My Obsession With Tanning Beds Almost Killed Me

by April Brown Pulliam
Originally Published: 

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I decided in 2007 to stop killing myself. It took one second to answer the phone, about 15 more to say, “Oh. Okay, thank you,” and one blue Bic pen to write down a day and time. It amazes me to this day how very simple it was to make that decision. It took me less time than it takes to nuke a microwave meal to stop doing something I had been doing for close to 20 years and in earnest for about 15 of those years. People all around me spend weeks of their lives deciding which car to buy and scrolling through countless pages of hairstyles, and some even experience much despair over whether or not buy a faux leather love seat. I gave up tanning as quickly as I reached over and turned off the water that had been creating the suds in my kitchen sink.

I am of the Teen magazine and Tiger Beat generation. I bought electric blue Maybelline mascara, and I tight-rolled my jeans above my lily-white Keds. Shirts were neon, hair was big, and skin was tan. I, as luck would have it, am fair-skinned, green-eyed, and my hair is a reddish blonde. My grandfather always told me that my sister and I were strawberry blondes. He said I just missed being a redhead, and she just missed being blonde. I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, tan. But, have mercy, how I wanted to be.

Beginning around the age of 12, every spring and all through the summer, I would gather up my folding lawn chair, my baby oil and my battery-powered radio and hunt for the sunniest spot on the lawn. I would lie on that incredibly uncomfortable sticky plastic chair with my arms, legs and chest glistening and ready to soak up the rays. Every 30 minutes I turned, just like a chicken on a roaster. My patience grew longer as I grew older, and eventually, I stopped sitting up every five minutes to check my progress. There was plenty. I turned red, burnt and puckered. Friends always said, “Oh, the red turns to tan. Don’t worry.” For me, that wasn’t exactly true. The red just hurt and then faded time and time again. I didn’t let myself get discouraged. I just became more determined than ever to achieve a tan.

What I didn’t realize as a teen was that I was conditioning my skin. The more I exposed my skin to the sun, the tougher it became. I didn’t see it then, but, my word, I can see it now. Baby oil and spray bottles of water gave way to Hawaiian Tropic tanning lotion. Nothing I tried yielded the tan I wanted, but it was better than being pale. Pale wasn’t chic in the ’80s, nor was it in the ’90s.

After graduating in 1992 and getting a job after my morning college classes, I bought tanning bed visits. I had several friends who used tanning beds and had a few who owned them. Admittedly, I was very leery of using a tanning bed. We, the ’90s high school gals, had heard all the stories about tanning beds essentially cooking your insides. I, forever the skeptic, brushed these stories aside and let my desire for that healthy, tan look win. At the age of 18, I began lying once or twice a week in a pool of my own sweat with rows of bulbs radiating heat and light onto my skin mere millimeters from my body.

As the years went by, I would visit the tanning bed up to three or four times each week. This pattern continued for me from April through August. My skin, bless it, had finally given in. It was tanning. I always maintained a ruddy look in my cheeks and on my chest, but I was, for all intents and purposes, tan. Realizing that I had finally found the answer and liking the way my skin looked, I extended my visits. I started going earlier in the spring and later into the fall. By 2007, I was using a tanning bed from February to October, lying in the bed 20 minutes each time I went. I loved every one of those 20 minutes.

Many people fail to realize that tanning is addictive. When I say I loved tanning, I don’t mean I cherished it the way I cherish something when I say, “Look at that quilt! Oh, I love that!” I mean I loved it the way Kanye loves Kim and the way teens love emojis. I would not and could not stop. I absorbed every second of that experience. The smell of tanning accelerator was, and still is, my favorite smell outside the smell of fresh-from-the-oven donuts. There is something about the fragrance resulting from the coconut oil and all the other knick-knack-paddy-whack ingredients that succeed in frying one’s skin under the lights of a Wolff bed. At the risk of sounding slightly morbid but keeping my readers’ interests at heart, I have to say, the scent of my flesh sizzling under those lights is a smell I miss. I honestly believe it was not the smell itself that brought satisfaction—that’s just disgusting—but I think my brain somehow associated that smell with success.

The redness in my skin did turn to a tan over the years, and in 2007, I had permanent tan lines. I took so few months off from tanning during the year—and my skin was so damaged—that I always had tan lines. This, sadly, was another notch in my belt of tanning success. Giving it up never crossed my mind. Even after both of my children were born in 2001 and 2002, I continued. My children knew me from the beginning as red. My face was red. My shoulders were red. My chest was red and splotched with the beginning of what my grandmother called age spots and I called freckles. I had sealed the deal. The damage was done, and I had no intention of quitting.

Then my friend saved my life.

I had a dark brown horseshoe-shaped mole on my upper left arm. I had no idea how long it had been there. I had noticed it before and had never given it a second’s thought. My skin was fair and freckled, and I had several moles. That brown spot had never been on my radar. I was much more concerned with making sure the flesh under the little palm tree sticker I placed on my hip was Casper white compared to the rest of my skin. My friend, my best friend since ninth grade, pointed at this mole one sunny afternoon in 2007 in the driveway just outside my garage door and said, “Hey, how long has that been there?” I told her I didn’t know. Very skeptical and very much into her last few months of nursing school, she urged me to see my family doctor.

Within the week, I was listening to the nurse practitioner from my doctor’s office tell me the biopsied horseshoe was melanoma, and an appointment had already been made for me with a dermatologist. Within another whirlwind week, I was driving myself home from having the spot where the horseshoe mole used to lie excised by another centimeter. The wound required stitches both inside and out and months of bandages and antibiotic ointment. My upper left arm was left with what my dermatologist called a “dog-ear” scar as he had a hard time closing it. It is 2015. This is the first year I cannot see the lump from the dog-ear.

I stopped tanning. I stopped buying visits and, in fact, gave the remainder of my prepaid visits away. I started using sunscreen of at least 30 SPF, and I guard my children’s skin like it’s gold. My visit to have the spot of melanoma removed turned into visits every six months, x-rays of my chest and countless spots frozen or cut from my lips, cheeks, neck and arms. I have had basal cell carcinoma four times since 2007 and have the scars to prove it on my neck and shoulders. Each of those has required Mohs surgery.

Last fall, in 2014, I opted to take my dermatologist’s advice and begin using Efudex regularly on my chest to remove precancers. Efudex is a topical chemotherapy I will apply every six months. It is a treatment I would not have had to use on my chest had I not tanned. It is a treatment I would not have been here to use had my best friend not saved me.

My story is much less tragic than so many I have read over the years. I am a member of a few forums online and I read, with tears and gritted teeth, the stories of loved ones enduring chemotherapy, electing to participate in trial treatments and funerals. I read about funerals a lot. I count myself among the fortunate. Though every skin check brings news of more damage and more suspicious skin anomalies, I drastically cut my chances of developing further melanomas by stopping my much-loved tanning bed visits.

I don’t discount, however, the fact that I was once stupid, vain and uneducated. It is 2015. I have two teens whom I love with everything in me and who have only ever known summers smearing sunscreen. I am pale. I am alive.

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