In the summer of 2012, I was 17-years-old and waiting for what I felt was the scariest moment of my existence so far to finally happen. I remember all the other patients waiting to go into surgery, looking lifeless and sad, and I remember thinking of exit strategies when my psych finally decided I couldn’t handle the wait anymore and I needed to run.
I was 7 when my doctors told me that my lower jaw wasn’t maturing and I was diagnosed with mild sleep apnea. They told me it would get worse as I aged, as the opening to my throat would get smaller and smaller as my skull grew but my lower jaw didn’t. They told me when I officially stopped growing altogether, then they could put me under the knife to surgically break the bones in my lower and upper jaw apart and put four titanium plates to keep the bones separated, therefore making my jawline and throat opening larger so I could breathe.
Three months recovery, permanent numbness in my face, and a whole bunch of risks as I healed and adjusted to what I thought of as cyborg life (just kidding, the plates weren’t that big).
Awaiting surgery that fateful day was a nightmare. The nurses were rude, the hospital was terrifying, and as I was finally drugged up and wheeled into the surgery room, I was far from feeling at peace. The last thing I saw before drifting off in my drugged state was the cold, hard metal table where I would be spending the next six hours being operated on. There was a special place for my head to rest, and I felt like a caged bird when everything finally went black.
When I awoke, the first thing I heard my stepmother say was “she’s so beautiful” and I remember wondering how that could be possible as I felt the blood pouring from my mouth and nose. The nurse scolded me for not keeping it from pouring down my throat using the little suction machine they gave me, and told me if I swallowed anymore I’d throw up. That, I thought, would be exciting as my mouth was wired completely shut, and the joke was on her because I couldn’t move my arms yet, much less feel them. I opened my eyes and saw the nurse staring at me. She said, “there, there, Dracula, let’s take you to the ICU. Oh, and by the way, we had to put six plates in your head, not four.” It felt like I was sleeping for weeks when I was only hospitalized for three days. I felt violated, broken, and weak as I waited in a hospital bed to be sent home.
My boyfriend at the time came to visit me, and I refused to look at him, feeling ugly and disgusting as the blood continued to pour, and my face was lined with bruises and severe swelling. He told me I was beautiful every damned day of my recovery, which in total took about four months, thanks to infections and slow healing. Eventually, I got depressed over my helplessness, inability to do normal tasks such as talk or eat, and with my overall feeling of looking like an ogre, I opted to stay in bed all day to sleep. I gave up, and seeing no light at the end of tunnel of my seemingly never ending recovery process, was disgusted with myself.
But life went on, friends and family went back to work, and there I was sulking and trying to concentrate solely on recovering as I waited for my facial structure to get to its new normal.
Society puts huge pressure on women to be beautiful. For the majority of my recovery I wouldn’t look in a mirror, much less make eye contact with my loved ones or strangers. I took in their looks of shock, disdain, and pity on their faces and felt even more like Shrek meeting Fiona’s parents for the first time: an ugly and unpleasant surprise.
But, somewhere in the middle of the two month mark, I finally got brave enough to look in the mirror. I thought to myself that I needed to accept what I looked like now, accept the recovery process, and stop hiding from myself. I shuffled slowly into the bathroom and finally looked up into the mirror.
I memorized my face that day, as I glared into the mirror and noted the bruises lining every inch of my face like I had just escaped a scene from Fight Club. I saw my cracked lips and pale skin, my hollowed out eyes and frizzy hair, I noticed the green and purple bruises making their way down my neck from my face, and the puffiness that lined my jaw and cheeks. But lastly, I looked myself in the eyes, and I saw strength. Buried deep beneath the pain and the despair, I saw strength shining out of my eyes like a beacon of hope. I saw it there, glaring back at me through my broken face in the mirror, and I saw that in strength, there is true beauty.
Even after making a full recovery, I still have off days where I feel like crap about myself. But I always think back to that day where I looked at my broken face staring back at me, and remember what truly matters, and what makes real, true beauty: raw, courageous strength, and the perseverance of just making it through to another day when all you want to do is hide from yourself.
*Portrait by SRJ Images