It was supposed to be the “Best Day Ever” — but instead, a freak accident turned that hot summer afternoon into an unforgettable trauma. Not unforgettable for me — because I was knocked out. But my friends, who had to drag my unconscious, limp body from the water after I was injured, will never forget it. And though I can't recall the actual moment when my face was damaged, the ramifications of that moment would stick with me for a long time.
It was a college reunion trip at a cabin in northern Wisconsin. Five college besties, all grown up and reunited, were catching up on boyfriends, breakups, jobs and unfinished Pinterest projects — and beating the heat by taking turns jumping into the lake from a rope swing, Huckleberry Finn-style. It was one of those swings where you climb up on an elevated platform, hold on to a handle, and jump. According to the laws of physics, your ride should start high, dip low, and then arc up again. You release the handle at the peak of that arc, when you are high up above the water. It’s exhilarating, really. But on my third swing, my feet caught on some underbrush, and I landed face first on a boulder in the shallow end of the lake.
My friends witnessed the fall, and immediately ran to my aid. Everyone grabbed some part of my body, working together to hoist me out of the water. I was bleeding and unconscious, but breathing. An ambulance was called, and EMTs arrived 15 minutes later. Apparently I was responsive, though I remember nothing of the incident. Some say that is a blessing.
Still in their wet swim suits, my friends got in their cars and followed the ambulance to the nearest trauma center, where they were told that I would have to be taken two hours south to a more advanced clinic for treatment. They followed the ambulance again, so they could all take turns holding my hand in the emergency room.
All of this is a blur for me. All I really remember is waking up in the back of an ambulance, strapped to a wheeled stretcher, with a morphine drip in my right arm. I remember being very upset that I couldn’t locate my cell phone, my sparkly headband or my air mattress (you know, the important things). And I remember demanding that someone take a picture of me — because there was no way my bosses would believe this happened, and I’d get fired for missing work.
Two ambulance rides, two hospitals, nine stitches, four metal plates, and one painful five-hour surgery later, I began the long recovery process for my broken face (the non-technical term). It turns out there is a bone that holds up your eyeball, and it looks like a Lay's Potato Chip. I shattered that bone, along with many others across my cheek and face.
Of all the things that could have gone wrong, I feel extremely lucky to have walked away with just some cosmetic damage. I could have broken my neck, knocked out teeth, gone blind, suffered brain injuries…the list of possibilities is endless. It’s been one year since my accident, and all that’s left is a tiny scar across my chin, and some scar tissue around my right eye — and you’d have to touch it to even know it’s there.
People say they can’t tell that anything happened. They say I look the same. But it’s my face. It’s a face I have stared at and scrutinized for 25 years. And the fact is, it doesn’t look the same to me.
I don’t smile the same. The scar tissue prevents my right eye from squinting the way my left one does. So I find my eyes looking a bit off when I smile — one large orb wide open, and the other in a wink.
I’ve struggled with body image and hopeless feelings tying my self-worth to my looks and weight my whole life. But I didn’t realize just how much I cared about my physical appearance until my physical appearance was altered.
I had to spend two months of my life with a battered face — swollen cheeks, gnarly purple and yellow bruises across both eyes, black stitches protruding from my chin and eyebrow, and zero desire to shower because it hurt when water touched my face.
The inability to work out often depressed me the most. Pre-accident-me would have never fathomed going eight weeks without a sweat session. The thought was like death. And then there I was — bedridden while my body used every ounce of energy it had to heal (aka sleep, because sleep cures all). I was certain that every day without a run, bike ride or yoga class was changing my weight.
I remember the first day I got on the scale after I returned to my apartment in Minneapolis. Eight weeks without a workout…and guess what? My weight was exactly the same. This was a huge game changer for me. I learned that I could, in fact, miss a workout and not spiral into a deep depression over the inevitable pounds gained. I could miss eight weeks of workouts, and I would still be me. My face could resemble a soggy bruised peach (and yes, there was certainly some sogginess), and I could still be me.
I spent a lot of time right after the accident trying to find gratitude for the things that were still mine. I didn’t look anything like myself — but did that really matter? I still had a body. I could still use stairs by myself. Use the bathroom. Drive a car (after I got off pain meds, of course). I had a job where I was respected and valued — and which offered incredible disability insurance that allowed me to take the time off to heal. I still had a brain that was fully functioning and capable. And I still had talents that had nothing to do with my face or my looks. I could still write. I could still sing. I could still make deviled eggs. I didn’t need a “perfect” face or a “perfect” body to do any of the things that made me “me.”
And I still had my heart. I still had the ability to care and to love. I still had a heart that could feel undeniably grateful for the people in my life that rescued me and cared for me during my accident. I hardly think I was a Grinch before my accident...but I feel like my heart grew ten sizes during my recovery. If you could measure love and gratitude, my heart would break the scale.
The accident taught me a lot about all the love in my life. But it also taught me a lot about self-love. It showed me that people don’t only care for me because of what my face, hair or abs look like. So why should I? Why should I love myself based on what I see? I should love myself because of how I feel, and because I am a smart, capable person that brings value to this world.
I still have days when I look in the mirror, and am not happy with what I see. Some days are better than others. But I try to remember that my contributions to this planet have nothing to do with my body, my face, my clothes or my newly crooked smile. I am still a human with value. I know how to give love, and I know how to receive love. I’m a little more delicate with my vulnerabilities, a little more understanding about my own imperfections, and a little bit more realistic about what defines my worth.
I’d still like to lose weight. I’d like to fix this crooked smile. I’d really like to not be a slave to pizza and red wine. But today — I am alive. And I contribute to the world. And people love me, and I love them.
I’m a big believer in the idea that everything happens for a reason. I can’t say I’ve been able to find a good reason for breaking my face, but perhaps I needed some lessons in redefining my own value. Perhaps I needed a different way to define what makes me beautiful.
Recovery from trauma is measured in years, not months, and I am only a year out. But I am convinced now, more than ever, that it is the contents of my mind and my heart that make me beautiful. So what if my face is a little messed up? My face is not the reason why people care about me, and it is not what makes me beautiful.
Image: Melissa Faulkner/Bustle (7)