Making Peace with Scars and My Self-Image

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I was in my early forties when I was diagnosed with degenerative osteoarthritis in both hips. Unable to cross a room without two canes or a walker, I couldn't stand at the kitchen counter long enough to open a can of soup, let alone prepare a decent family meal. The pain in my left side was almost unbearable, but I couldn't stomach the pain meds my doctor kept prescribing.

Worst of all, my only child was in middle school and I was too exhausted to drive the carpool, let alone volunteer for his extra-curricular activities.

To say I was deeply grateful for my hip-replacement surgery would be an understatement. It took months of physical therapy and rehab, but I learned how to walk and climb stairs again – pain-free – without assistive devices.

Still, one more obstacle remained: I would have to make peace with my brand-new scar.

Over 10 inches long and an angry shade of red, a fresh incision marked the place where my left hip joint had been removed, packed with a bone graft, and rebuilt with a prosthetic implant. A row of tiny surgical staples had temporarily closed the wound, making it look as if Dr. Frankenstein had sewn a zipper into my birthday suit.

As it healed, the scar turned deep purple and I secretly wondered if I’d ever wear a bathing suit in public again.

My vanity was foolish but not surprising. After all, the women's magazines I was reading at the time placed excessive value on physical perfection. Like many of my girlfriends, I'd spent the first half of my life trying to conceal what I perceived as flaws: acne scars, flat feet, wide hips, too many freckles, and a wonky set of teeth. Sadly, I never fully approved of the young woman who gazed back at me in the full-length mirror in my bedroom.

Yet I've always appreciated quirks and imperfections in other people and most of the things I own.  Overgrown cottage gardens, pets without pedigrees, laugh lines, long noses, and crooked smiles have always intrigued me. I cherish childhood toys covered in stains and stitches, and I love the way my husband’s leather jacket is burnished by seasons of wear. 

If only I’d been as easy on myself.

A blessing in disguise, my long recovery from hip replacement surgery gave me a lot of unstructured time to think about these things. While I healed, it occurred to me that scars and wrinkles are badges of courage – or emblems of a richly textured life. They document our personal histories and bear witness to how far we've traveled. They prove we've survived car accidents, skin cancer, military combat, shattered relationships and failed business opportunities.

Like the bald spots on the Velveteen Rabbit character in Margery Williams' beloved children's novel, scars are barometers of how "real" we are.

Practicing my physical therapy, I was reminded that building strength takes perseverance. When you trip or lose your balance, for instance, you pause long enough to steady yourself and start all over again. Whether you're nursing a fractured arm, a bruised ego or a wounded heart, it takes time to reassemble and repair the broken pieces. But eventually you grow stronger and more interesting. And you tighten the loose seams in your character along the way.

Five months after my first hip replacement, I returned to the hospital for the same surgery on my defective right hip. Today, nearly 10 years later, I'm sporting a matched set of titanium implants – and a pair of identical scars. Over time, the scars have faded considerably, though you can still spot them several yards away on the beach. For a while, I wouldn't attend a pool party without concealing my lower half with one of the many sarongs I've collected.

But now I celebrate them – these two 10-inch valleys documenting the surgeries that gave me a miraculous second chance. My beautiful scars are lifelong reminders of how durable I can be. I have earned them, and they have made me real.

Cindy La Ferle is a nationally published newspaper columnist and author of an award-winning essay collection, Writing Home. She blogs weekly at Cindy La Ferle's Home Office.

 

 

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Credit Image: Cea. on Flickr

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