next time Ethel got a blemish, it was on her shoulder, she stared at it a long time. She had drawers of special skin care products for this kind of thing, but she decided that this time she would take matters into her own hands.
It took barely any pressure at all, certainly less than she expected. And it was so much better experienced than watched; the discomfort, the sudden pressure, the release, and the lingering soreness. On some level she couldn’t understand she both heard and felt the blemish give way.
Then Ethel took to giving her husband Floyd back rubs. He certainly didn’t protest, that hour or so was probably the most time they’d spent together in months. His law practice kept him busy, maddeningly so at times.
When she found some ingrown hair or neglected pustule he would ask her to not pick at it and she wouldn’t listen. She was relentless, it didn’t matter how much he squealed or if she drew blood. To keep him from shying away she made sure that her grooming sessions ended with sexual intercourse.
To Ethel it was a perfectly mature understanding, Floyd got what he wanted and she got what she wanted.
It went on like that for a time, Ethel sating herself with videos until a bump or blackhead appeared on herself or her husband. Those were moments she savored like fine wine. She probably could have gone on like for the rest of her life but Floyd had other ideas. One night at dinner he told her that he was in love with a coworker and he was leaving.
Ethel had wondered why he’d pulled the old suitcase out of the attic days earlier but never thought to ask. She’d never suspected she needed to.
Soon enough she was living alone for the first time in her life, alone and inconsolable. She had friends and family close by but it wasn’t enough, she had a busy work schedule and that wasn’t enough. Finishing off one bottle of Chablis a week wasn’t enough.
Even the pimple popping videos weren’t enough.
So, Ethel changed her diet, eating more and more fast food, more and more chocolate. She read articles with skin care advice and did the opposite of their recommendations.
Then she waited.
The first few blemishes were small, little pinpricks of red that almost looked like freckles. Ethel worked at them eagerly having grown her nails out and bought a new makeup mirror for just this occasion.
Tiny but exhilarating, the discharge they expelled was thick and solid; she could roll it around on her fingertips.
When the next few pimples began to show she left them be, let them fatten up; whiteheads grew, blackheads darkened. The whiteheads almost always went painlessly but spectacularly, marking the surface of her mirror with speckles of yellow, white and green. Sometimes she would keep the pressure on until she added a spattering of red to the mix.
The blackheads could be more challenging, sometimes resisting her attentions for hours at a time until they were nothing so much as swollen nubs of pain that felt far larger than they actually were. When the surface of one finally broke it would exclude a thin streamer of puss. She would watch in fascination as the little filament of exudate twisted along her finger and then squeeze harder and harder until something would give way and a rivulet of blood veined with yellow and white shot from the wound.
She would celebrate each of her victories of those blemishes with a glass of wine and a dab of Sea Breeze.
Left cheek then right cheek, forehead then chin, she would let one part of her face fester and work at another. She learned how to cultivate razor bumps when she shaved her legs and was amazed at how resistant they could be but made them give up their secrets.
All it took was a sewing needle and persistence.
Occasionally she filmed herself but it was never the same on playback, no matter how close she got to the camera. And Ethel never ever considered posting them, this was for her and her alone. She could imagine no experience more intimate.
Late at night when was lying in bed, half drunk with her face and legs stinging with astringent, she would wonder how much she had drained from her body this way, drop by drop, spurt by spurt. A pint? Maybe a gallon. She tried to imagine it, a an empty carton or milk jug overflowing with thick, putrefying liquid. She thought of the skin cells she shed every day and the mucus that gathered in her nose, of the mites that lived on her eyelashes and the bacteria that made their homes in her gut.
In the end was that all a person was? A festering wound? A host for infections?
Ethel’s friends and relatives would try to broach the subject of her complexion with her, never directly though. They would ask if she was sick, if she had seen a doctor or what beauty products she was using. She would wave such concerns away and change the subject. What did they know about her and her interests? As she drifted from one party or family reunion to another she would see more and more pitying gazes thrown her way, Ethel accepted them with a grim amusement.
Sometimes she would see people staring at a particularly swollen blackhead or purposely neglected twin-headed pimple and see a flash of something familiar in their eyes. They wanted to get their fingers on those blemishes as much as she did, to feel the lump skin protest against the squeezing and then give way. She was never uncomfortable with these people. Let them stare, let them be jealous.
Other times she would see nothing but pure disgust in someone’s expression, someone with perfect skin and hair that judged her and saw her as somehow inferior. With those people Ethel wanted nothing more than to give a demonstration of her newly developed skills, to send an arc of pus sailing into their face with a single, simple gesture.
But she never did that, it would have been a waste.
Then she had the accident.
It was a stupid thing really, Ethel had been driving back from the store when she’d become distracted by a previously unnoticed ingrown hair lurking just behind her earlobe. She knew better than to text and drive, or call and drive, she wasn’t even one to fiddle with the radio while in traffic but her attention kept returning to the blemish. One hand on the wheel she tried to get it to go by pinching it between the fingers of her free hand.
No luck. It was maddeningly resistant.
So, finally she gave in to temptation and used both hands to push at the ingrown hair. The pimple plopped open just as she clipped the front fender of the Nissan running the yellow light ahead of her.
She wasn’t in the wrong, that was obvious but the officers on the scene insisted on breathalyzer tests all around. They found Ethel’s blood alcohol level to be with the legal limit, but just barely.
It was all so embarrassing, and the Nissan’s driver only made things worse by suing anyone and everyone possible. They told a story that painted them as a victim of irresponsible drivers, poorly designed intersections and soft tissue damage.
Ethel was surprised when she saw her ex-husband Floyd among the attorneys involved in the deposition, she was even more surprised when he didn’t recognize her. When she finally approached him after the proceedings all his well trained lawyerly dispassion was gone in an instant. When he spoke his voice was loud enough that everyone in the room heard.
“What the Hell happened to you?”
Those words followed Ethel home from the courthouse. Every time she glimpsed herself in the rearview mirror or reflective surface she heard it again. “What the Hell happened to you?”
When she got home she cursed that there was no alcohol in the house but she had told herself she needed to cut down. The accident had been a close call and she had been frightened to realize later that she didn’t know how long it had been before her last drink and hitting the road that night.
But she would have loved a drink right then. She wanted her mind to be empty and spinning, she wanted her vision and senses blurred.
Once, not too long ago, he had looked upon her face with adoration, then, later on, resignation. In time Ethel had become used to both, but the expression of horror on his face. It had been too much to bear.
She cleaned off her makeup mirror and looked at herself, not the blemishes old and new, not the oily patches and deep, bruised-looking pockmarks. Ethel saw herself, saw the extent of her self mutilation.
Why had she done this? Why had she become so obsessed with act of whittling away at herself to the point that she had become unrecognizable to the man that had shared her bed for nine years? Remembering the tiny blooms of pleasure she had taken in the act suddenly left her feeling sick to her stomach.
Ethel ran her hands over her cheeks, they were ragged and eaten away, her forehead was a ruin of interconnected scars and her chin was a festering wound of pustules half gone to becoming cysts.
Someday, long from that moment, she would come to learn the terms Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior and Excoriation Disorder but that night, the night she wailed with self-disgust and self-realization and smashed her mirror, Ethel only know this it was more than she could take.
And after all, what was one more mutilation at this point?
She hooked each of her hands into claws and brought them forward, and, after a deep breath to steel her courage, drove them deep into her eye sockets with all her might.
Then she pinched.