That's me at the U.S. Tennis Open in 2013.
That’s me at the U.S. Tennis Open in 2013.

Yes, it’s easy to say never give up on yourself, but it’s also so true. I’m a prime example of that. And yet I’ll also admit it was very difficult to overcome my obsession with self pity and my capacity to shut others out of my life.

We all want to lead normal, functioning social lives. Our ability to mix with the outside world in pubs, restaurants, dances, theatre, etc., is usually only restricted by one thing – money. Some, of us, of course, like our occasional nights in, others are a little more shy and reserved about the outside world, but very few choose to reject the world other than to work and buy food.

Then imagine yourself in my place as a teenager or in their 20s, having largely disengaged from the world. I had forgotten that my isolation came from within. I feared stepping outside my door every day, a fear that consumed me to the extent that I lost my local and school pals. I made excuses for not going out, because I didn’t want to be rejected. That was my perception: That the outside world had given up on me, didn’t care, saw me as some kind of freak, less human than themselves.

But the decision to stay indoors was mine and no one else’s. I didn’t believe in myself, and when you lack that confidence, assume the world is out to get you, then it’s a hard road back. And rebuilding your life can only start when your own attitude undergoes a radical change. Mine didn’t for a long, long time.

I look back now to when I was younger and I can see I looked a whole lot better than I do now. But that younger man only saw what he wanted to see. He looked at his image in the mirror – and we had a full length mirror in the hall at home which I would look at each day – hoping for some miracle improvement.

I couldn’t alter my physical appearance no matter what I did. But I could change my mental attitude. Which I did very slowly. It was no overnight success, I can assure you, but I kept my sanity, which wasn’t a bad start, because where I had been heading was a dark and treacherous place. When you have too much time to think, and your thoughts are negative and destructive, pulling yourself back from the brink is never easy.

Where did I find that inner strength? Honestly? I don’t know. I find it hard looking back from where I am now to comprehend how I got from there to here, and yet I did. I always hoped that I could somehow pull myself through those difficult years, and yet I couldn’t see exactly how.

I guess one of my starting blocks was the realisation that I wanted to live. I didn’t want to give up on a world I assumed had rejected me because I wanted everything others took for granted. I wanted normality, love, companionship, a relationship. To be able to walk down Cork’s streets and feel no one was staring at me because I was comfortable in my own skin. Those were my desires, my goals. Knowing what they were and getting them, well, they took some work.

The lesson I learned – although again it would take a long time to absorb it – is that people don’t notice your face after a while. Sure, that first time it may shock them, but once you start talking they notice the person and not the face. Of course you can’t go around introducing yourself to everyone to take the ‘sting’ out of that first meeting. But one step at a time. A gradual approach will ease you into a habit. Once started you really won’t want to stop. And yes, you will feel extremely reluctant not to make that painful first step. The longer you put it off the harder it is. Don’t make my mistake and sit on your hands as the years roll by.

Don’t say no. If you’re invited to a party, cinema, whatever, just go. Don’t make the kind of excuses I did far too often. Dress up, wear your best smile and ignore your inner demons. The word ‘no’ is the enemy of the facially disfigured. Try ‘yes’. Make that effort and you’ll be glad you did.

Make the most of what you’ve got. I had a bit of a reputation for dressing well. Wearing orange silk shirts and cravats when I was a teenager certainly got me noticed. Looking back on it now I can see it took attention away from my face. Build on your advantages. I’d forgo the silk shirts and cravats these days, but dress smartly and look as well as you can. Believe me, it’s a start.

I’m a natural talker. I have an opinion on everything, as my colleagues often say – and not always the right ones! But from my years of deliberately staying away from others I watched a lot of TV, films, read hundreds of books, magazines and newspapers. They kept me up to date on the world outside so I can converse pretty well. I may not be a natural public speaker, but confidence will get you far. And I like listening to people too. It’s important to let the other person talk too.

Learning to laugh at yourself and the world is a great way to tackle the spectre of isolation. It took a while before I could begin to do that.
But I learned little by little. I took life too seriously. Sometimes you have to step back and understand that everyone has problems and not just you. Tricky yes, insurmountable no. Laughter, like a smile, helps break down barriers between you and others.

Make a determined effort to take up a hobby or sport that will add to your circle of friends and acquaintances. In my case it was mainly chess, and while I was no great talent, I enjoyed the game enough to play on a team, and occasionally pulled off shock wins when better players underestimated me. Most of all it gave me some friendships that have stood the test of time. Whether it’s voluntary work, bridge or the GAA, get involved.

Most of all never admit defeat. Yesterday may have been bad, but today can be better and tomorrow much improved. Millions of people every day defy the odds – whether it’s cancer, mental illness, accidents, money problems, etc. if they can do it so can you.

I would advise, especially if your confidence is very low, to read some inspiring books on how people overcame vast odds and survived horrendous situations. Or you can seek them out in blogs or elsewhere on the internet. You have a lot to give and a lot of love to share. Don’t let the time you have left slip by without making a supreme effort to lift yourself up and out into the real world.

Frankly, it’s not half as bad as you think out there. Just give people a chance.