The day my worst fear was realized, I was 30 years old, and playing in the third sports game of my life. That's not a typo; I've always been physically inert, and my mother once said that my favorite part of ballet class was the mirror.
I suppose it’s no surprise that I became an actress. I make my livelihood literally off my face -- it's not about the content of my character, it's about my nose and cheekbones and ears and how the light falls on them similarly to other more successful actresses.
I spend 10-13 hours a day knowing that pros are zooming in and out on my face, seeing every imperfection. My first year on the job I constantly rocked a slight, closed-lip perma-smile that I once heard Julia Roberts tout on Oprah. I thought it made me look very serene and calm, like Princess Grace opening an exhibit of flower paintings. In reality, it gave me the air of a smirking smart-ass.
This summer, when my show went on hiatus and the long days were temporarily over, I decided I was going to throw my hair in a ponytail, scrape off my heavy makeup and live. I’ve always been a creature of habit -- as I singer, I sing the same songs (jazz); as a reader, I read the same books (history); and as a lady, I date the same type of men (rats).
But this summer I was going to break the mold. So when a group of my friends needed an extra girl for their rec softball league I offered myself up, pulled my college-era tennis shoes out from behind the litter box, and went to the public softball fields in West Hollywood.
I was always that girl who loved watching sports -- I would attend the game in a cute vintage sundress and Rainbow flip-flops, but I was never going to play. This summer would be a new start.
I want to reiterate that it was only my third game. My third sports game ever. At our first game of the season, my team’s best player had accidentally hit a girl in the face with a softball. I started giggling nervously at the sight because seeing her clutch her face in agony was my greatest fear. A fear I have had nightmares about as long as I can remember -- something damaging that face I had studied so many hours as a child.
So it's possible what subsequently happened to me was simply payback.
Regardless of this unfortunate incident, I had enjoyed the first two games, though I had struck out both times I came to bat. I was proud that I continued playing after seeing the risks -- I was a softball soldier! So here I was playing my 3rd game. It was the 2nd inning, my first time at bat and I hit a grounder (is that what you call it?) and made it to first base. As the other team fumbled with the ball, my buddy, who was filling in as 1st base coach, shouted.
“Hadley, go to second!”
“Go to second?” I had already gotten to 1st!
“Go to second!”
I hesitated and then ran my strange, splayfooted gallop. That’s the only thing I have retained from my 14 years of ballet, a permanent 1st position turn-out. I could hear my team cheering from the dugout. I ran past 2nd base. The play was over. For the first time in my life I had made it to second base!
As I jogged back to the base, the 3rd base player, in a misguided effort to get me out, threw the ball wildly. It bounced off the 2nd baseman’s glove and slammed into my head.
I remember intense, white-hot pain above my right eye. The whole field was silent for a moment and then my team sprang from the dugout, rushing over to me. I couldn’t see out of my right eye. I was placed on the hard metal bench in the dugout and my sight slowly came back. I felt oddly calm and clear-headed, the miracle of adrenaline running through my body. Then one of my friends, as she smiled a strained, fearful smile spoke.
“You’re gonna have a cool scar from the stitching on the ball!”
“I’m gonna have a scar?!” I suddenly felt panicked, all serenity deserting me. “A scar? A scar?”
“No, not a scar, just, you really look fine. You really look good.” She squeezed my shoulder and pressed a packet of peas from the nearby Trader Joe’s on my forehead, changing the subject. “Have you ever had this brand?”
That night and the following morning I experienced all the classic signs of concussion. I was nauseous, fretful and exhausted, although I couldn’t sleep. When I first looked at myself in my friend’s iPhone, I was appalled by how I looked but also almost proud. I, the most un-athletic girl in the world, had a sports injury!
I posted pictures on Facebook and everyone told me I was a badass. I went to the doctor, a strange chauvinist, who dismissed it as a minor concussion, suggested I should have gotten back in the game and sent me on my way without even a prescription for heavy-dose ibuprofen. All while staring at my boobs.
The blood pooled and bulged under both my eyes, my head pounded and life went on. Now that I know how injured I was, I am shocked at my productivity. As I went about my life, I had a taste of how it felt to be someone without a “typical” face.
Women would look at me, as I had often looked at others, with the classic “Should I ask her if she is being abused?” concern. I constantly led with my tale of woe, terrified someone would again say they had assumed the black under my eyes was a birthmark. I told everyone I had lived through my greatest fear -- and I really believed I had.
The week after the accident, I had a stage performance. As I layered on makeup in the green room, under harsh florescent lights, the colors of my body healing itself disappeared and I simply looked deformed. I felt a rising sense of panic, of inadequacy, and I thought about the career I had chosen.
Most people have an enormous attachment to their face. It is your calling card to the world -- your thoughts come out of your mouth, your smile puts folks at ease, and your eyes express every emotion under the sun. But in the entertainment business, it often defines everything about your career -- whether you are sent out as a dork or an ingénue, a good girl or a villain.
I realized that this combination of entertainment industry necessity and my own personal proclivities had affected my life more that I had ever realized. There was a reason I wasn’t good at physical things -- I had never tried. I was too busy posing.
This obsession with looks had touched every aspect of my life. I was awestruck by women I knew who had endured scarring or severe physical injury, wondering, “How can she go on?” “How can she laugh, and live, and be happy when other people don’t consider her “normal?”
I tell you this because I am ashamed I had these thoughts. And I now know they were unexamined beliefs, from the shallowest part of who I was. I know this because two weeks later my vanity led me to the emergency room at Cedars Sinai. I, who intimately know my imperfect face, with its crooked nose and little lips could tell there was still something wrong.
The swelling had gone down, but my right eye was smaller and lower and there was a growing dent above my right eyebrow, which I could hardly move. I still felt sick and tired. Another doctor had sent me to get a CT scan and I was rushed to the emergency room and told I had a supra-orbital fracture, a skull fracture and a brain bleed.
I sat in a paper gown in the examination room with my best friend, waiting for a second opinion, and had a full on panic attack. A brain bleed? The idea that all of my loves, my independence, my ability to comfort and communicate could be affected sent me into spasms of panic and mourning. Who was going to be able to recite all the Kings and Queens of England since Henry VII if not for me? And that’s when I said to my friend:
“My greatest fear has always been something happening to my brain.”
Even through the daze of medication I had finally been given to ease the pain, I knew that I had spoken the truth. I was not the shallow person I had proclaimed myself to be, perhaps because it is easier to focus on superficial fears than the cold hard realities of losing who we actually are.
When I was told that I did not have a brain bleed, nor a skull fracture, but my supra-orbital bone was broken, I began to sob. I was crying for that little girl in ballet class who couldn’t see past her reflection or for the 30-year-old who was absolutely terrified to ever play a sport again.
It has been three weeks since my reconstructive surgery. I now have a titanium plate in my head, which -- luckily -- will not set off metal detectors at the airport, but which does make me 1/1000th robot. There is a scar on my eyelid that disappears into the crease and the right side of my head is somehow both numb and sore due to nerve damage.
I am profoundly thankful for my amazing friends and family, and good union insurance. I also know elective plastic surgery will not be something I opt for in the future, just to maintain the status quo. I am still working on shedding the warped vision that led me to obsess about my appearance in the first place. And when the show goes back up next month, I won’t be utilizing the perma-smile to somehow have the ideal face.