When I visited Belfast in the early 1990s, just before we set up a branch of Let’s Face It here in Cork, I had the pleasure of meeting a group of facially disfigured people. It was an amazing experience to meet so many people who had gone through and were still dealing with surgery and the psychological effects of living with facial disfigurement. Our faces were radically different and yet the same – we were all disfigured. A few of us had been burned, some as adults, myself as a child; one fell into a fire during an epileptic fit; a couple had endured facial cancer. But we all talked as if we had known each other for years.
How refreshing it was to be able to relax in each other’s company and exchange experiences. I was struck by one comment made in Belfast though – no one injured in the Northern Ireland Troubles had approached Let’s Face It. I wondered firstly if any of them had been facially disfigured by the conflict, but was told yes. So why did they not reach out for help?
Around the same time there was an active branch of Let’s Face It operating in Dublin and some members there said none of the Stardust fire victims had been in contact with the group. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Stardust disaster, a fire in a Dublin nightclub on Valentine’s night, 1981, killed 48 young people and injured over 200, many with serious burns.
It’s amazing to think no survivors of both tragedies had come forward to talk to anyone in Let’s Face It in Dublin or Belfast. I have no idea why although I suspect the sheer horror of their experiences shocked them into staying away from others. Maybe also they felt their injuries, and the circumstances in which they arose, were uniquely theirs.
Every so often I think about the isolation facial disfigurement can bring, all self imposed. I guess my injuries going back over 50 years now bring a different perspective in that I genuinely hadn’t met anyone who looked remotely like me until I was in my early 30s. Of course I had seen a very rare magazine article or two, but meeting someone in the flesh? No.
I worked very hard to make something out of my life, and I’m especially lucky in that I worked in a large newspaper environment where my face never mattered. I never felt awkward in people’s company there, never dreaded walking into any department or was in any way intimidated. Would I have coped in another company? That’s a great question. I have no way of knowing. I can say that with hundreds of people employed in our newspaper you soon forgot about your face and got on with work!