Breaking your face is not like breaking your arm or your leg. Granted, I have never broken my arm or my leg so maybe I am just falsely assuming things here, but I can only imagine that when you break those parts of your body, it’s more of a functional issue than anything else. When it comes to our appendages, all we really want is to be able to use them to their utmost capacity, or at least to minimally adequate capacity. If I were to injure my leg, I wouldn’t ask, “Will my leg ever look the same again?” That would be a ridiculous question. An arm is an arm as a leg is a leg, and unless I have my leg insured like J.Lo has her butt insured (she does, right?), there’s no reason I would ever care very much about restoring the aesthetic qualities of my leg. Yes, there are exceptionally beautiful and well-sculpted arms pairs of arms and legs, but the simple fact of the matter is that arms and legs are not noted for their aesthetics as much as they are for their functionality. Such is the principle underlying the existence of sports like track and soccer, and the non-existence of beauty pageants for limbs (although maybe these do exist as well, who knows).
When you break your face, though, a much different type of problem arises. Assuming that the break did not injure the brain or damage the eyes, facial injuries are much more of an aesthetic issue than anything else. After all, what is the function of a face? Sure, individual components of one’s face, such as the eyes, nose, and mouth, all have their own particular instrumental uses. But the face as a whole really has no function. At least as far as people have taken it, the face pretty much only leads an aesthetic existence. And consequently, facial injuries are aesthetic tragedies in a way that almost no other type of injury can be.
I know nothing about broken arms or legs, but due to events this past summer I know some things about broken faces. It started with a horseback ride through the French countryside, and it ended with me in the ER with a swollen, purple, bloody face and a missing tooth. I watched, nauseous from swallowing too much of my own blood, as little kids visiting their relatives played monster peekaboo with me against my will. I stared at them grotesquely out of my one eye, watching as they screeched and giggled in simultaneous horror and fascination, daring to look longer and longer at me only to turn and scramble back behind the safety of their hands and shut eyes.
My trip to the ER yielded me two things: affirmation that I looked absolutely repulsive, and the diagnoses of traumatized teeth and a popped capillary vein in my face, hence the right side of it feeling numb and looking like an eggplant. The ER doctor assured me that these were only minor injuries and that I would be completely healed in ten days. Elated, I took a selfie of myself and sent it to my mother half-jokingly. She promptly booked me a flight back the US the next day.
Looking like the sad, pitiful version of Two-Face made me the uncontested center of attention during my journey through the train, metro, and airport, back to the US. Lured in by my irresistible purple visage, handsome young Frenchmen did double takes as I walked past. Multiple people asked if I had gotten mugged or needed help getting to wherever I needed to be. Airport officials escorted me to the front of lines and let me use their special elevator. I reveled in the attention, thinking about milking my battered face for even more special treatment by feigning nausea or pain. However, these thoughts were quickly scattered whenever I caught a glance of myself in the mirror, or simply looked down and saw the mound of swollen purple flesh that was the right side of my face.
Back in the US, I told my regular doctors what had happened, and about my previous diagnosis—how I was patiently waiting for Day 10 to arrive so my face would deflate and properly colorize itself again. We all went on and on about how lucky I was to have escaped with an injury that would only take ten days to heal. Imagine—looking so unbelievably gross, but knowing that it would all be gone in a little more than a week! The things the human body is capable of!
One of my doctors, however, was skeptical, and for good reason. One CAT scan later, I found out from an oral and maxillofacial specialist that Day 10 would sadly never arrive the way I expected it to. I had not merely popped a capillary vein in my face. Instead, I had broken five bones—my upper jaw, nose, right cheekbone, right eyebrow, and right orbital. I didn’t feel any pain in my face—a numbness I had attributed to swelling—because the impact of my fall and my shattered eye socket had damaged the nerve underneath.
My doctor, optimist that he is, told me that surgery would be necessary if I ever wanted to look even somewhat normal again. Not satisfied with “somewhat normal,” I asked him if I would ever look normal again. He assured me that he would do his best, and could probably obtain a more-than satisfactory result. But, perhaps not wanting to set himself or Mother Nature up for an impossible task, he added that while my face might attain a “close to normal” appearance, close to normal is still not the same as normal.
The lack of guarantees on anything was disappointing. How large of a deviation from normal was I supposed to expect? I resigned myself to the possibility of deformation and hoped only to look better than I did, which given the circumstances, was not really hard to do. I cried in my bed, going through all the body parts I would have rather broken, cursing the stupid horse for not breaking my leg or my arm, anything but my face.
On my elementary school playground, if you found someone’s face especially offensive, a common insult thrown was, “You look like you got kicked in the face.” Now that I had actually been kicked in the face—by a fucking horse—how was I supposed to have expectations for anything? However, as the initial shock wore down and I became desensitized to waking up in the morning, looking in the mirror, and crying for 3 minutes before starting the rest of my day, a strange thing happened.
I stopped feeling like the girl who broke half her face and needed surgery in order to avoid deformation. Instead, I adopted the mindset of some Beverly Hills narcissist about to go under the knife for a nose job or a chin lift. After all, my surgeon, in addition to being an oral and maxillofacial surgeon who operated on facial trauma patients, also did plastic surgery. I referred to him not as my facial trauma surgeon, but as my plastic surgeon, fantasizing, as plastic surgery patients probably do, about his magic touch and the wonders he would do to me.
In my eyes, my surgery had stopped being just reconstructive, and had started being constructive as well. Well-trained in the art of crafting faces, my brave surgeon hero was going to give me a new, and vastly improved version of my old face. He had said, after all, that my face post-op and post-recovery might look a little different from how it had. Whereas I had initially taken this to mean that I would end up looking slightly worse than normal, my irrational sense of optimism spilled light on the true meaning of his words: of course I would like a little different, because I was going to look even better than I ever had.
What complicated things even more was that my accident had just so happened to affect only the part of my face that I had always disliked. My fall had only injured the right side of my face—the side I had always deemed my inferior and ugly side, the side I turned away from the camera if given the opportunity, the side with the wonky eye, subpar bone structure, and unwieldy nostril. Furthermore, the tooth that had been knocked out had been the bane of my existence since I noticed how much it stuck out 2 years ago. Contrast this with the left side of my face, my good side, which escaped the accident completely unscathed. How fortunate for me that my accident had given me an excuse to fix up all my most hideous features without seeming like a complete narcissist. Everything had been set up so perfectly that even though I am not religious, I couldn’t help but send up a little prayer in thanks.
This level of optimism might seem slightly ridiculous. Who the fuck breaks their face and then thinks they’re going to look better in the aftermath? I concede that I was/am probably being a little unreasonable. But in my defense, I recently met someone who went to medical school for oral and maxillofacial surgery. After telling him about my situation and poking fun at my ridiculous expectations, he told me that my hopes were not entirely unfounded. Apparently, some people who have fractured parts of their faces end up looking more aesthetically-pleasing after undergoing surgery. This is because during surgery, the surgeon sets your bones so that your face is as even and symmetrical as possible, even if your face was not necessarily even or symmetrical to begin with. He told me that he knew a girl who had gotten into a car accident and broken several bones in her face. While she had been “nothing special” before, after her accident and surgery, she ended up looking “great.”
The day of my surgery, I laid in the tiny hospital gurney, waiting for my nice anesthesiologist Ken to do his thing while I contemplated how best I would convey to my plastic surgeon my master plan. Obviously, I could not outright tell him to take as many liberties as possible in not only setting my fractures, but also in settling any other unsightly aspects of my bone structure. I had to be sneaky. It had to be a plan only he and I were in on. When he finally came to give me a brief run-down of the surgical procedure (pretty gross: it involved peeling my face back like an orange to get to the bones underneath) and have me sign some release forms, I stopped him as he turned to leave and tried to say, as underhanded but conspiratorially as possible: “Just make me look the same as I did, if not better.” I imagined he knew exactly what I was talking about when he nodded in affirmation.
When I woke up, I was too much in pain and disoriented to have any high hopes for the outcome of the surgery. My jaw was wired shut, a splint straddled my nose, and my head was still fat and swollen. But as apparatuses started coming off and the swelling started to go down, my surgical aspirations started to come back. Maybe the splint was there because my surgeon had caught on to my secret message and fixed the bump in my nose. Maybe once the swelling completely went down, it would reveal some new bone structure, delicately molded by the adept hands of my handsome surgeon-hero.
Five months later, the swelling still hasn’t completely gone down and I have more or less abandoned the belief that my surgeon was in on the whole secret plastic surgery thing (my nose still has that bump in it, a telltale sign). However, it still tickles me that going through this whole transformation hasn’t lowered my aesthetic standards for my face. I’m not saying this in the sense that I expect my face to be some great beauty. I just simply still expect my face to look exactly the same as it did before, despite the broken nose, upper jaw, right eyebrow, cheekbone, and eye socket. I don’t know why I steadfastly hold onto the belief that things will not get worse for my face. But I don’t think this belief is uncommon. Most people have intimate relationships with their faces and perhaps also have an inability to accept anything bad happening to it. This would explain why some people react so strongly against aging, and attempt to counteract all its effects through cosmetic surgery and anti-aging products. It’s why we beautify ourselves with makeup and skin products, and pat instead of rubbing our faces dry. It’s why most people would probably rather break their arm than break their face. To some extent, your face is your identity, and seeing your face change is like seeing a part of you disappear. When it comes to faces, things can get better or stay the same, but they most certainly cannot get worse, at least not without one’s consent.
However, tracking facial changes is hard unless they are drastic, and for me, it’s hard to assess just how much damage was done, or how different things are from before. I have long since decided I can’t trust people to be accurate reflections of things. One friend, who in the more serious stages of my swelling, told me “you can’t even tell anything happened,” a few weeks ago revealed to me that I “look a lot better” now that the swelling has gone down. He said he actually lied about my looking normal before, telling me that before I had told him what had happened, he would look at me and think, “what’s wrong with her?” Finding out about this was one of the more reassuring moments in my life.
So now, I have resorted to scrolling through old photographs of myself (many of them PhotoBooth selfies that I shamefully took and deleted, but that have been fortuitously saved in my trash). Sometimes, in moments of weakness or questioning, I go pull old pictures out of my trash and scrutinize my face an unhealthy amount. When I notice slight unwanted variations between my old self and my current self, I soothe my injured soul by telling it that the swelling has yet to go down all the way yet, and so a reformed me is still around the corner.
The sad thing is that when the swelling eventually does go down completely, I will have nothing to hide behind. And when that happens, assuming I am still obsessive and neurotic enough to analyze before and after pictures of my face (I will be), what will happen if I find a slight unsightly difference between them? How important is the difference if the average person who is not obsessive and neurotic would never notice it? I don’t know, but until that day comes, I can still safely hide behind the excuse of residual swelling and not have to face the reality that maybe, after being battered by a 1,000-pound animal and the ground, my face has undergone a few slight changes. And until that day comes, I can also still quietly hold onto the hope that when my bones completely heal, they will form a facial structure better than the one that preceded it.
And most of all, I hope that one day, people will stop thinking that “You look great for getting kicked by a horse,” is a compliment.