Part 2: After the Surgery


If you’re going to look like you’ve just been run over by a train, the hospital is a good place to be.  Visitors tend to expect the “unusual” when they enter the hospital doors.  They know to prepare themselves for the worst – and so – when they saw a young woman, with her head wrapped in bandages, limping along, dragging an IV stand beside her, they seemed to take it in stride.  Some visitors even nodded and smiled.

As a patient, it’s easy to get lulled into believing that this is how the “outside world” will greet you.  My first glimpse of reality came the day I was to finally go home – when I thought I was still within the “safety” of the hospital bounds.  The doctors had taken off my bandages that morning and I was in my room, waiting for my mom to come pick me up and take me home.

A cleaning woman entered my hospital room.  She looked at me and stopped, openly staring.

“Have you seen yourself yet?” She asked.

“No.”  I answered.

“Don’t look at yourself in the mirror for a long, long time.  It will be easier that way.”

It struck me that she probably thought she was being kind.  And at some level, I also appreciated that she didn’t “pretend” that I looked normal.  I later learned that people’s “pretending” was much more difficult for me to deal with.

In any case, it wasn’t advice that I was going to follow.  My plan had always been to give myself the week in the hospital to simply focus on healing from the surgery, and then, to face myself in the mirror as soon as I arrived home.  It was also something that I needed to do alone.

When I finally arrived back at my mom’s place, I went directly to the bathroom mirror.  It’s hard to describe the moment when I saw the new “me”.   I looked at her objectively, as I imagine a doctor might examine a patient, observing and assessing the damage.  Her face was swollen, with a map of dark purple scars running across the top half of her face.   The entire structure of the upper two-thirds of her face was completely altered (never to return to previous form) and a fine, black, stubble of hair was growing back in.  My first thought was “She looks disfigured”.  There was no other way to describe it.   I now understood why the cleaning woman at the hospital had warned me not to look.

In retrospect, I think that I was very gentle with myself.  I spent only a few minutes looking in the mirror that first time.  I knew it would be a long time for my face to heal and that I wouldn’t know the final outcome of my appearance for many more months to come (years, as it turned out).  I didn’t cry.  Not then.  What was most true for me was the utter strangeness of not recognizing the face in the mirror, but knowing that “I” was still here.  It was an odd feeling to adjust to and I can honestly say, that, even to this day, I don’t fully feel like my face is my own.  It is just the face I have and there is almost an impersonal feeling about it.  My current face was not my doing, any more than the face with which I was born.

What’s interesting to me is that the grief for the loss of my “old” face did not come at this point.  I think that I hadn’t yet let in the reality that the old face was truly gone.  There was an in-between period, in which, although I clearly saw in the mirror that the old face was gone, it was still “with” me, sort of like a phantom limb.  Of course the new face was there too, but I hadn’t fully welcomed it.  Psychologically, I was “in-between faces”.  I had neither the old face nor the new face.

It wasn’t until a few months later that I fully realized that the old face was not coming back and the grieving began.  And although, for the most part, that grief has moved through, there are still moments, 20 years later, when an intense moment of longing for the old face will arise and I have to pause and give myself time for it to subside.

The next big challenge during my first week home from the hospital came when I “went out into the world”.  Before the surgery, I always enjoyed smiling at everyone.  It didn’t matter whether I knew them or not, young, old, beautiful, “homely” – I felt moved to smile at everyone.  There was simply an inherent joy in seeing each person and in some small way letting them know that they were seen and welcomed, just as they are.

But after the surgery, I found that people quickly averted their eyes upon seeing me.   The first time it happened, an instantaneous wave of shame swept through me, coupled with shock.  I’m revolting to them.  And a half-second later there was the realization: I no longer belong.

Somehow it felt like it was my fault.  There was something wrong with me that was making them uncomfortable.  The thought arose: I should hide my face.

At some level, I felt that there was an unspoken societal agreement that I should not make eye contact – that eye contact brought about people’s discomfort and it would be easier on everyone if I just kept my face down.  Thus the shame was intensified if I made eye contact.  The act itself felt rebellious, as if I were risking severing the very last thread that kept me included as a member the “tribe”.

The only relief in my outings came when I ran into young children.  They did not yet have any story that they should look away.  Instead, they stared at me with curiosity and sometimes they would even ask me directly, “What happened?”  It was a relief to be seen and to simply tell them about my surgery.  I realize now that when I shared about what happened, there was a part of me that was trying to make others understand, “See!  I wasn’t always this way.  I used to look normal.  I used to belong.  I used to be just like you.”

I quickly recognized at a deep, intuitive level, that I was at a crucial choice point.  On the one hand, I could conform to the beliefs of our culture, believe that there was something wrong and unnatural about the way I looked, and hide myself so that others did not need to be with their discomfort  – and thus, I did not have to be with their discomfort.

Or…I could meet this discomfort fully  – mine and theirs.  I could continue to let this love in me, that wanted to look people in the eye and smile and welcome them, move in the way it longed to.  In doing so, I would have to meet my own shame, face my fears of being an outcast, and ultimately, let go of my beliefs about what is beautiful and natural.

At some point, I realized that it wasn’t really a choice.  To hide myself in shame required a fundamental denial of what felt like the truest, purest part of me.  It felt like a denial of Life itself.  For a reason I can’t explain, I sensed at a core level, that if I started on that path of denial, it might be irreversible.  This scared the hell out of me.

So, hesitantly at first, I began to smile at everyone once again.

It was the beginning of really standing in my own two feet.  The act of smiling at others, now with my “new” face, meant that I had to stop letting others’ reactions to me impact the way I felt about myself, how I moved, how I lived.  It also meant that I had to stop referencing my own self-defeating beliefs for any kind of truth about my value and beauty.

To do this, I had to reference something else, something truer.   I turned inward to this true, pure part of me.  At the time, I might have labeled this part of me “innate goodness and love”.  I see now that this “innate goodness and love” was the very same Love that “took over” the night before the surgery – this Love that was me and bigger than me at the same time.  I began to allow myself to rest in it, to trust in it, and to draw upon it each time I made eye contact and smiled at another.

I let go of needing others to respond to me in any particular way and just let this Love move me in whatever way felt natural and true.  I saw that if I wanted the freedom to move in a way that felt true for me, I needed to give others the freedom to move in their own way, even if that included a turning away from me.

Over time, I came to know that this Love was innately beautiful and thus, I was beautiful – all of me, including the parts of me that still felt shame and still felt afraid (because the shame and fear lingered for a long, long time).

This was one of the gifts from “after the surgery”.   There would be many more gifts to come, some of which I did not fully realize until many years later and some of which I am still in the process of understanding even today.  The learning and seeing is a constant unfolding and I am incredibly grateful that I am here, in this life, for all of it.  🙂