31 March 2017

I Was Relentlessly Bullied for Having a Birthmark

Just thinking about sharing this next story creates an uncomfortable tightness in my belly. As I type these words, I wonder whether I’ll have to courage to actually publish them online. To you, the reader, this may just seem like your typical personal struggle story, but to me, it’s like a shameful secret which I’ve shared with few people until now.

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I REMEMBER during my high school days I’d get out of bed to go look out the window as soon as I woke up. I’d roll up my blind and watch for movement in the foliage of the trees or stray leaves dancing on Mum’s freshly cut lawn. Anything more than a breath of air and I’d cringe at the thought of crossing the football oval on my way to school. Most girls worried about the wind lifting up their summer dress, but I worried about it revealing what was under my heavy blunt fringe.


One evening, I walked into the formal lounge room to wish Mum and her partner Dave* a good night. I sat down on the floor in my satin pyjamas and leaned my back against the cream upholstered couch where they sat. Dave commented on the length of my shiny brown hair before brushing his hand up over my forehead and resting it on top. My thick fringe was pinned underneath, exposing my light brown birthmark the size and shape of a 50 cent coin. I quickly ducked forward and hissed “get off me,” or something like that. I was so horrified and embarrassed that he might have seen what I managed to hide so well, I immediately left the room. Dave apologised the next day, explaining he had no idea and was sorry for causing such discomfort. He had a soften look in his eyes, as though he sensed my deep hurt. I don’t think he, nor I for that matter, knew why I got so defensive. But when I started to write earlier today, I remembered a damning experience that occurred around the same time, which probably had a big impact.  

I don't think I've retold this story to anyone since the day it happened. As I play the incident back in my head now, I can feel my eyes turning sad looking. The memory is so powerful my mouth is doing weird things, as if it’s trying to recreate the look on my face of utter humiliation. I was sitting crossed-legged out the front of my year 7 classroom. Friends and I were bouncing a ball against a wall and chatting as we waiting for the bell to ring. An energetic girl named Beccy* bounded into our circle like a puppy dog. A crowd of sheepish looking boys crept closer, eager to see whether she’d carry out their dare. She dropped herself into my lap, pinning my legs under hers. Then she scooped up my fringe with her hand and forceful tilted my head back to reveal my birthmark. Her eyes were gleaming like she'd achieved some long-standing goal. As I fought her off, the boys were laughing like hyenas and shouting “mole”, along with other insults. Although the ordeal lasted a few short minutes, it tore my self-worth to pieces. Most of my teachers would have described me as a cocky little shit, but this cut so deep, even I failed to recognise how much it wore me down. Now that I’m older and have had time to reflect, I can recognise how the experience (and several similar) drove me to punish myself and others.

Although I don’t remember being teased in primary school about my having a birthmark, I must have developed a complex about it from an early age. I remember trying to think of ways I’d be able to hide it from my future husband, which seems so ridiculous now. I planned to have very hot showers so the glass would fog up in case he accidentally walked in; but I was stumped on what to do upon getting out, because there’d be times when I’d want wrap my hair in a towel like Mum did before applying makeup. I would mentally check off instances I knew I could control, and figured by the time I was old enough to marry, I’d have discovered new tricks to keep my birthmark a secret.



One time when I was at the hairdressers, I told Mum I hated having a fringe. I think someone at school must have said were dorky. She told me they were “all the rage” when she was young, and that they would come back in fashion soon enough. I closed my eyes so the hairdresser didn’t poke my eye out with her scissors as she cut along my brow line. I wished I was born a few decades earlier.

Mum had a port wine coloured birthmark shaped like a stamp on her arm. She said when she was at school mean kids used to poke it and make sounds like they were pressing a button. On a separate occasion, she told me she was fearful of having a child with a birthmark because of the torment she received. She said something like she never cared about the gender of her children, but hoped they were born healthy and birthmark free. I think she denies ever saying that now, but I can’t imagine why I’d make it up. I would often compare her birthmark to mine and wished we could trade. While hers was brighter in colour, mine grew thick hair from the centre and was smack bang in the middle of my forehead, just below my hairline. When I tried trimming the hair, it would regrow and make my fringe stick out; so I let it grow long which looked much worse when in full view. In year 10 I discovered I could almost cover the slightly raised mark with a wide hairband and the rest with makeup designed to conceal tattoos. I thought it was unfair that tattooed people were considered normal and I wasn’t.



In year 11 I moved to the senior school campus where there were so many students I barely saw the kids who used to torment me. Despite feeling relatively settled by the time I turned 16, the damage had been done and I desperately wanted the birthmark gone. Mum took me to a GP who said I was old enough for a plastic surgeon to consider doing the procedure. I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face when I was advised of my operation date. While I was knocked out cold, the surgeon put two expandable balloons in my forehead to stretch out the skin I’d need to replace the mark. I woke up with a bandage wrapped around my head like Mr. Bump from the Mr. Men series. Days later, a nurse came in to change my gauze and brought a hand mirror with her. I felt sick with nerves at the thought of studying my wound. First I looked at the fresh red scar on its own, then moved the mirror out to see how it suited the rest of my face. I was so happy.



Not for a moment have I regretted my decision to have it removed, but I do question whether I could have minimised the amount of mental pain and bitterness it caused. 

Sometimes my scar catches the light or turns red from too much sun, gaining unwanted attention from strangers or new acquaintances. It’s not often people ask what happened, but when they do, I always respond with hesitation. Sometimes when I don’t want to reveal my “sad eyes”, I smile and say it’s top secret, or tell a ridiculously unbelievable story so they don’t ask again. On the rare occasion I manage to utter the words “I had a birthmark removed” (which is still so incredibly hard), I feel I have to immediately explain my motives. I’m always conscious of my voice trembling and the way the person looks at me immediately after, in case they see me differently. Once someone was genuinely shocked to hear I had it removed, and I was shocked back, to think someone could be so accepting that they couldn’t even understand why it was such a big deal to me.

My “ugly” hairy birthmark is gone, but I’ll be living with negative memories forever. I doubt I’ll ever get to a point where I can speak about it confidently, or find a silver lining. Being made fun of is terrible. Being made fun of for something you’re born with and can’t change is really terrible. Sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people read this and continued to make cruel jokes, despite everything I’ve already gone through and tentatively shared.

Below is a recent photo of me. You may be able to spot my scar, which begins to the right of my hair part and finishes a few centimetres under it. I was so worried about friends looking at photo albums, any photos Mum printed showing even the slightest bit of my birthmark were ripped up and thrown away. I tried to track down the pre-op photo taken by my plastic surgeon, but was told the records have been destroyed. 





*Names have been changed for confidentiality.

29 March 2017

Deadly Jellyfish Sting in Zanzibar Africa

Memory from 2016, aged 27.

Zanzibar, Tanzania, Africa.

Over the coming weeks, I plan to share personal stories spanning back as far as my memory will allow. But to kick off the series, I've decided to write about a fairly recent experience; not because of its significance or appeal, but simply because I told it during the weekend and the words are still fresh in my mind. 

The experience marked the first and only time I’ve questioned whether I'm dying based on physical pain alone. It also demonstrated how life really does go on with or without each of us, and that others needn’t suffer out of sympathy because of our own misfortune. The experience led me to question how I’d feel if no one grieved as a result of my death, and whether I’m willing to accept my insignificance beyond my immediate family. I believe we all like to think and act as though we are more than just the child of two average human beings, but in reality, most of us can be summed up as hard workers, quiet neighbours or good friends at best.

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I REMEMBER the burning sensation on my face, feeling like I was trapped inside a fire ball. I couldn't comprehend what was happening as I broke through the water's surface. Hours earlier our group of 15 set off in a wooden boat from the shores of Zanzibar Island, to explore reefs and sand banks dotted along the coast. Had a shark taken my leg, or was I having a heart attack? It was like I'd scissor-kicked my way from an underwater heaven up to a fiery hell.



I needed answers, and quick. My involuntary cries of pain thankfully got the attention of the local snorkel guide. He swam over to me and used his strong meaty arms to brace mine and keep my head above water. I thrashed around, yelling for help in between shrieks of terror. My goggles were fogged and my movements restricted because of my full-length wetsuit. I used my right hand to break the strong air seal between my skin and the goggles. But as I tried to snap the strap over my head, the goggles flung back into my face along with a Portuguese man-o-war/blue bottle/floating terror jellyfish. Like the carcass that splatted on the car’s windshield in Jurassic Park, the exotic luminescent purple blob smacked into my goggle lens before settling on the plastic nose bridge.



For a split second, my attention turned to the exceptional colours and texture of my tormentor. Then some how my stunned brain managed to order my hands to take action. In unison with another snorkeler, we tore the tentacles from my cheeks and neck and let out a bunch of expletives while madly waving our hands in an attempt to relieve the pain. Not knowing what species it was at the time, I looked into the bulging dark eyes of the guide and asked him if I was going to die. I can't remember what he said or if he even answered, but he didn't do a good job of masking his combined look of fear and pity. He began pulling me through the water and lifted me onto another group’s boat. Wet-haired tourists dangled their heads over mine as I lay on the wooden bench seat. I remember hearing the voice of my guide saying something about having to swim to our boat. “No, no, no” I whimpered, like a child at the doctors’ about to receive a needle. He didn’t listen and tumbled me into the aqua blue Arabian Sea. As my limp body was dragged along, the temperate water skimmed across my face.



Once on board, I remember asking my friend if my face was disfigured. He assured me it was fine, but I didn’t believe him. As I lay there, in the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced, I imagined the way people would stare for the rest of my life—that’s if I had a life at all. I kept flicking from thought to thought, like my mind was a view finder toy. Death; grouse disfigurement; why am I shaking so much?; how am I so conscious of everything going on around me but can't move; then back to death. Five to ten minutes into the one-and-a-half-hour journey back to the resort, the group's conversation got louder and their focus shifted. First, they began comparing what marine life they saw underwater. It didn't take long before laughter crept in and they started discussing evening plans to hold a party. I wasn't sure how I felt about their jolliness at the time, half thinking they should remain sombre and notably concerned about my wellbeing. Once I decided they owe me nothing, not even their sympathy, I lay there thinking how insignificant we all are as individuals.

Not long after the crew dropped the sail, I heard one of the local men on board say the pain would be much better in half an hour. At some point in between that time, he or another shaved-headed man lent over and smeared thick white paste onto my face with his long bony finger. It had a gritty texture, which made me think it was ground up shells.

When we boarded the boat that morning I couldn’t believe my friend had brought his red travel neck cushion with him. I mocked him for it, and when he noticed I started to feel better, he mocked me back for dissing his transportation prerequisites. Just as the bony fingered man had anticipated, I felt 99 percent better almost as soon as thirty minutes had past. I even decided to sit up and join in on the group chat. Before braving my own reflection, I asked once more whether my face looked scarred. The group assured me it was fine, using a tone which made me question whether they thought I was embellishing on the level of pain I was in moments earlier. I used my phone's camera to check for damaged skin, and was surprised and almost happy to see that the red marks and puffiness I was left with was so minor in comparison to what I’d envisioned.



When we got back, I went straight to my room and Googled species of jellyfish. After looking at photos and reading a couple of recounts from other victims, it was pretty clear I’d met with a blue bottle. I didn’t go in search for a hospital, or even a doctor, as I figured the resort could probably provide better care and comfort than any local hospital. Not knowing what to do next, I called Mum and sobbed into the phone while explaining what happened. She sounded concerned and told me to rest up. In the middle of the night I woke with numb legs, causing me to immediately sit up in bed and reread the symptoms of jellyfish stings on my phone. The numbness probably lasted a few seconds at best, but it felt like much longer and threw me into a state of panic. I jumped out of bed and walked around the room while having to remind myself to breathe. I must have been so mentally exhausted to have fallen back asleep shortly after. In the morning I woke to hear stories of the wild party the group had put on in one of the couple’s villas.  

 Since moving back to Australia, I’ve told my story several times to friends and family. A few have said they too have been stung on the body while swimming at the beach, and reiterated how painful it was. According to Google, the warmer the water, the deadlier and more painful the sting can be. The one that gave me the unforgettable poisonous hug was bright purple, with two inner red spots and metre long tentacles. Unlike the blue ones that wash up around the east coast and reach about the size of a golf ball, my floating enemy was about the size of my fist.

It kind of looked like this, but seemed more vibrant!

I’ve since been told I’m extremely lucky to have been far from the boat when it happened, as it meant my face was flushed with sea water as I was dragged along. Apparently the tentacles embed spores in the skin which can burst and release more poison if aggravated by fresh water or vinegar. I had several bottles of mineral water dumped on my face by my group as I lay down, so the swim I shouted "no, no, no" to could have actually saved my life.




These photos was taken about a week and a half after the incident, when I was living back in Tokyo. It looks like I have acne on my cheek but the red bumps were a result of the sting. 

Around a month later, I got the opportunity to write an article on obtaining a PADI dive certificate in southern Japan. I jumped at the offer without thinking too much about the harrowing experience I had in Africa. I ended up living on the island of Okinawa for an entire month-- diving, snorkelling and/or swimming daily. On my second dive, my foot touched a small jellyfish caught up in a current. My whole body tightened and I remained uneasy until I reentered the boat. 


Whilst living on the island, I documented my dives by making short videos. It gave me the idea to create a movie about Zanzibar, which included short clips recorded on the day I was stung. Friends and family who watched the video made comments like, "look at that water" and "wow, how relaxing!" I couldn't help but smirk and think how it was anything but.


In December I visited a Sydney beach, its sand covered in small dehydrated blue bottles. My friend called out to get my attention before dramatically stomping on one, creating a loud pop. He looked like a kid, jumping up and down on the spot like it was an empty juice box. I walked past several exploded carcasses, and a few survivors buried deep into the wet sand. I remembered reading somewhere that the blue bottle doesn't have a heart or brain.  



The above video incorporates photos taken from the day I swam face first into the deadly jellyfish. 

If you enjoyed this story, or have your own to share, please make sure you leave a comment below! 

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