Did I tell you I look different?

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Whenever I wrote letters to pen pals for the first time – something I started in my teens – I would always tell them I had a facial disfigurement. I’m not sure why I did that. Did I fear they would stop writing if they found out later? Was I looking for pity? Was I so unsure of myself and them that I felt it best to issue a warning first?

Perhaps it was all three. I thought my face was a big deal, an impediment to me being accepted by non-facially disfigured folk. I worried too that what I looked like meant more to girls especially. So I always told them in advance – just in case they felt like they should stop writing.

Silly, when you think about it. God knows I would have been upset had they stopped writing but they didn’t. They were never likely to meet me anyway being in the United States, or so I thought, because I did meet two of them many years later when I flew to America.

When you are used to abuse – the effrontery of some people and the chilling way they respond to seeing you for that first time – defeatism begins to consume you. You expect everyone to behave in the same fashion. So you warn people when you can. I did this with some girls after replying to a few personal ads. I think my pessimism helped make their minds up more than my scars.

What surprised me since I started this blog was how others with facial disfigurements did exactly the same thing. Dawn Shaw in her autobiography Facing Up To It mentions several times that she always forewarned people she was about to meet that she looked different to prepare them for the ‘shock’. I was talking to another friend a couple of weeks ago who admitted she used to do the same, so at least I wasn’t alone.

A facial difference sets you apart from everyone else. Some react with surprise and appear startled when they see you for the first time. Most aren’t judgmental, and while they may be curious, are far too polite to show their true feelings. And some just aren’t bothered one way or another. Unfortunately, fear of rejection colours our thinking, so that I became overwhelmed by an acute shyness in company. It was something I struggled with for many years, wanting to lead a ‘normal’ existence but too afraid to venture out.

I told the story before of how I met Trish. I had placed an advertisement in a newspaper and she was the only girl to reply. Her letter included a phone number, and when we finally talked we arranged that I would call to collect her a few nights later. I did not warn her in advance about my face. Why? Because by then I felt I was making too many excuses for myself. If we met and she reacted coolly then so be it.

Trish told me some months later that she was shocked at first – I have to confess she didn’t show it – but then forgot all about my face once we started talking. It’s pretty much the same with most people. When I joined the Cork Examiner no one took a blind bit of notice. They may have wondered what happened to me, but no one ever asked. Instead I volunteered the information to a few and was never troubled by a soul in the 42 years I worked there.

The Examiner was a safe environment for me even though hundreds of people worked there. I got on just as well with the female workers as I did the males with no issues. Outside work it was a different matter.

At the end I recognised I had to stop warning people and start living. I did and then along came Trish. I should have done it years before.

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4 thoughts on “Did I tell you I look different?

  1. Dear Tom Hickey,
    I read your article in The Irish Independent on line today and I am most angry that you should have had such terrible experiences with ignorant and uncouth people. On reading comments made to your wife I thought ‘many a beautiful face hides a black and wicked heart.
    Strange as it may seem I experienced a little of what you have always experienced in my own childhood. I am almost ashamed of sharing it, it is so minor but because I was a child it did hurt and make me self consious.
    I was the usual little girl with wavy hair and the hair ribbon keeping it atop my head, I was born in 1948. When I was 6 weeks old my mother noticed a small swelling on my right cheek which the doctor assured her was harmless and to leave well enough alone.
    My face was always quite broad and the swelling especially in certain lights was noticable.
    My poor parents were tormented with people saying ‘you should have something done about that child’s face.’
    I was tormented by people asking me if I had toothache, was sucking a sweet, feeling and poking around my cheek; sometimes the people were perfect strangers.In the style of the times I was polite, taught never to backchat adults etc. and when I told my parents they really were unable to help other than telling me to say that it would be removed when I grew older. The questions too were so personal; you can imagine.
    If one of my own children had inherited the lipoma I would have told them to kick nosy adults in the shins and tell them to ‘bugger off’.
    On the advice of a nurse friend, this after many visits to doctors and surgeons, my father took me at about age 7 to a surgeon who took me on his knee, chatted to me while gently examining my right cheek. Of course my father was present.
    He said that it would be impossible to tell until I was on the operating table whether or not this lump, which he diagnosed as a lipoma, a harmless lump of fat, could be removed from inside or outside the cheek. Removing it from the outside would leave a dike like scar.
    My father asked the leading question; ‘if it were your daughter’ to which the answer was ‘I would not spoil that pretty face, I would leave well enough alone. A doctor in this town has a lipoma on an inner arm, very eary to remove and he will not allow anyone near it!’ He advised that I be left to make the decisions myself when I became an adult.
    I married an anaesthetist who told me that removing the lipoma from inside the cheek would have, at the time made me an anaesthetic risk; not until anaesthesia was given would it be known whether or not my airway would take an breathing tube. Many surgeons at the time had experience of anaesthesia from serving in the British Army during WW2
    The questions etc. continued until one day in school my best friend drew a caricature of her father with one protuding cheek. ‘What is that?; I asked
    ‘That’s his harmless lump of fat; said she. The tears and hurt feelings followed, best friend had no sympathy saying that no one noticed it only myself, she was tired of listening to me apologising for it and if you stopped going on about something it would disappear!
    After that the lipoma did indeed shrink!
    A few years ago a surgeon removed a mole from my right cheek under local anaesthetic and of course found the lipoma. He told me it could be very easily removed now I told him that it had come into the world with me and it would leave the world with me, that I had actually got quite fond of it.
    After the scolding from my friend (we are still best friends) I always acted very stupid when people remarked on my swelling; ‘What?’ ‘I have never noticed’ while backing away and putting on a big cross face.
    So, a minor story Tom but one that can make me empathise with you; glower at people, especially stroppy teenagers and bold children saying ‘What are you looking at? Cultivate a beetle browed experssion and see what happens.
    Your wife looks a very happy woman. How many male Hollywood idols gave their wives a terrible time?
    To repeat: ‘Many a beautiful and handsome face hid a black and wicked heart.’

    Many good wishes and regards
    Mary G. Johnson…..and her lipoma

    1. That’s a fascinating story Mary. So sorry you went through that. I’m lucky in that I have had a great life once I came to terms with my face. I’m comfortable with it now and my wife and kids couldn’t care less! Thanks for your story and very best wishes to you.

  2. Tom. I just came across your piece in the Indo online this am. I just wanted to convey warm wishes to you and to acknowledge your courage in speaking out in such touching terms and without a trace of bitterness. It was uplifting gracious and humorous- you show how bigger you are than all those whom you describe .
    With every good wish to you and your family.
    Noel

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