The Face of Shame
I spent most of my childhood hiding behind mats of unkempt hair, debilitating shyness and the constant hot flush of shame from the inevitable question, “What happened to your face?” As an early teen, riding the bus was the worst. A quick scan of available seats, one at the front, facing inwards, all eyes on me, or walking the plank to the back where everyone gets a good look at the freak. Either way, the inferno of humiliation rises up seeping uninvited out of my eyes, burning forever pathways down my cheeks.
I was born with a variety of birthmarks on my face. Most were brown raised moles that resembled the perfectly round body of a spider. In contrast, on my right cheek sat a unique marking, round, pale reddish pinkish in color, and slightly raised from my cheek and jaw. As a child I thought it covered my whole right side but more accurately, it might have taken up only a third of my cheek. It looked like someone had punched me in the face and walked away. I was deformed and repulsive.
I could never fit in. I would never be enough. Never be worthy.
The doctors called it a “strawberry mark” and told my parents it would fade by the time I was nine or ten.
It didn’t fade.
My desperate mother and grandmother took it to God. Practicing Catholics, they “wore out their knees” praying for the miraculous healing of my face. Granny, a daily communicant who was “quite tight” with the priest, said he suggested dabbing my birthmark with holy water. “It’s blessed by the Pope,” she said. “Really?” I questioned. But they were desperate and because they said so, I believed them.
I had always known there was something wrong with me, of course, whispers and pitying faces don’t lie, but I was struck by what seemed to be the gravity of the situation. I wanted to giggle like this was a secret, fun game shared between me, my Mom and my Granny, but I could see in their eyes this was serious business. Am I that hideous?
I must be.
The three generations stood in Granny’s bright yellow kitchen on her linoleum floor when she reached into her purse and pulled out the blessed holy water. I was surprised to see that the miraculous liquid blessed by the Pope was being vesselled in her former cinnamon jar, which still had the label on it. Miracles happen in mysterious ways.
We stood entranced by this innocuous holy container as if it was the secret to eternal youth. Months of Sundays went by like this, Granny reaching two of her crooked prune-like fingers into the glass cinnamon jar, tenderly dabbing the blessed lukewarm water to my cheek and the three of us standing there, staring at each other, waiting for a miracle.
By the time I was in grade ten, my parents passed the cure baton from God to the surgeon. They decided to operate. They figured operate in the summer and the scar would heal in time for grade eleven. “No one will even notice,” they promised.
I didn’t believe them. I was 15 and finally starting to feel more confident. I had friends. I had fun. People were used to how I looked. I wasn’t a freak. And now they were going to operate on my face? Stitches? A scar? I yelled and screamed, begged and pleaded to no avail. They didn’t listen.
“Please, don’t make me do this” I couldn’t articulate why.
“You will thank us after”
“No, I don’t want to” I pleaded. I couldn’t go through more.
Doors slammed. Voices yelled. Secret whispers screamed in my ears as I tried to suffocate my face with my pillow.
I lay complicit on the surgical table pinned by the pillars of rage, sorrow, helplessness and fear. Under local anesthetic and bright lights I watched the ghostlike surgeon, slicing off parts of my face, and stitching it up with big swooping, orchestral hand movements.
A second operation was necessary the next year.
I emerged into grade twelve, a very tender time for a young girl graduating high school with a jagged, angry scar much more enflamed, prominent and ugly than my birthmark. But something else was different. On the surgical table for the second time, under the burning lights, within a crucible, my rage became my strength, my sorrow, my determination.
I had had enough.
No more surgeries, doctors, prayers and priests. I was tired of hiding behind hair, humiliation and shame. “You want to look, look!” I silently challenged people on the bus.
But it wasn’t easy going from believing there is something inherently wrong with me to believing I deserve a good life. I deserve love. I deserve acceptance and approval. A childhood of religious and surgical interventions did not give me the foundation of confidence or belief in self. Where there was bravery, there was shame. I hid behind a mask of jagged edges and perfectionism shielding my sense of fragility and a desperate need for approval. I was surrounded by people and yet felt acutely alone. I let people in then pushed them away. I relied on alcohol and promiscuity to feel shards of belonging.
Rage was the fuel that propelled my life forward. Without it, I would have perished in a sea of shame and self-hatred. After the operations and a sad graduation of high school, my parents made another decision. Me and my rage were no longer acceptable residents of the family home. My mother took me to another place. A place where I would live alone, pay rent and cook for myself on a burner in the studio apartment above a garage. I accepted they knew what was right. I didn’t question this decision. I didn’t protest. I was hideous after all. That’s what they said.
The overt cost of rage is isolation and alienation. I avoided my parents for years, declining their weekly pleasant invitations for Sunday night dinner to make us the perfect family. It didn’t make sense. I pursued my life. I put myself through university, worked three or four jobs, got good grades, had boyfriends, albeit volatile and ended badly. People liked me. I was funny and smart and some would say, beautiful.
And slowly, over the decades, an innate inner strength and determination chipped away at the mask revealing not a jagged angry scar but the memory of a birthmark that was as exquisite as an orchid, breathtakingly beautiful in its uniqueness and intricacies.
A small child who was pure and innocent living with adults who were ashamed, their own quest for perfectionism thwarted.
What I didn’t know is I was beautiful. I was special and strong. Strong enough to ride the bus with a facial difference, endure operations that sliced of parts of me I hadn’t yet known, be a victim to unquestioned heresy, and abandoned by my parents. I was strong enough to chip away at the mask and find my voice. I was strong enough to tell my story.
Now in my fifties, with a mixture of joy and grief, I am reclaiming what was mine at birth, the right to a bold and beautiful life, and letting go of what was not, the shame of other people.
I’ve realized I deserve the best life. And I’ve got the scars to prove it.
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