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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Things Best Left Unsaid, Part 1: The African Tree Slug

There are certain unspoken social boundaries that people ought to be aware of. For instance, there are some things that may be ok to say to people you know well, but not to people you don't know well or at all. It's a boundary of familiarity.

I myself have crossed this line before. I remember when I was about eleven or twelve I asked the guy who was dating my friend's sister what was wrong with his toes. He seemed puzzled, and understandably a bit embarrassed by this question, and that's when I realized that there was nothing wrong with his toes other than that they were ugly. (They were seriously some of the ugliest toes I've ever seen.) But it was really quite rude of me to ask. Asking such a question presumed a certain level of familiarity that did not actually exist between us. Maybe if I was his best buddy I could ask him about his skeewompous toes. But who likes to have their flaws pointed out to them, even by friends?

Not long after this episode, I became further aware of over-the-boundary questions, as I had to deal with some that were directed at me. I have a horizontal scar on my chin, similar to that of Harrison Ford, which I received in a rather stupid fashion in my youth. This fashion involves my believing that consciously rolling out of bed and onto the floor would supply the same "Hey how did I get here?" affect as unconsciously falling out of bed in my sleep and then waking up disoriented. Well, I was wrong, and the corner of my dresser showed me just how wrong I was by slicing my chin open. So I grew up with a noticeable (but not overly noticeable) scar on my chin. My mom asked me not long after the incident if I wanted to get the scar improved through plastic surgery. She described the procedure of a doctor taking a "little knife" and slicing the scar off and stitching up my face. Well, to a four or five year old, a procedure involving a little knife doesn't sound like a very good idea, so I declined the offer. Besides, I hadn't yet developed the sense of vanity that accompanies socialization.

Fast forward to the beginning of the worst three years of a child's life: junior high. Now I had a reason to worry about my appearance. After all, I wanted the other kids to like me, and how could they like someone with a (long since terribly faded) scar on her chin? So I belatedly took my mom up on that offer of plastic surgery. The surgery went well (and the anesthesia-induced dreams [which may or may not have included operatic singing on my part] made me feel extra good about the experience), and my newer, smaller scar seemed to be healing well.

But what nobody had explained to me before the procedure was that my scar -- a type of scar known as a keloid -- has a pretty decent chance of returning and even worsening following corrective surgery. Return it did, and worsen it certainly did. My new keloid grew back much larger than my original scar (keloids characteristically develop beyond the boundaries of the original wound). It was also very firm to the touch, very red and shiny, puffy, and somewhat painful, as keloid scars tend to be.

Over the next three years I was on the receiving end of many inquiries about my scar, mostly from my peers, but also from adults. I was very self-conscious about the scar already, and the questions only deepened my self-consciousness. After a while of embarrassed explanations about what, exactly, was on my face, I began to get creative with my responses. My favorite response was that my scar was actually an African Tree Slug, a very rare (and made-up) parasite for which there is no treatment, and which eventually kills its host. That response usually embarrassed my inquisitor and shut up further inquiries.

A couple years after the second birth of my scar, a new treatment for keloid scars was released to the public: silicone. It turns out that silicone gel causes keloid scars to soften, flatten, de-redden, and become essentially pain-free. Such great news! It took about a year for the treatment to have its full effect, but in the end, I was left with a much less noticeable scar on my chin. Most people don't even notice the scar unless I point it out to them, or unless they are close enough to lick my face.

Today I'm actually rather fond of my scar most of the time and think of it as just a normal part of my face. I've had people tell me they think it adds character, and this has helped with my feelings about my scar over the years. But having to field so many inquiries about my scar during my junior high and high school years made me aware of how easy it is for people to be socially insensitive. Still, these questions made it easier for me to put my scar in perspective today. After all, it could still look like an African Tree Slug. Things could always be worse.

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