"On the girl's brown legs there were many small white scars. I was thinking, Do those scars cover the whole you, like the stars and the moons on your dress? I thought that would be pretty too; and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived."
And this got me to thinking about my own scars and my recent experiences with my most significant scar. If you have even a glancing acquaintance with my life, you'll know that I fall over a lot and often have bruises on my body that I can't explain. I'm currently toting a massive one on my hip from clanking a bag containing a five-kilo can of chickpeas against it, plus a smaller one on my arm that for the life of me I could not tell you how it got there. I also have a collection of scars which tell little stories.
- On my left arm: a scar from my BCG injection, like most of my year at school who trooped into the hall to have them done in the spring of 1993. There was a sense of horror lurking under this (extremely important) procedure, as rumour had it that the unlucky ones would have nasty allergic reactions to the injection and end up with pussy, gunky sores. I think secretly we were all rather hoping there would be someone with that experience that we could ogle with disgust, but from memory, and rather prosaically, everyone healed up just fine, with only a small scar to show that we were now TB-immune.
- On my left wrist: two small white scars from where I had multiple IVs following different operations.
- A recent one, on the bottom of my right leg, from where I walked into the sharp corner of a large, heavy plant pot trying to put it in the appropriate place on my balcony.
- A very old one on my left knee, from falling over in the playground aged 7 and then picking the scab repeatedly so that thirty years later it still shows.
- A long, narrow one on my left calf from a school trip to Eilat, right on the bone, where I wiped out on a windsurfer in the Red Sea and didn't even notice the blood gushing down my leg until a student paddled over in a canoe and asked if I was OK. No one thought to yell at me to come back to land, despite the fact that there are sharks in the Red Sea and you could see the blood from the shore, I later discovered.
- On my right thigh, a thin line from a cut obtained crawling through a barbed wire fence in Hammanskraal, South Africa, for no good reason other than the path chosen was the quickest way to the shop to buy chocolate.
- A thick white line starting at the top of my right ear and winding the whole way around, from operation number four, aged 14, on my facial growth. Proper plastic surgery where the procedure was like a face-life: pull the skin up and over, extract, put back down. It's hidden by my hair so I tend to forget about it.
And of course the big one, the diagonal scar on my face from the last surgery on my growth, aged 26, off work for the better part of three months following a burst artery in my cheek and several subsequent recurrences, complications and infections. The doctors actually drew the line on my face down the crease of my smile line and it would have been barely noticeable but for the fact that the complications meant they had to stick a drain in the bottom inch of the incision. I have a foggy memory of having the incision exposed while the dressing was changed the next day, sitting in a hospital chair with the drainage tube leaking blood and goodness knows what other fluid onto the lovely white dressing gown my mum had brought me from home, and the sweet young surgeon who was on the team rather helplessly dabbing at it with a tissue while he tried to talk to me about how I was feeling.
Despite the trauma of that whole episode, for the most part the scar has faded away rather well and is noticed by very few people. So why is this particularly on my mind at the moment? Well, since the suspected dengue fever attack last December, my immune system has taken a bit of a battering and I have had repeated, prolonged problems with what is left of the growth just above my mouth and along the scar. And it has been, I will not lie, shit. My growth is a combination of abnormal lymph and blood vessel tissue which is capable of a whole range of weird things. The swelling began in December and then late in January, the bleeding began: the blood vessels kept breaking and not resolving, to the point where the pad of tissue would swell up like a balloon, burst and fill my mouth with blood, then start swelling again. This was not very pleasant and occasionally excruciatingly painful; I had one day in particular when it was very bad and when I went into our leadership team meeting my boss asked me if I wouldn't be better off at home. I replied in a tetchy manner that I was fine, and then was a complete cow to everyone and ended up getting sent home anyway. Excellent adulting on my part.
After a month of not sleeping through the night, I began taking diazepam for the first time in my life and despite trying to explain to everyone I work with that there's nothing that can be done to stop the swelling, I ended up at a Cuban hospital trying to talk to a maxillofacial specialist here, who like most doctors in most places was unable to help me - there's really is nothing that can be done - but who was fascinated by my case and who asked lots of questions (for the purposes of research) about the connection between the bleeding and my monthly menstrual cycle. Yes, that's a thing. The bleedings stage lasted about a month, during which time I toted an ice-pack around school and town in a desperate (and pointless) attempt to slow the bleeding down. When the bleeding finally stopped, the lymph tissue started its own little party, swelling up and going down every few days, and here I am, at the end of April, only now finally seeing the swelling reduced and my face slowly going back to whatever constitutes normal.
I think the whole process has been harder because it's been so noticeable. The great thing about the results of that last surgery was not being asked by people what was wrong with my face, which was a fairly regular occurrence for most of life up to the mid-2000s and has become a distant memory since. The horrid thing about the recent incident of swelling was the number of people that noticed that something was not quite right. Chief among these were the Primary school students, who have absolutely no filter and who said, quite cheerfully, 'What's wrong with your face, Ms Anna?' As if I wasn't self-conscious enough with a gobstopper-sized lump in my mouth, it then began a period of bruising that lasted about six weeks, during which time the scar became quite pronounced. Like so:
The bruising brought back a significantly more vivid memory of being out and about for the first time following that surgery (and the burst artery and the bruising and the hamster-face swelling) with my mother in our local supermarket. When we got to the check-out, the woman ringing up our purchases looked at my face with horror and my mother, dear lady that she is, said that she shouldn't worry, I'd been beaten up by my pimp but I was fine now...
Anyway, you may be looking at the photo and thinking that I'm blowing this out of proportion, but to me the swelling and bruising felt huge and ugly and hideous, and I have been deeply conscious of it. I think perhaps it has been harder because I've had almost ten years of very little commentary or interest whether from teenagers (who are deeply nosey by nature) or from men I have dated or from the multitude of new people that continuously pass through an expatriate life. This episode has felt like going back to square one, as I have spent the last four months trying to explain a rare congenital condition, describing its history and thus reconnecting with long-forgotten emotions and thought-patterns relating to self-esteem and what makes someone beautiful. Can you be beautiful with bleeding and bruising and a big lump in your face? My swelling goes away, eventually; what if you live with disfigurement all the time? How do you manage society's expectations of what makes someone beautiful (and therefore worthwhile) whilst fighting to preserve your own sense of worth and self-esteem? I have blogged on this subject before and it may well be a theme that I revisit time and time again.
I suppose my conclusion from all this rather self-involved rambling is that we notice and worry about our scars much more than others do, when actually we should be proud of them because they show that we survived, we made it through. I love that Little Bee says a scar is never ugly, that we shouldn't give in to the scar-makers who want us to feel ugly. A scar shows that the tissue knitted back together and what had been ripped apart has now healed. A scar shows that we're still alive. A scar reminds us of the troubles we have faced and the challenges we have overcome. If we forget our scars, we are in danger of forgetting about the lessons we have learned and the battles we have fought. My scar reminds me that I have seen through society's lie that what is on the outside is more important as what is on the inside; I have learned that kindness and humour and humility and generosity of spirit are the things that matter in a person. So, let us all agree that a scar is never ugly.