Read the stories of people who've been helped by Changing Faces

Life stories

contentimage_image406Read more about people’s experiences of living full lives with an unusual appearance, like Leo’s story below.

Leo’s Story

“An acceptance of individual differences and a true tolerance of diversity are important components of a civilised society.”

In our modern world, where individuals are increasingly obsessed with their looks, an acceptance of individual differences, and a true tolerance of diversity are important components of a civilised society. My own hope is that one day everyone in society will be comfortable with their appearance whether or not they have a disfigurement.

I was born and brought up in a happy and stable home in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, the fourth of six children. In August 1964 that stability was shattered when my Dad died. The following year in July 1965 and I was fourteen, I was spending my school holidays doing a job I loved, cleaning and repairing clocks for a local watch and clockmaker. One morning the petrol used to clean the clocks ignited and the subsequent fire engulfed the shop, trapping both me and the watchmaker inside. 

We managed to escape but I wasn’t expected to survive the three hour journey to the nearest Burns Unit, I did, and spent the next four months undergoing various operations, plastic surgery and associated treatments. 
 
It wasn’t until my return home from hospital that the real impact of my injuries became apparent. I had pretty well recovered from the trauma of the accident, but now found myself struggling to adjust to the impact my changed appearance was having on others – the curiosity, the staring and the name calling that occurred on my return to school and everyday life. At 14 I was just coming into myself as a young man and struggled to accept both the impact my disfigurement and damaged hands was having on my life. I remember feeling remorseful, sorry for myself, angry, guilty and depressed. 

When I eventually came to understand that I would have to live with the face I’d been left with, and contrary to what I’d been told, surgery alone was never going to it fix it,  I was “scarred for life”. It was a harsh reality that I needed to accept before I could get on with my life. Thankfully, I had the support of my mum, family and friends without whom I know that time would have been even harder to cope with. 

I gradually came to terms with my changed appearance. I realised that if I stood tall and confident, looked people in the eye and ignored the stares, people eventually accepted me for who I was.  It wasn’t always so easy – walking into a shop or a crowded room was very difficult.  I got angry with people who would openly stare or comment.

Once I asked a couple on a train that wouldn’t stop staring, if they would like a photograph. During my early job hunting days, I had a few rejections because of my appearance, at the time it made me angry and upset, but in the end made me try harder to be accepted for my skills and abilities rather then for how I looked. I went on to become a successful engineer, a senior manager for a multi-national telecommunications company, businessman, husband, father and bereavement counsellor.
 
I heard about Changing Faces in 2000 from my local plastic surgeon who felt I could and should offer my services. Disfigurement is a subject that people struggle to talk about, however given the opportunity and permission, people will talk and start to ask all the questions they have always wanted to ask. My involvement as an advocate of the charity has given me ‘licence’ to talk openly and confidently about disfigurement to more people than I could ever have done before.

People still stare and make comments, most of which I ignore though there are occasions when I feel the need to react. Whilst teenagers can be downright difficult, younger children and toddlers can present more problems for their parents than for me. They approach me with simple curiosity demanding an explanation for my unusual appearance. Embarrassed mothers don’t say anything but I find that a straightforward explanation keeps the child happy and teaches him/her that people who look different are ok. Likewise mum might understand that it’s better to explain about differences in a positive way thereby encouraging acceptance.

It’s great to be involved with people who understand disfigurement and who in many cases have been through similar experiences. When I first became involved with Changing Faces my levels of  confidence and self assurance were pretty high but, particularly since my involvement with the media I have seen those levels rise beyond anything I thought possible. 

Changing Faces’ efforts to raise awareness and challenge negative attitudes to facial disfigurement have undoubtedly made a huge difference to the lives of many hundreds across society in the UK and beyond. The media doesn’t always help when the evil character in a film usually has some form of disfigurement. It’s important that we separate reality from the unreal. The bad guy isn’t always the one with the scars!!

It’s possible to feel confident and comfortable with a disfigurement – but it takes great personal courage and the help and understanding of the man on the street. Not pointing, insulting or shying away from someone who looks different makes a big difference to the emotional recovery process.