(these photos are less than a week old)
When an appointment that was meant to make me look and feel my best went wrong, I had to face my body image demons head-on.
It was barely two weeks ago I posted a piece ‘Mine: Body and Soul’ on my website.
Speaking at length (and as I do, occasionally droning on and on) about a decade-long battle with who I saw in the mirror, and trying and failing again and again to find acceptance with him and love for him.
When I post these things, it’s generally a mix between my own therapy and forging connection;
Getting things out of my head and onto paper, and baring fears and pressures I face that I thought were mine only, to instead find that so many people go through the same thing.
It’s an addictive mix that keeps me going, and so the writing keeps going.
So when I put this piece out, I was sharing the ongoing battle I have with myself and the bits of me I don’t like, with the intention of bringing those things I keep pretty well covered day to day out into the light, in an attempt to face these fears head-on, and rid myself of them.
And less than a fortnight after, like it always does, and will always continue to do –
Life decided to really test me.
Life saw my piece, my words, and struck up a conversation with me,
‘Put the piece out will you?’ it said,
‘Fine, you can bare all of that and be honest about what scares you, but that won’t fix it, that’s only living alongside your fears – here’s how you’ll face them.’
And it made me face them…
As someone forever dissatisfied with what sits atop my shoulders,
Most specifically the hue that comes across it when I’m embarrassed or anxious (ie. 98% of my life),
I researched and booked in an appointment to zap away all my flaws and insecurities and be reborn into the world beautiful and new.
A laser therapy treatment advertised to alleviate blushing (where I am now) and rosacea (where I might be in my future).
I had visions of walking out of there, post-appointment, a vision of beauty that would stop traffic.
Of rebuilding that dwindling confidence of mine, and birthing inside of me a resilience and a love that was unstoppable and impenetrable.
A fix for my facial flushing, for the longest time, was all I had ever wanted,
For it was the thing I could never make peace with about myself.
It was the thing that kept me up at night and the thing that held me back,
It was the thing that could unendingly vanquish my self-confidence in the speediest of seconds.
So I went into the appointment feeling both nervous and excited,
Nervous because of a procedure I knew little about,
And excited for what could come from it.
I wasn’t exactly sure how the process went, all I knew I was desperate for the results.
And so as I lay on the hospital bed, I set aside my fears, and surrendered every inch of my face to the heat and burn of the laser.
The smell of singeing facial hair (or was that skin?) wafted through the stark white room,
As the doctor went to work with her tools.
“How’s that?”, she asked.
“Fine”, I replied, my finger nails digging further and further into my palm as the horrendous pain took over, my mind screaming and begging for it to stop.
I didn’t know what I was expecting, but this was so much worse.
‘Beauty is pain’, I told myself on a loop, over and over again,
Willing myself to make it through.
I’d waited months for this appointment, and there was no way I was going to be leaving here until I had the exact face I had always wanted.
After thirty-minutes, when it was finally over, I was overcome with sheer exhaustion.
My insides finally quietened, but my skin was raw and ached.
“It does look a little tender”, said the therapist,
As I scanned her face for any hint that something might have gone wrong.
“I’ll get you an antihistamine and we’ll lay you down for a sec”.
I could barely put my face mask on as I left twenty-minutes later, after I’d swiped my credit card and drained my bank account the day before payday.
It wasn’t until I was back home, that the shock set in.
My whole body shook as I took in what I had just been through.
Finally allowing my body to process the pain, I sat down and it all came out.
I took myself to the mirror and examined every raised and singed inch of my face,
Counting the small white dots marking where the lasers had burned me.
Noticing it had taken with it a raised freckle that had once sat proudly on my cheek.
Terrified of not doing my part in the post-op, I slathered my face in serums and ointments, desperately trying to heal and soothe my aching face.
A pair of raised and raw cheeks my faces newest feature.
“I can’t go out like this”, I told my husband, as our plans of racing to the florist and the bottle-o in the dying hours before Victoria’s COVID-lockdowns started ticked on by.
I was horrified.
The treatment was clearly marketed as ‘no down time’, and here I was looking like I’d taken a nap on a frying pan.
What was meant to have no side-effects had them written all over my face.
I was petrified of how people would react when they saw me,
And so I took my sadness, bundled myself up in blankets, and plonked myself down on the couch for the afternoon.
It was only thirty minutes before our dinner booking that night, after hours of sulking and talking to myself, that I had a realisation,
‘This is the worst I’ll ever look’ I told myself.
(ha. read on.)
‘If people see my like this, it’s only ever going to be better the next time they see me’.
(ha. ha. do keep reading).
I felt empowered.
And so, we got dressed and walked to dinner,
My face was glowing and sore – but we were on our way!
And though I did wear a baseball cap pulled down over my eyes,
And I did walk in the door of the restaurant hidden behind my husband,
And I did take the seat facing away from the other patrons –
I was here!
This was big for me.
Usually one to let a pimple be cause for a meltdown and a cancelled night out,
Here I was part-man, part-zombie and out in public for a meal,
It hadn’t stopped me from living my life!
All those people I encountered that night took what they saw as what I looked like, and went about their lives.
They didn’t think any less of me,
They likely didn’t think of me.
And so I carefully washed my face in cold water that night,
Applied some balms,
And climbed into bed,
Quite proud of myself, but also quite ready for time to do its thing while I was asleep,
And wake me up back to normal – nay! – wake me up in my more beautiful normal,
With my battle with blushing now just a closed chapter in my past.
Oh if only I’d kept on sleeping,
Waking up was not going to make me feel any better…
No matter what time you get to sleep, when you’re waking up to your alarm at 3am every day for work, your head will always feel a little heavy, and it will always be a little hard to open your eyes and adjust to the light from your lamp when you climb out of bed.
And that next morning was no different.
3am. Heavy head. Bleary eyes.
Actually, head feeling a little heavier than normal, and eyes that can’t seem to open up and adjust to the light, no matter how much time I gave them.
Something was wrong.
What it was I couldn’t tell yet, but I needed to know – now.
I couldn’t even make it to the bathroom mirror,
I opened the camera on my phone in bed to see what had happened.
I swiped up, opened the camera, and flipped it to ‘selfie-mode’ and had no idea who the man on the screen was.
He had slits for eyes, clamped shut by masses of eyelids, encompassed by dark, dark circles, and red, red cheeks that would make even the happiest of little Vegemites feel underdone.
My face was a balloon, blown and stretched to its limit, double or triple its usual size, with weeping holes in my cheeks where I had been burned.
The pressure was intense,
Whatever was under my skin was trying desperately to get out.
A wave of nausea kicked in as I sat myself up,
Hoping desperately that gravity would play it’s part and drain the weight from my face.
I was shaking.
I had work starting any minute, and a Zoom meeting I was running at 8.
‘This isn’t happening right now’, I told myself, terrified to take a sick day at this hour,
‘I’ll worry about this mess later’.
So I grabbed my laptop, throwing away all routine of getting dressed into my ‘work clothes’ and sitting in my ‘office’, next to the bunkbeds in the room down the hall.
That was all gone, today, if I’m working, I’m working from bed AND wearing my pyjamas.
Opening my laptop brought with it a nice pinch of salt to rub right into the wound,
As the face scanner I use as my computer password came up with the error message,
‘Sorry, facial recognition couldn’t recognise you, please type in your password’.
“Heyyy buddy” I typed in the IM chat to my shift supervisor,
“Still on for that meeting at 8, just feeling a bit off today, and on a laptop that doesn’t have a camera, hope that’s OK”,
And off my shift started.
For a few moments during those first five hours in the hustle and bustle of work I could almost forget my predicament,
Until I tried to eat and my giant swollen cheeks kept my mouth shut, or I’d laugh with a colleague and my grin would cause my eyes to close completely.
It was at 7:55am, as I opened the Zoom link that I was faced again with the monstrosity that was me,
That I carefully selected ‘Disable Camera’ and went right on into the meeting.
Nothing but a voice coming from a black screen as I ran through the weeks work with my colleagues.
“Time will tell”, the dermatologist told me, after I kicked her door down later that morning.
An emergency appointment booked in hurriedly after emailing her photos of my face.
“Just take another antihistamine and don’t touch it!”.
It was clear that life had me in its sights that day.
I knew my ‘normal’ face was never that bad, but I still consistently allowed my negative perception of myself, and my inner critic, to dictate my self-confidence and my self-worth.
‘Blushing, eh?’, life had said to me,
‘How about if you looked like you were stung by 100 bees?’
It’s a tired saying, but you never really know what you have ‘til it’s gone.
And as I first sat writing this draft with one eye partially sealed shut,
(Working through trauma the way I usually do, with pen in hand)
To now with everything almost all back to normal,
I would give anything to go back to the time before my appointment,
Back to that face of mine.
That blotchy, red, beautiful face that I recognised, the one that was mine.
The trauma of trying to change that made me a little kinder, and a little more grateful for the painless existence my old face gave me.
It wasn’t a simple process, or a lightbulb moment, that eventually got me from a place of despair to a place of gratitude.
There were a bucketload of tears shed into my pasta that second night.
Both from the pain, and from the despair that came from the complete loss of identity.
Because for the first time in my life, I didn’t recognise the person in the mirror.
I went from not liking who I saw, to not even knowing who was on the other side looking back at me.
I was in there somewhere, buried far beneath, but the only part I recognised on my face as my own was my left eye.
That was it.
Everything else was that of a stranger.
Without it being listed as a side-effect, or a process I’d seen anyone else go through before,
I didn’t know if I was going to get myself back.
There was a paralysing fear that I may be stuck like this forever
– and that maybe I deserved this.
That maybe this was life teaching me a lesson.
‘You want change? You call yourself ugly every day? OK – have it your way’.
I was housebound for four days.
The ‘brave’ me who went to dinner a bit red and raw crumbled when I woke to a face that had changed drastically.
I was in pieces.
Going down the road that there was no way back from made me long for the past.
Made all the issues I’d previously had with my appearance seem so minor and insignificant.
If a red face at parties was the worst I had, I had it alright,
And if I could make it out for dinner with a raw face, I could certainly go out with one that was a little flushed.
We always seem to want what we had; what someone else has. We never tend to be happy with what we have.
Because there’ll always be things that I wanted to change,
But if this predicament is the alternative, I think I’ll stick with them.
Maybe I’ll never have a face that doesn’t flush red every once in a while,
And I guess that’s OK, because that’s me.
I’d much rather recognise who I am in the mirror, flaws and all,
Than be faced with that stranger and that utter fear again.
And whilst the pain and the trauma of the procedure has now been left a few steps behind me,
The invisible scars of this incident sit inside of me,
And the visible ones lay on my cheeks right in front of my eyes,
With only time to tell if they’ll ever fade.
And if they don’t, and they exist as a permanent reminder of what happened,
So be it, it’s my job to work through them now.
It’s up to me to be OK with them.
From this experience, it’s become clear to me that there’s not always going to be a ‘quick-fix’ for the things I don’t like about myself.
Because even if we can shave things down, plump things up, move things across or take them off,
At some point, we need to stop, look in the mirror, and either have to start liking the things we see, or at least start accepting them.
We can’t keep chasing perfection,
Because we’ll soon find out it doesn’t exist.
And getting on the hamster wheel of continuous change,
Will bring us right back where we started.
At some point we need to look inside rather than outside, and find out what makes us comfortable and confident.
Because that person in the mirror is all we’ve got,
And we need to start getting along with them at some time –
Because maybe one day soon, we’ll long for them again.