A while back, I told you the story of my run-in with poison ivy. And at the end, I said I would share some other painful experiences in the future. Here’s one of those promised, miserable times from my past. It took place about a year before Tom and I started dating, but we were friends, so he remembers. I looked something like this:
Growing up, I had skin that seemed to want to tan. I couldn’t walk outside on a sunny day for five minutes without darkening up. I mean tan. Very tan. It didn’t matter that my mom covered me in enough sunscreen that I had a white, greasy film that wouldn’t soak into my body every time we went to the pool or beach.
From the time I could climb up onto the bathroom counter to look at my tan lines in the mirror to the time I was about 8, I was fascinated with the differences in my skin in the summer. I was brown all over except where my one-piece covered. I would say that all of my body covered by my one-piece was like vanilla (boring), and all the rest of me was chocolate (awesome) because of how I could be so dark-skinned and so fair-skinned at one time. Apparently flavors of ice cream was the best analogy my young mind could come up with. I would stand on the counter and just stare at my pale and tan skin in the mirror. I guess that’s better than me watching tv all the time as a kid, but I must have been easily entertained.
Anyway. There came a time when that all changed. And I have no one to blame but myself. When I was 13 and hanging out with a friend one Saturday in May, we decided that we would go “lay out” in her yard. Her yard was a huge open field. There was no shade. There was just the hot, hot, fiercely beating sun. And us.
So we dragged out some magazines, a radio, the phone, a couple of the lawn chairs that let you lay down all the way, and some water. We put on the skimpiest bikinis she owned (I still only had one-pieces and a tankini), and then…we put on baby oil.
Johnson and Johnson never intended for 13 year old girls to baste and then cook themselves with that product. But that’s exactly what we did. We spread it all over ourselves and then took our places on the lawn chairs to cook.
We were out there a few hours reading, listening to music, hanging out, reading magazines, etc. You would think a few hours would be enough to go from pale to tan to burned. But that’s just the point at which I fell asleep. And I was out for a few more hours.
When I awoke, I had one of the worst sunburns I’ve ever experienced in my life. It was horrible. I had fallen asleep on my stomach. So my back, as well as the back of my thighs, calves, neck, and arms were worse than lobster red. They were closer to burgundy. I blistered. I peeled. I cried.
It wasn’t like I had a few little blisters and some flaky skin. It was more like this: My skin was so messed up that at P.E. for the next two weeks, I would lay down on a picnic table outside, and the girls in my class would gather around me. We would pull my shirt up in the back so that they could see my nasty skin, and then they would put paper towels on it. One of the girls in my 8th grade class was going to prom that year, so she had some acrylic nails. And she would run them gently over the paper towels. The blisters would ooze baby oil and sweat and whatever else was trapped in them out onto the paper towels. For two weeks. They always came up soaked through.
She also didn’t mind pulling the strips of skin off my back for me. It wasn’t a little ashy here, a little flaky there. It was peeling off like bark on a river birch. And it kept peeling off. I don’t know how many layers of skin I ended up losing, but I can tell you this. I couldn’t shower. The water (cold, warm, hot, it didn’t matter) was agony on my skin. I had to take a bath and then have my older sister come in and barely sponge my back off while I cried and cringed and balled up my fists in pain. Even aloe caused me to scream the first time I tried to use it to soothe my burned up back. I didn’t try that again for weeks.
My back would just tingle with stabs of pain. If anything touched it, it hurt. When I would get home from school, I would close the door to my room, turn on the fan, lay on my bed, and just let the cool air reduce the heat a little bit on my exposed back and legs. That was about the best relief I got for the first couple of weeks. Then, when I started to heal, if I would itch and not think about it, just go in to scratch the itching skin, it felt like knives on my skin because it was still so sensitive.
That. Sunburn. Was. Agony. And it was just a (well, admittedly horrible) sunburn. I can see why burning in a never ending fire would be a good description of hell.
And I can tell you something else. When my skin did recover, it never went back to how it used to be. Done were the days of getting a tan just from walking to the mailbox and back. I actually had to go to the pool or tanning bed (only before proms…and my wedding, once or twice) or beach on purpose to get some sun. I really miss my days of getting tan in five minute spurts of being outdoors. I also started to get freckles on my face during the summer as I got older. I never freckled when I was little.
Maybe my experience was a good thing though. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of melanoma and how common and how dangerous it is. Maybe not absorbing as much sunlight all the time will increase my chances of avoiding it.
But still, parents, don’t let your teenage daughters by baby oil. If they say it’s for removing eye make-up (the only other reason they would need it that I know of), just buy them some eye-make up remover. Otherwise, you might end up having to sponge bathe her blistered, peeling, third or fourth layer of skin for two weeks. And trust me, no one wants that.