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.