"What happened to your nose?" Written 2019 following MOHS on nose-tip
“What happened to your nose?” The Big Issue seller’s question still runs through me. Mid April I had surgery to remove an infiltrative basal cell cancer from the tip of my nose. The 28mm wound was repaired using skin from my clavicle – now a lump of pasty-looking skin on the tip, with two large blood crusts where necrotic tissue was cut away.
Today is the first day I am out without a dressing. Writing this is part of trying to make sense of what I’m feeling, much of which feels irrational. I’ve still got my arms and legs, right? I can breathe – all my organs are functioning. Then why is this so hard?
So you can understand me better (and maybe so I can find an anchor in myself, as I was before) I will tell you a bit about myself.
I’m a 63-year-old woman. Actually – there the sentence stops. It feels like nothing else matters – that I have great friends, a worthwhile job, a house, a lovely garden. Something is overriding all that. It feels like my biggest pain is not physical.
Yesterday, as I first left the consulting room, I felt an overwhelming sense of exposure and shame. It took me a while to grasp what that was … Shame for what? Images from the media flooded in – of beautiful women with perfect skin. They somehow merged with memories of childhood fairy tales. Snow White, in particular. She was beautiful and innocent. A prince fell in love with her and saved her. She was my favorite fairy tale character when I was young.
The thought is there immediately - that I am not, now. My face has been damaged. The face with which I great the world and by which people first know me. I dread going back to work – my colleagues seeing me. Finding out … what?
Upholding the illusion of "perfection"
All my life I have tried to be like Snow White, I guess, at some level. I have lived with the constant fear that I will be found out. That I will be shown up as a fraud - ugly, a failure, maybe even worse. Something in me is lacking. I feel that most at work – always that sense that I will have done something wrong, or not done something. Something terrible will happen and it will be my fault. I am a perfectionist and work excessively to manage my anxiety and maintain the picture I have created. When The Thing happens, people will turn ‘round and look like they’re looking at my nose now, and they will see.
Of course, it’s me that needs to see something-- the fallen, broken Snow White in myself. The core failure of not upholding the impossible illusion of perfect beauty and innocence.
That will resonate with many of you. Increasingly too many of us are trying too hard, harming ourselves, even, to conform to what we are told we should be – beautiful, yes, but it goes wider than that. We have to be clever, earn a lot, be big consumers, men have to be dominant and powerful, women perfect wives and mothers. Of course, there is a movement away from that, but the stereotypes are still there and powerful, and we have taken them so deeply into ourselves that we are barely aware of them. Until something happens.
My mental and physical health
I realize I have faced this conflict before, 35 years ago. I had entered an inappropriate sexual relationship with a man who was a father figure to me. This stirred up an internal conflict I was unable to resolve. Deep inside, barely visible in the shadows, the rage was clawing to get out while Snow White did everything she could to be loving, giving, and always available - including starving herself (I was bulimic for several years) and coming very close to depression and other forms of self-harm.
That situation and my bulimia resolved with the ending of the relationship and (it seems) my avoidance of fully committing to another. The situation resolved, but the stand-off between ‘the face I present to the world’ and my deep, dark sense of need, rage, impotence, and failure continues.
Except now my face is visibly broken. I look into myself through the mirror and catch a glimpse of dark movement. I don’t know how my story ends, but I know it has to do with recovering something from the dark – something that is strong and powerful and will remove the spell that has ruled my life. That sounds great, but I feel terrified of a tidal wave; of my safe and ordered world falling apart. There is a price to pay for transformation and part of me wants to hold on.
Can I fix my nose enough to hide the scars?
I know I am more than the face of my persona and the dark of my Shadow. I can rest in that infinite space away from my small, embodied sense of self. I can find beauty there. I can escape.
But there is something about the physicality of this wound that pulls me back, down, deep into myself. I stand in the forest of my depth, where things stir in the shadows. It is time to fight my fear. I must face myself, as I am, with all my imperfections. I must find a way to accept, hold and love myself, to set myself free.
Are you concerned about skin cancer when the weather gets colder?