Last year I shared Elle’s beautiful words with you. She wrote about not being able to blend into a crowd. I identified with so many of her experiences – the stares, looks of pity, fearing drunk peoples’ reactions. Elle was born with severe facial deformities which impacted so much more than her physical appearance.
Elle and I have become friends through blogging. She identified with my stories and told me hers. We’ve never met but I’ve never even considered her appearance as being anything different to her beautiful and courageous words.
The kids that I saw, older and younger than me, better and worse deformities than me, made me feel less alone. I never really talked to them, I was far too shy for that. But I felt like we were all in this together. It didn’t matter what our diagnosis or severity was. Treacher Collins, Pierre Robin, hemifacial microsomia, Goldenhar, Apert. None of those names mattered to me. I doubt they mattered to any of us. What difference did it make? When I was born, it was Pierre Robin. When I moved to the United States, they said Goldenhar. I moved back here and it became and stayed at hemifacial microsomia. This is a term I still maintain is just something they call people that don’t quite fit so perfectly into the other craniofacial syndromes. I had more shit wrong with me than Pierre Robin kids; I didn’t have the eye diseases that Goldenhar had. And for some reason they never seemed to think I had Treacher Collins. One side is slightly worse than the other, so hemifacial microsomia will do. Only as I got older and understood the very big genetic difference between HFM and TCS did I care.
I felt lucky a lot as a kid. I had bones missing from my face, my lower jaw set back from my upper jaw, a cleft palate and major speech problems, non-existent ear canals and a hearing loss, a thumb that doesn’t bend, hips that were dislocated at birth, and strabismus that turned into amblyopia (so my brain only registers signals sent from my left eye, not my right). But some of those kids were so much worse than me. So I felt lucky. When I was doing my undergraduate degree a few years ago, my best friend from uni and I did an internship at that hospital unit. We spoke to the kids and wanted to find out what they like and what they would change about the CLP/CMF clinic. It was a big survey and report we did, thanks to my ex-doctor allowing us to be there and helping us out. My friend was and is one of the kindest, loveliest people I have ever known and I could see even she was taken aback by some of the kids there. Some of the faces. She cried in the car in front of me after the first day, about them and about me, about what they would go through and what I went through. I think because of that experience of spending a few weeks there, despite the fact that she never knew me growing up, she understands that aspect of my life better than most.
I was very lucky in primary school; I grew up around the kids I went to school with from the age of six so they never saw anything wrong with my face. It was just me and the fact that I was always absent from school for doctor’s appointments and hospital stays was just me, too. I got a little teased when I got hearing aids, but mostly it was okay. I met my (main) craniofacial/plastic surgeon when I was seven. He was technically my third plastic surgeon; one repaired my cleft palate when I was a baby and another did further palate surgery in Denver. He always asked me about school and the kids and the way people treated me. (In a very vague, roundabout child-like way that I didn’t understand what he was getting at until I was older. I recall telling him about my best friend and I playing our Sweet Valley acting game.) Surgery on my face was just an option for the future when I was in primary school. (The three cleft palate repairs, trying to correct the strabismus in my eyes, the eight sets of grommets and numerous eardrum repairs were not so much an option.) My choice in primary school was always: no surgery. It was something all the doctors got together and talked about, talked with me, talked with my parents, but in my head – it was not going to happen. They were not going to cut around my skull and take my face off, so they could move my cheekbones and jaw forward. No way. Why on earth would I have that done?
Then it began to change. I realised, fully, when I was in my last year or two of primary school that my face looked different. I realised my mum had these huge cheekbones that just never grew for me and how weird my jaw looked when I looked at myself in the mirror side-on. But still, it didn’t feel like the end of the world. It could be worse, right? No one else seemed to care. But then I entered high school and the, “Hey freak, what happened to your face?” happened on the first day and that being-hit-in-the-stomach-going-to-throw-up feeling when I realised he was talking to me, and things went rapidly downhill. My doctor continued to ask about the kids at school, the people in the street. I told my surgeon about the teasing to a degree. I told him what they said to me every day. It got a lot worse. The kids in my year. The ones in the year above. The guys in Year 12 in my tutor group. He asked and he asked. I wanted to die. I hated my face. I was terrified of my life being like this. I was growing, but my jaw wasn’t and my cheekbones definitely weren’t. My jaw was aching when I talked for too long and I took forever to eat. Two years of this, I made the decision, myself, to have surgery. My doctor wanted me to wait. He tried to convince me to at least wait another year, so I was closer to being fully grown. I couldn’t do it. I was constantly crying in appointments with him, with my ENT, with my mum. Even though I still didn’t tell them or anyone the full extent of what was happening at school because I didn’t want to upset them. I think he knew I couldn’t have dealt with the operation they always talked about, so he made a smaller one. And I did it, a few weeks after I turned 15. They were the most horrific weeks of my life (although my first ear canal reconstruction was almost on par and took longer to recover from), but I don’t regret it. I still get stared at and I still get comments and my doctor told me this would happen and prepared me for it. But I don’t hate my face and I don’t want to die, so how could it be anything but completely worth it? And people that judge me, or anyone, for opting to have surgery make me want to scream. You’re as bad as the people that judge me for my face. People that say crap about plastic surgeons should meet the ones that help these kids. Should meet the ones that go to the third world countries and repair cleft lips and palates.
I would like to be one of those people that seem to just be able to move past it. The stares and comments barely cause me to blink 90% of the time these days. But I don’t think I will move past it. It was my life. Even though I only see my ENT these days, I still think of it as being a big part of my life. I do, honestly, just wish I could sit at that hospital in that clinic and meet every one of the kids that go through there. I want to be able to help them, be someone to talk to that actually understands what it’s like, to tell them they will make it through this pain and recovery and teasing and survive. That’s all I ever wanted when I was going through it. Someone that had my face and knew what it was like and would tell me how they survived. Tell me that I would survive.”