Beauty From the Outside In

By Kristen McGuiness 06/30/11

What if you've kissed the all-nighters goodbye and still resemble the haggard hard partier you used to be? The Fix explains how to look as good you feel.

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Recovery is more than skin-deep

I remember the day I looked in the mirror and realized something had to change. I had just come off of another bender I swore would not happen again. My clavicle jutted out of my skin, acne studded my face, the extra-blonde highlights that my meth-using hair stylist had put in months before were growing out in disarray: the picture wasn’t pretty. Sure, I still put on nice clothes and went to work, and there were even times when I would wake up and try to go running in the morning—one of many sorrowful attempts to feel “normal.” But the truth was it had been a long time since I looked like me, and I detested the woman I saw reflected in the mirror.

And then I got sober. I took on an exercise regimen almost immediately, and began washing my face twice a day. I flossed (miracle of miracles). I grew out those nasty highlights. And it didn’t take long for me to see someone in the reflection: me. What I didn’t realize was that by taking all those steps, I was also helping to insure my sobriety. According to a 1982 Canadian study that focused on the role of physical fitness in the treatment of alcoholism, psychologist David Sinyor and his associates found that 69 percent of subjects whose treatment program included a daily regimen of vigorous exercise remained clean and sober after three months of treatment. By contrast, 62 percent of the subjects who completed treatment without the exercise component had relapsed to drinking.

69 percent of subjects whose treatment program included a daily regimen of vigorous exercise remained clean and sober after three months of treatment. 

Gabby Castellone, a trainer at Crunch, can attest to this. “Exercise is going to get the cardio system to work more efficiently, which means you will see increased energy,” she says. “It will clear up your complexion, increase endorphins, help you to sleep better, and build a better mind and body connection. One of the most valuable outcomes of exercise is that it can help you to get your self worth and confidence back.”

I know for me, those early days at the gym not only helped me to blow off some fairly overwhelming steam, but also began to show me what I was capable of—which turned out to be a lot more than getting wasted and finding myself in the wrong bed in the morning. 

Felicia, a 30-year old architect and recovering alcoholic from San Francisco, says she feels like she has grown up in sobriety, learning over the last 10 years how to finally take care of herself. “I used to be on the cocaine and speed diet,” she confesses. “I was 20 pounds lighter and I was really mentally sick. I hated myself and felt like I was dying. I was so defeated.“ Her diet consisted mainly of Fritos and Slurpees. These days, “I use food and exercise to stay healthy and have energy,” she says. “I need to eat lots of greens, drink lots of water, and go running or do some sort of aerobic activity.”

Castellone suggests that the newly sober start by doing easy cardio three times a week. “It can be any kind of physical exercise, either going for a walk or run, swimming, or dance class,” she says. “You just want the body to be functionally strong—meaning you can carry your own weight before you start lifting free weights. That’s why I often recommend yoga to people: it’s a stress reliever, it helps lengthens as well as strengthens the muscles, and the flexibility it offers is huge.”

But getting your body back in gear doesn’t necessarily solve all beauty concerns. I had cystic acne from all the poisons I was putting into my body and once I got sober, I wanted to get them out.

According to Celeste Hilling, the CEO of Skin Authority, skin problems aren’t just caused by what we’re imbibing but also by how we are managing the stress in our lives. “People often forget that skin is an organ,” she says. “What kind of physical and emotional stress you are battling has a huge impact on how your skin looks and responds.”

That moment I experienced—when I looked in the mirror in horror—can be, according to Hilling, as much a physical reaction as a psychological one. “The American Society of Psychiatry did an analysis and 71% of people said that how they look on the outside directly impacted how they see themselves internally,” she reports. “When someone is filled with toxins, all of those carcinogens are trapped in the body and the only way they can get out is through secretion. Humans detoxify through acne. But if you do the right things, you can come out on the other side with your self-esteem intact. It’s about committing to a new lifestyle. Those little steps that you make that have the biggest payoff.”

Felicia has been committed for the last 10 years to finding the best way to treat her troubled skin. “I switched from using chemical to all natural products,” she says. “Instead of using harsh creams, I started using tea tree and lavender oil and hippie cleansers. I became a lot more aware of what I was putting on my skin instead of doing just what the doctor told me. I have come into my own and gotten to know myself. I trust my own instincts and am pro-active about what I do for my skin and body.”

When trying to turn around a long-neglected beauty regiment, Hilling says it’s first important to be realistic about what your lifestyle is. “If I tell you there are seven things you need to do to be lineless, and you tell me you can only do two of them, that’s okay,” she says. Secondly, look for a professional—whether that’s an aesthetician or nutritionist—to examine your diet and stress levels in order to put together a nutritional and exercise program that will help detoxify and restore your health. Then: detox! “Whatever skin you see at first is dead, old skin,” Hilling says. “That’s why it looks dehydrated. But if you use an Alpha Hydroxy Acid of some type, you’ll dissolve it away.” She also suggests looking at anti-inflammatory solutions, like salicylic acid, and anti-bacterial agents, like glycolic acid, to help with the acne detoxifying can cause. Finally, be consistent with your regime. You should plan to clean your skin in both the morning and the evening, keeping in mind that it’s about three steps: cleanser, toner, and moisturizer. “It’s also crucial to keep in mind that there isn’t one solution that works for everyone,” Hilling says. “Just because your friend has gotten Botox, doesn’t mean it will work for you. Everyone should look for their own solution.”

I know when I began treating my skin with consistent care, it responded, but like all things, it took time. “It takes a new cell 72 days from the day your skin creates it to when it comes to the surface of your skin,” Hilling reports. “90 days is the best expectation for improvement. People will take two weeks and if they don’t see a change, they quit. But the good news is if they have never done anything and they are finally taking care of their skin, it might show immediately.”

And seeing it show can mean a lot. For Felicia, taking care of herself in sobriety has changed her whole perspective on who she is. “I love myself today,” she says. “I used to not be able to look in the mirror without picking myself apart, criticizing every little thing. But it was about being egotistical, not self-confident. Now, I am happy with that person I see in the mirror and I treat her right.”

Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about the 13th step and dreaming about drinking, among many other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life

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