I preached last week at Grand Oaks, the assisted living facility at Sibley Hospital. Before the service began, one of the women seated in the chapel called me over to her.
"How are you?" I said.
"I need to ask you a personal question," she said.
"What's all this stuff on your neck? It looks like pimples or something."
"Yes m'am. It's acne. It's caused by a medicine that I have to take." Which is sort of true.
"Oh, but you're trying to get rid of it?"
"Yep, sure am." Which is sort of true.
"Well, I've just never seen anything like it before."
"Yeah, I like to do new things," I said.
"Oh yes. You're a pioneer!" she said.
I laughed, hard.
I've had acne since I was a teenager. Awful itchy stuff. I make it worse by scratching at it. In high school I was on medicine for it for a little bit but it gave me ugly stomach cramps so I stopped. (I got away lucky and didn't get put on Acutane, which as it turns out can make you suicidal. So not what I needed in high school, any more help with suicidality.)
In college I tries that Proactiv stuff for awhile, and it worked ok on my face, but wasn't really designed for my neck and my back.
Ok, why am I saying all of this?
Just the other day my friend Dana and I were eating in Chinatown. Just as we were leaving the restaurant, one of the waiters stopped me.
"For your neck," he said with great determination, "you need a Chinese doctor."
He went on to tell me that American doctors are no good for this kind of thing, that it's an inside issue not an outside issue, and that in the meantime I should eat a soup made out of pigeon, mungbean (I don't know what that is), and seaweed. He even gave me a slip of paper with the ingredients. I'm assuming I could buy the pigeon somewhere. I'm a bad pigeon hunter. I mean, not like I've tried or anything.
"There's a Chinese doctor on 6th street," he said as Dana and I thanked him and walked away. I wonder if they take my insurance.
What to make of this, this interest in my skin? Frustrating expectations about what people should or shouldn't look like? Wanting people to look at me and see something other than acne? Genuine concern from strangers? All of these, probably.
I guess what I've been thinking about, though, is how acne is easy to see and to ask about. Bipolar, or whatever it is, isn't so easy to spot. The stuff that really haunts my life isn't something I wear visible on my skin, with the faded exceptions of one forearm and a couple of other spots around my body.
So I've been thinking about minor, visible inconveniences. And major, invisible illness. And how my acne is made a lot worse by lithium, by the awful little pink pills that I take because they tell me that my sanity is worth everything tasting like metal and my hands shaking and my thoughts slowing down and my affect flattening out and, well, acne. And how neither acne nor bipolar do much for self-image.
And I'm thinking of how on this day, with the tree across the street turning red and some exercise put behind me and plans to head to MD to see a dear friend, life is worth it. Acne and side effects and bipolar be damned. I like this life.
And that's a major, invisible victory.