Accutane. First of all, I took that stupid pill for 9 months, and I still don’t know how to spell the name without googling it. But, I digress.
For those who don’t know, Accutane (medically known as Isotretinoin) is a retinoid medication that treats severe acne. It’s for people who have had little or no success with topical or antibiotic treatments. It’s basically a last resort for acne sufferers since it is known for having really intense side effects.
For months, I imagined what it would feel like to write this post. I thought I would feel a sense of victory and relief. In some ways I do, but I’ve only been off it for a few weeks, and I still have an unshakable worry that the acne will come back. Still, I couldn’t resist making this post. People always ask me if I think this pill is worth it, and I figured I’d save myself some breath by making this post. Obviously, everybody responds to the medication differently, but I hope more than anything that my story can give some clarity to anyone considering taking this medication. I know already that I’m going to jump around a bunch, but I want this to be as raw and honest as possible. So here we go…my accutane story…
I have a picture of myself in second grade in which I’m putting my hand on my chin and making a philosophical pose. I remember my mom asking why I posed like that for the picture, and I explained to her that I had a huge zit on my chin. In second grade. That’s my first acne memory.
I started going to a dermatologist in sixth grade. Back then, my acne was very much present, but not cystic. The dermatologist put me on an antibiotic and boom, my acne was gone. My skin stayed fairly clear for a while, but only with the help of antibiotics. I kept going on and off the antibiotics, and they always cleared my skin up. In Sophomore year, I realized I couldn’t keep relying on antibiotics to stay clear-skinned, especially since my acne began turning cystic. You cannot expect to have a healthy gut while taking antibiotics, and my priority was my health. My dermatologist recommended trying birth control pills, but those didn’t work at all and only gave me terrible headaches. Then, I tried a hormonal pill. It wasn’t an antibiotic, wasn’t unhealthy for me to take, and was supposed to clear up my skin. After a few days on that pill, I began feeling hungry all the time. I would eat 6 times a day and still feel so famished. I even got up in the middle of the night to eat. Being the way I am, I went on WebMd and concluded that I was dying. After some fun doctor visits, I was told I was perfectly healthy, but that’s not what the scale was saying. I lost 10 pounds in those two weeks which is terrifying considering I was only 110 pounds to begin with. The pill is a diuretic, but I didn’t realize just how much weight it would make me lose. After leaving that pill behind, I knew I only had one choice left. The choice that I never saw myself making. The choice I heard so many horror stories about. The choice that would affect every area of my life for the next year. I decided to start taking Accutane. My dermatologist had suggested the medication to me many times previously, but every time I begged her to find something less intense. Finally, I was out of options.
So, one gloomy August day, I had my first blood test to be cleared for the pill. I did about 11 blood tests in total, and honestly they’re one of the easier parts of the process. I began taking a baby 20 mg dose of the pill in September.
Let me be blunt: I was thriving when I first started taking the pill. My acne wasn’t changing too much, but everything in my life was amazing, especially my cross country season. For those who don’t know me personally, that sport means the world to me. I’m going to make a post about it separately one day, but for now, just trust me, I love it more than anything. My times were constantly dropping throughout September, and I remember laughing when someone told me that joint problems were a side effect of Accutane. What joint problems? My joints felt stronger than ever that month.
Then they doubled my dose to 40 mg. That’s when everything started falling apart. My skin began to look terrible. I can’t even look at pictures of myself back then because I always tear up. I knew my skin had to get worse before it got better, but I didn’t think it could ever get as bad as it did. In October, I was sitting in Dunkin Donuts studying when a stranger came up to me and asked if I had a rash on my face. She told me she was “so sorry” for me. She told me that I didn’t deserve it. I bawled my eyes out in the car on the way home. I choose to see the good in people, so I choose to believe that this woman genuinely had good intentions in telling me she felt bad for me, but still, I was pissed. Nothing makes you feel worse than knowing everyone notices the one thing you’re so insecure about. To add a cherry on top of my tear-flavored pie, a similar situation happened a few weeks later. I was in the elevator, getting ready to see my grandma, when a women walked in and immediately started staring at my face. She suggested I try some name-brand acne treatment, and even after I told her I had the problem under control, she kept pushing me to try this so called “miracle worker.” If that conversation had occurred before the Dunkin one, I would’ve just tried to brush it off and assume she meant well. However, that’s not how the timeline worked out, and I was very much done. I wanted nothing more than to tell this lady off. Yes, acne sufferers hate when someone tells them to try some name-brand item. We’ve tried it all. Trust me. But what made me even madder was that this woman had the audacity to keep badgering me about my acne even after I firmly told her I had it under control. These two incidents made me feel so vulnerable and self conscious, and they’re events I’m sadly going to remember for a long time. Luckily, I had a great support system throughout the process, and the amazing people in my life at that point made me feel beautiful even when my skin was at its worst.
During the second and third month, my body started to give out. Not only did I get sick literally 8 times throughout the fall and winter, but I also temporarily lost my ability to run. One day, I ran a race when I was sick, and my joints were so weak that I developed a bone contusion in my foot. The contusion healed, but the injuries in my foot kept developing. I went to a bunch of podiatrists, had a bunch of MRI’s, Xrays, and Ultrasounds done, but no doctor could tell me what exactly was wrong. Each doctor had a different theory, but I knew one thing for certain: Accutane did this. Months later, I still cannot run. My joints became so damaged because of that pill that they still are in the process of recovery. I had to miss out on the spring track season which was so utterly painful, and at this point I’m begging my joints to get their sh*t together so I can run cross country in the fall.
Other side effects I had during those 9 months of joy were headaches and dryness. Luckily, I never felt dizzy, but that’s a popular side effect. My headaches were rough, and sometimes I’d barely be able to get out of bed because of them. I was pretty moody, but honestly, I was moody before I ever took Accutane. While mood swings are a side effect for many people, for me it’s just a side effect of being Anna. The dryness was just as bad as I expected it to be. For the first few months, my skin would literally just flake and peel off which was just delicious. Then, in the winter, my lips, eyes, and hands began to get extremely dry. When it would be really cold and dry outside, I would get “alligator hands” which I named after the scaly texture and appearance of alligators. So attractive. At this point, I was very much single and very much self conscious, but luckily that’s when the acne started getting better *knocks on every piece of wood in the world*.
In January, I began to stop breaking out as much. I felt the clearing process beginning, and I was ecstatic. The dryness was still tough, but I wasn’t getting sick as often, and this was the jist of my last few months on the pill. In May, my dermatologist amped me up to 50 mg for the last month to lock in the clearness, and I took my last pill a few weeks ago. At that point, I was very rarely getting breakouts on my face. My back was still pretty rough, but to be honest, my focus was never my back. My dermatologist told me I could take it for another month to be safe, but I knew this meant another month of increased joint problems, which would further jeopardize my ability to run cross country. I know long term, taking it for another month would have been a safer choice, but at this point, I was so done with not being able to run that I refused to do another month.
For now, it’s the waiting game. The soonest the acne can fully reappear is three months from the last pill, so I still face the possibility that it’ll all come back. My dermatologist doubles as my therapist sometimes, promising me that no matter what, the acne will never be as bad and untreatable as it was before. I hope she’s right. I wanted to wait to make this post until those three months had passed because I didn’t want to face the embarrassment of telling all the hardships and triumphs, only to have the hardships win again. But, I am a huge believer in sharing struggles. If my story can help anyone with deciding whether or not to take it, I’ll be more than happy, even if the acne returns.
This pill has changed my life in so many ways. Would I recommend it? That’s a lofty question. Ultimately, if antibiotics and topicals don’t work, and if your acne is cystic, give it a try. If you can get away with taking anything other than Accutane, try those other options first.
Also—-I want to preach self-love for a second. It is HARD to look in the mirror when your face is completely inflamed and tell yourself that you’re beautiful. I tried to embrace my acne for years before starting Accutane. As hypocritical as I may sound, acne doesn’t make you ugly. Letting the acne win and destroy your mood is what makes a person less beautiful. Your face might look be inflamed, but a bright smile will always overpower the acne. I don’t have a perfect formula for self-love, but I know you can’t let your acne define you. You have to look in that mirror and remind yourself how beautiful you are. All skin is beautiful, whether it’s clear or inflamed, because it is living, human skin. Nourish that skin however you choose to, and it will be healthy and beautiful in its own way. Just love yourself, dang it. It’s easier said than done, but it needs to be done nonetheless. I digress…again.
Nowadays, my joints are still hurting, but I have faith they’ll get their act together. Change-wise, I have less headaches and dryness. I have my lips back which makes me really happy. I missed those little dudes.
I had to change my diet a LOT since getting off the pill. When you’re on the pill, you have to take it with something fattening so that it gets absorbed well. I took it with a pbj every morning. Now, there’s no excuse for eating those fatty foods *sheds tear*, so I’ve cut back on the pbjs. I’m eating much healthier now, and I love it so much. I also started drinking kefir every morning because it’s supposed to be good for gut health, and gut health correlates with skin health.
ALSOOO. A common misconception is that once you’re done with Accutane, your skin becomes 100% clear. That’s completely false for most people. Chances are, the acne leaves scars that Accutane doesn’t treat. My face is still super red with scars, but my breakouts are gone for now. I know some people get away with being free of scars, and that’s great (and I’m super jealous), but that’s not always the case.
Phew. That was a lot of words. I’m almost done, I swear.
In spirit of honesty, here are some pictures of the progress. Sharing this is absolutely terrifying, but I want to show the reality of this pill.
Also, here are some of my go tos while I was on the pill. These products make the process much more bearable.
For hand dryness: The Body Shop’s Hemp Hand Lotion
For chapped lips: The Body Shop’s Hemp chapstick and Burt’s Bees chapstick
For overall dryness: Penguin Humidifier
For the best and most affordable face cleanser: Cetaphil Cleanser
For hanging in there: A great support system of loved ones.
For the hard days: Ice cream. Lots of it.
For everything ever: WATER
For hanging in there part two: determination, self love, and patience.
For keeping yourself healthy: Supplements! Do an all around blood test and figure out what you’re lacking.
For not injuring yourself like I did: rest!!!
I hope this can give someone some kind of clarity…I’ll post an update in a few months about my own journey with it.
Bottom line- do what is best for you. And love yo self.
Love you guys :’)