This may be one of the most raw, vulnerable things I've ever written. I've shared all about my childhood, growing up with a Bipolar father, experiencing abuse and neglect, and the years of depression, anxiety, and acting out that followed, but none of that comes anywhere close to what I'm about to share in terms of how exposed it makes me feel. It's 2 AM and I can't sleep. I'm awake because I have an appointment with my dermatologist in a little over a week and I'm completely fucking terrified.
About a year and a half ago I had surgeries to remove two small cancers from my skin. They were both basal cell carcinoma, which is basically the least aggressive form of skin cancer that you can have. One was on my left forearm--no big deal--but the other was on my forehead and the doctor ended up having to make a cut that ran from just above my right eyebrow all the way to my hairline. This came on the heels of a fairly frightening emergency appendectomy, so even though I was really not happy about having to willingly add a scar to my face, I was grateful that it wasn't anything life-threatening and that I could just get bangs to cover the scar until it lightened enough to not be too visible.
After the surgery, I made jokes about how it looked like I had gotten into a fight with a metal pipe and how I was going to make up crazy stories about having incurred the mark by doing something heroic. But the truth was that I was scared. I was scared that my face would be altered in ways that made me feel less than, and as someone who has spent much of her life trying to overcome the residual impacts of being pretty brutally teased for my appearance as a child, that possibility seemed devastating.
Luckily the bangs did the trick and within six months of the surgery, the scar was light enough that, even with my bangs pushed to the side, the scar was barely visible.
I was so relieved to have gotten away with so little damage and just kept my fingers crossed that I wouldn't have to go through anything like that again any time soon. But crossing your fingers isn't always enough.
I recently noticed that a patch of flaky skin along the side of the bridge of my nose, where the nose connects to the tear duct of my right eye, the area that would rest just under the right nose pad of a pair of sunglasses, looked strange. It’s been a persistently dry spot off and on for years, but hadn't seemed like anything more until I noticed that it seemed particularly red and inflamed. And that's when it hit me. The two areas of skin that had to be removed a year and a half ago had looked very similar in their early stages of development.
I spent more time than I would like to admit sitting on my bathroom counter with my face as close to the mirror as I could possibly get it, running my finger lightly over the patchy area and trying to ascertain what it was, as if I could magically have the answer. I desperately wanted to see something, anything that indicated that my suspicions were wrong and that it was, in fact, just a harmless patch of flaky skin, but I knew I needed a professional opinion and most likely a biopsy to be sure.
I scheduled the appointment almost a month ago. February 6th, 2017, Monday after next, is the day and here I am, lying in bed in the middle of the night completely unable to sleep because I am so scared of what the results will be. So what exactly is it that I'm afraid of? Here's where it's about to get really raw.
I am terrified that the answer is going to be: yes, it is a skin cancer and needs to be removed. I’m scared that the area that will need to be removed will encroach upon the inner rim of my eye and that the surgery will leave my face visibly deformed. I’m scared that I will look in the mirror afterwards and see someone that I don't recognize. That my face will be foreign to me and that I will only be able to see a big scar in the center of my face and a damaged, skewed, misshapen eye. Even worse, I’m scared that no one else will ever think I'm beautiful again. To be more specific, I'm scared men will never find me beautiful again. Admitting this part feels particularly vulnerable because it first implies that I think I'm beautiful to begin with, which is a perspective our society tells women that they should hold around their appearance, but as modestly so as possible and it is certainly not acceptable for a woman to fully embody the sense that she is beautiful lest she be labeled vain, self absorbed, and arrogant. And the truth is, I do think I'm beautiful..sometimes. And sometimes, I look at myself and all I see are flaws. I have moments where I love my unique combination of features and wear them proudly into the world and other times where I feel like the strangest looking creature on the planet and struggle to feel any sort of confidence in my appearance. And I know that my worth is not determined by my physical appearance or whether or not men find me attractive. Just admitting how much that part scares me might be the most vulnerable part of all because it reveals, both to whoever is reading this and to myself, just how much work I have to do on the ways in which I value myself and how very much my self-esteem is tied up in my appearance. And still, I wonder, if I add another big oddity to the center of my face, an area that certainly can't be covered over or hidden with freshly cut bangs, how will I ever look at my own reflection and feel good enough? How, as a single woman, will I be able to go on first dates and sit across from a man who wants to get to know who I am, but most certainly also wants to be physically attracted to a potential mate, and feel secure or enough?
And the answer is, I don't know.
While on retreat over the new year, I got really clear about how very much I cling to control. I loathe uncertainty and do mental gymnastics that would earn stacks of gold medals creating contingency plans for every possible outcome of every situation I encounter from my work life to the tiniest social interactions just to avoid finding myself in the uncomfortable experience of not knowing what to do. And here I am. In a situation in which I have almost no control. I don't know what the outcome of my biopsy will be. I don't know if I'll need surgery, or if so, how extensive that surgery will be, how my recovery and healing will go, how I will feel about myself afterwards, or how others will react to me should my appearance dramatically change.
But there is one thing that I have a say so in. There is one element in this equation that creates an opening for me to make a choice, to have the tinest bit of control in an otherwise uncontrollable circumstance, and that is how I approach the fire that I know that I must walk through.
In life, when we are faced with a course of action that is truly terrifying but we know we must take, we have two options: to go in fighting the entire experience, bracing ourselves against the potential for pain, screaming and wailing that it's not supposed to be this way OR with the quiet dignity of TOTAL SURRENDER.
I'm not going to pretend I'm all the way to the second option yet, but it's the target I've set my sights on and no matter how many times I have to realign my focus, my goal is to keep coming back to it because, if I've learned anything about life across my truly wild 34 years, it's that you can't run away from the experiences you're dealt. They are always faster than you and they will chase you down and eat you alive, so you might as well just stand as courageously as you can and face them.
And also, I really don't know what's going to happen. Maybe it will be fine and I won't need surgery at all. Or maybe I will need surgery, but it will be so minor and not even noticeable in a matter of months. Or perhaps my fears will be realized and I'll have to figure out how to navigate the physical, social, psychological and emotional impacts of a dramatic and unwanted change in my appearance. I don't know what the journey is going to look like, but I'll be damned if I'm going to drive myself crazy trying to control things that I simply just can't.
So there it is. What's happening in the depths of my guts right now. Not five or ten or fifteen years ago, but in this very moment. This is me at my most vulnerable and all I hope is that, if there's anyone out there reading this who is struggling with anything even remotely similar, they can find some sort of solace in knowing that they're not alone and that, at the end of the day, no matter how afraid they are of what's ahead, they get to choose how they show up to greet their fate. And if the ride ever starts to get really rocky, that's something that we can all hold on to.