I believe in beauty. At 22, life couldn’t have been more beautiful: I had just moved to southern California from the Midwest. I was tan, wore a bikini, and got a lot of attention from guys. I worked at a cafe that prided itself in its attractive staff. I had a gig as a reporter for a celebrity gossip magazine where they said I “blended right in.” Then, one night at a film premiere, my foot went numb in its three-inch heel. By morning I had vertigo, hearing loss, and double vision. The doctors said I had a cavernous angioma in my brainstem that had hemorrhaged. In plain English, I had something comparable to a stroke. A nurse said, “you look just like a model.” Even under the circumstances, that made me happy.
It was determined that I needed a craniotomy, a surgery that only a couple of surgeons in the country were willing to perform. The operation was deemed a success, but it left me with half-facial paralysis, a crossed left eye, and a loss of coordination on my right side of my body.
I became wheelchair-bound, moved home with my family, became depressed. I couldn’t look at my changed face in the mirror; it was freakish – hideous. I cut my long, blonde hair short, not caring. I wouldn’t be in pictures, wore the same sweats for weeks, and panicked about going out in public, even sitting in the car in the grocery store parking lot. I had no idea who I would be, looking like I did. Eventually (instead of watching yet another reality-television show), I started reading again, with special glasses that corrected my crossed-eye. Then I started writing, pecking out the keys on the keyboard with my left hand (which I’m doing as I write this). At first I only journaled, then moved on to fiction stories; I joined a writing workshop. I felt like I had an identity besides being a disabled person for the first time since I fell ill. As a writer, what I looked like didn’t matter.
As soon as I could, I moved to a tiny apartment and began graduate school, working toward my M.F.A. in fiction writing, of which I am now in my second year. I dated, something I thought would never happen, then fell in love (something I thought would really never happen). Through it all, I have struggled to become okay with my looks. I know I am never going to be “pretty” again; I won’t have a smile like a toothpaste commercial. I still walk with a limp and have a permanent facial paralyis. There are more eye surgeries in the future. But I have learned that while I may not have traditional physical beauty, I have a beautiful life. My life as a writer, a scholar, a better daughter, sister, girlfriend and friend is more beautiful than I ever could have imagined as the It girl on the beach, spying on Britney Spears.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.