Meet Ellie Van Gorden
Name: Ellie Van Gorden
Location: Overland Park, Kansas
Skin Condition: Severe cystic acne
I feel like people with skin conditions often have a one-line explanation that they use to explain their skin to others. Tell us yours.
Well, when people asked me about it in Senegal, I would normally just say that it was an infection, or if I didn’t care to go into anything, I would just say that I had allergies.
Here at home, I rarely get a question, but I always feel a need to explain. I typically say that it was a few pimples that then, what seemed like overnight, turned into a full on staph infection, herpes and cystic breakout, and that the healing process can take a year or more.
What are you up to in life right now?
Currently, I’m working at one of my favorite places, my Crossfit gym, and I get to help out during their renovation and expansion period. This is a very fulfilling position, and I also get to better myself physically in the process! In my downtime, I am reading, writing and preparing to head off to Whitman College in the fall. I practice a strict skin care routine, and maintain a plant-based diet to aid in the harm that processed and animal-derived foods could potentially have on my body.
You've had acne for a while, but it really got bad when you were halfway through your gap year in Senegal. Tell us about that experience. What was it like to have your skin flare while you were abroad? Were you able to access the care you needed?
I went on a gap year to remove myself from an academically stressful environment after receiving my International Baccalaureate Diploma. I wanted to dive into myself and learn about things that made me tick. The first few months were phenomenal. New people, new experiences, and you never knew what your day was to hold. In fact, even my skin and body were loving the diet and environment. Mainly rice, fish and lots of vegetables. I felt amazing. I was running most mornings, and I was exploring my community and learning a new language.
But around the middle of November, my skin began to get very oily and large cysts appeared on my cheeks deep under the surface. I assumed it was just a bad break out, and decided to just let it run its course. I neglected to even pay attention to my appearance, as mirrors weren’t very prevalent anyways. Pretty soon, it was Christmas time, and that is when the comments started.
“You have mosquito bites everywhere!” “What happened to your face?” “You’re ugly!” “You need to take a shower!”
I was a bit startled by this, but I assumed that my skin would eventually balance back out and that these comments would eventually stop. I was wrong—very wrong.
Next thing I know, I’m sitting in a white walled room with a dermatologist in the capital city of Dakar. He tells me I have three options. Do nothing, a cream that doesn’t work too well or Accutane. My mind was racing, I never thought I would need to get on such a strong medication, but I look at my face and I can’t even really distinguish between the infected skin and the rest, so I promised not to get pregnant and off I went.
The first month was torture. I realized that I didn’t have any moisturizer, and my skin was flaking off and cracking. I developed large gashes on the sides of my mouth, and it hurt to brush my teeth. I could hardly move around that much, and I was bedridden most days. The medicine was sucking the life out of me, but I knew that I needed help. The flare happened the week of February 23, I remember because that was the day I almost decided to go back home and quit my program.
I couldn’t leave my home without being called “ugly” or told to “go to the hospital.” I was isolated, suffering and had no support. No one, and I mean no one, looked like me. The concept of acne was for the most part unheard of, and people couldn’t help but stare.
Luckily, my friends, family back home and girlfriend were there supporting me and reminded me of who I was even when I could hardly recognize myself under all of the red bumps and bloody scabs. I could hardly recall what it felt like to be strong or beautiful, and certainly not confident. I was broken, but the opportunity was not one to take lightly, so I pushed through.
When I went in for my final check-up before I left the country, the doctor grabbed my face and exclaimed, “It looks worse!” …my heart sank. How could this be true? On the hour-long taxi ride home I sobbed on the phone with my mom and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so low.
That was definitely rock bottom.
I remember thinking to myself, “you only have one month left”. This meant that if I could make it through one more month, then I could be home to heal in peace. This meant one more month of only going out at night. One more month of lips so dry they bleed. One more month of constant headaches. Of trying to turn my focus to my host family and develop the deep relationships that had so desperately wanted to make. They turned out to be the best remedy for me. I also found an aloe plant outside in our courtyard, and my host mom and dad let me take a leaf every morning to soothe my face. They knew life was not easy for me, and they helped ease some of the pain. With every laugh, every kind word, and every act of kindness, my heart began to open back up to love and to loving myself.
Leaving was hard, but also promising, and I felt satisfied with what I was leaving with—a heart and mind full of new perspectives and a sense of belonging in the home that was my sanctuary when the outside world rejected me.
So you're a young white woman, which I imagine made you pretty visible in Senegal. What was it like to have a visible skin condition in a country where you were already hyper visible? How did race and privilege play into your experience of dealing with acne while you were abroad?
Yes, this would be a correct statement. I think often as white, able-bodied people living in a context built for and around us, we are so very used to being able to just go about our day and not have anyone stop and stare, point out or approach us for the way we look. Once arriving in Senegal, this privilege was immediately stripped away. The comfort and ability to not stand out was no longer there. All around me was black. Rich, dark, beautiful blackness, and I was the white human.
Once the acne began to truly flare and become noticeable, not only was I cat-called or harassed for simply being myself, but I was attacked and bullied for the red marks all over my face. Upon meeting someone, I would introduce myself and instead of receiving a reciprocating greeting, I would be met with a “what’s that?” or an “are you sick?” It was an immediate let down. I started my year off ecstatic to meet new people, but by the time my skin was more red than not, meeting new people was my worst nightmare.
In terms of race and privilege, the thing that comes to mind is my access to healthcare when I wanted it. I was able to pay for transportation to the clinic in Dakar, pay for the appointment and all of the medications and treatments. When I was describing what kind of medication I desired, the doctor informed me that it was not offered in Senegal because it is inherently bad for black people’s skin. I was shocked. How could I have not even been aware? I had never needed to be. The privilege of not needing to know and the privilege of being able to afford the “cheap” costs associated with my condition abroad.
You're off to college in the fall. I think, for many people, freshman year marks the start of learning how to care for yourself physically, mentally, emotionally. What did you learn from your experience in Senegal that you'll bring with you into your next life stage?
I would say that my experience in Senegal quickly turned from a time for me to discover myself and forgive into a time for me to learn how to hold onto my identity among the chaotic roller coaster that was existing with cystic acne. The concept of returning to balance was one that I focused on a lot. I would allow myself the privilege of feeling the strong emotions when I needed to, but also required a period of reflection and affirmation to follow the often negative spirals that occurred after a bad skin day. This personal accountability forced patience and self-forgiveness. I was allowing myself the time to be broken, while still moving forward. This will be key to my first year of college and beyond.
Where can we keep up with you?
I’m on Instagram @ellievangorden!