When I met Bart Kenny for the first time we quickly discovered we had more than facial disfigurement in common. It turned out his cousin Ted had lived in my estate, and we had been friends for many years. But Ted had stopped calling when he realised I didn’t wanted to go out anymore. I wasn’t surprised when Bart revealed this because I remember it well.
I was around 19 then and had gone from a reasonably introverted guy to almost a recluse. Finishing school had something to do with it. Friends went their own way and very few lived locally. I had drifted away from other lads who lived nearby, and between the end of my schooling and landing a job with the Irish Examiner more often than not I was alone with my thoughts – and they were mainly negative. Poor Tom. Nobody loves him. That was my daily refrain, only I wasn’t telling anyone – not my family or the few people I knew slightly then. I was too busy feeling sorry during those lonely days and nights.
I obsessed about my face and how others perceived me. I was afraid, hurt by the staring, which was very intrusive and undermined the little confidence I had. I felt sure that no one loved me, or cared much about me, other than my family, of course. I went to the cinema on my own, usually at night when few people could see me. Daylight became my enemy, when others could see my imperfections, so I tried to avoid going to town on my own. Which made my insecurities even worse and ensured the cycle of fear, doubt and lack of confidence was even more pronounced. I wanted to feel normal and imagined girls meeting and being enthralled by me, but it was fantasy at its most dangerous. I was delusional, alone, friendless. I didn’t like what I was becoming, barely recognised this version of Tom Hickey, but felt helpless to act. No one understood me. No one cared. Those were my thoughts and they filled most of my waking moments.
Trips into town became painful excursions, dominated by fear and a tightening in my stomach. Almost as soon as I stepped outside my front door I wanted to go back. Everything was exaggerated: my chin was more prominent and heavier, EVERYONE was staring at me. I could see the eyes of strangers repulsed by what they were seeing, or averting their eyes when they realised I had caught them looking. I felt freakish, so very alone.
I read feverishly, devouring all the books I could find, and would watch TV until transmission ended. So many hours to fill, so much misery to contemplate. Too much time to dwell on life’s unfairness, to feel even sorrier for myself. There were too many hours to fill and they passed slowly, depressingly so. I worked as best I could, but I felt worthless beyond the job. Colleagues my age were dancing, dating and drinking, buying motorcycles or daring to dream about owning a car. Me, I just couldn’t wait to get home and escape the pressure.
I sensed mum knew what I was going through, and tried her best to cheer me up, but by then I was past help. Nothing made sense. Tomorrow would be the same as today. No change, just resentment slowly taking control of my life. And this refusal to be objective, to view the world as less threatening, overwhelmed me. I was grieving for a lost face and the hope that somehow I could acquire a new one. I wasn’t brave, I was afraid. I had no faith in myself, no belief that I could tackle my issues.
Nineteen should have been a great year, buzzing with the thrill of work and the liberation money brings. But it wasn’t enough, not by a long shot. I had forsaken my old friends and failed to connect properly with new colleagues. I succumbed to a sickness – for that is what it was – that left me detached from normal life. No dances for me because in the noisy atmosphere and my extreme shyness idle chat just would not come if I even thought to open my mouth. So I stayed at home. I was safe there from everyone but myself. I was afraid of my own shadow and the world outside. Negativity was my friend. Only he understood me.
That was a very hard year. The end of my teens and the beginning of a nightmare that lasted until I was 29. Hard to believe I survived those years, but I did and came out a much stronger person.