Saturday, April 20, 2013

Process of Healing

Today I went to a baby shower.  The baby shower was for a childhood friend and his wife.  They're having a little girl - and I am excited for their upcoming arrival.

This, however, is the first baby shower I have been to in a long time...And the first since my niece's death.

Many of you who have followed my blog consistently in the last couple of
years have probably noticed that I haven't really blogged about this topic in a while.  It has been over a year since I've brought it up.

Although I haven't written about this chapter of my life story in recent months, it is still a deeply tender area for my heart.  My heart still aches for the loss my family has experienced.  There still hasn't been a day where I haven't thought of my niece, Ashley.  In fact, it took me over a year and a half to visit her grave since the day of her burial.  Even then, I wasn't really sure if I was ready to visit...especially since my first time returning was with family at near Christmas time - and a visit to decorate her grave with jolly, colorful Christmas decorations in a place that holds one of my darkest and most painful memories.  No one wants to visit their niece at Christmas time at their grave.  Holiday decorating is suppose to take place in a warm home, scented with delicious traditions baking in an oven...not at a cold, scentless, gravesite. (And although I have been back once, I'm not sure if I can handle a second visit anytime soon.  I still struggle just by driving down a street, outside the cemetery borders, where she is buried.)

The ache isn't as fresh as it once was, as time has passed, and I have been healing.  But although I've been healing and continue to do so - I'm not sure if the ache will ever go completely away.  I guess only time will tell.

Maybe the death of my niece has slipped your mind - and that's okay.  Unless you're a close good friend of mine, or family, I don't expect you to remember every big life changing moment I have experienced.  With email, texting, Facebook, Twitter - it can be overwhelming to remember who has done what, who lives where, and who has experienced this or that.

For those of you who may be new to my blog - you can read the story of my niece's passing if you click here.    (Just as a warning: I've been told by a few people that it's best to have a tissue box nearby if you choose to click on the link.)

I wasn't really sure how I would emotionally react to attending the first baby shower since the death - especially when it's been nearly two years.

The first portion of the shower was spent with games.  I was fine with that and had a good time.  Then, the beautiful mother-to-be started to open the gifts that would bless her and her upcoming family of three...And that's when it happened.

My mind went to my sister and to Ashley.  My mind went to the pain of, "We never got to experience the joy of throwing them a baby shower."

Then, I remembered the gifts that I bought for Ashley.  Once we found out she was a girl, I started to slowly buy things in excitement of my niece's arrival.  I bought a couple of outfits, a child's Jamba Juice cup, a soft rattle, a rubber ducky, and other items a child could enjoy - or look adorable wearing.

Those items now sit in my hope chest in our guest/craft room...Locked away in a small space, still in the logo-marked bags from the stores they came from, as the receipt's ink fading away as time moves forward.

There are only two items that I no longer have - the rattle and a bib that said, "My heart belongs to my aunt."  My sister and brother-in-law asked me to add the rattle to the casket, and I was honored that they asked.  The bib?  That was my choice of item to leave with her.

Like I mentioned, I still have the receipts for the items I bought.  Although there was no longer a need for the items after her premature passing, I never could return the items.  Two years later - I still don't think I'd be able to make the returns.

My mom and I didn't stay long once the gifts were being opened.  Noticing a look in my mom's eyes and my urge to leave, I knew it was time to silently signal my mom, asking if she was ready to leave...Even though I knew I didn't need to ask.

Again, we're happy that the young couple will soon be having special memories of their own with their baby girl.  Naturally, it's an exciting time for their life!!...And it should be!  I'm glad that we were able to join the shower, even if we had to cut our time there short.  However, the death of my niece, my mom's first grandchild, is still hard for us in certain situations.  We want to celebrate with our and with others when a baby enters our world - but with moderations that our hearts can handle.  (Overtime I am sure we'll be able to handle things better and with more ease...One day at a time, one baby shower at a time.)

For each family member, I know that different things will trigger our emotions differently and at different times.  There will be many times when we'll think, "We never got to..." Or moments of thinking, "Ashley would have been ______ by now."

My mom's moments (as Ashley's grandma) will be different than my moments (as an aunt), and as Ashley's mom, my sister's moments will definitely be different, more intense, and more frequent.  Certain things will trigger emotions in all of us, and our emotions will vary in type and level, as will our trains of thought.  Some events will bring up the ache, while others go unfazed.  For example, sometimes people slip up and call my little cousin, Rayna, my niece.  Or they'll call me her aunt.  As many times as this has happened, I still can't figure out a way to avoid the heart-breaking pain that comes with innocent mistake.  While I am more like an aunt figure to the sweet 2-year-old little girl than a cousin figure, I have a hard time hearing people call me by this title or her under the title as my niece.  For my sister?  I think she likes it when she's called "Aunt Amanda" and doesn't mind if people mix Rayna up as her niece - and that's okay if she does.

Two years later, and I am still amazed to learn that mourning and healing is an ongoing process.

For those of you with grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or children - hug them tight and cherish every moment and memory.  You are blessed to have them in your life as you watch them learn and grow.

The Travelin' Chick,

Friday, April 19, 2013

Birthmarks and Laser Treatments

Before going through a
treatment.  However, I'm wearing
make-up in this photo, so my
birthmark is lightened a good
 amount by make-up alone.
During spring break, I had a laser treatment on my birthmark.  Sparking conversations, many people have ask me questions such as, "What does the laser treatment do?  What does it feel like?  What is the purpose?"  Let me begin answering these questions with some quick background information.

First off, the type of birthmark that I have is called a "port wine stain".  There isn't really any rhyme or reason as to why I have it.  There's no genetic links, and it has nothing to do with my mother's pregnancy.  The only cause of my birthmark is, "just because it can exist, it does".  Due to an excess of blood vessels in my facial area, the blood vessels causes my skin tone to look a purplish type of color.  That being said, my birthmark goes much deeper than my skin.

If you were to look in my mouth, at my gums, in my ears, and in my nose, you can easily tell a color difference and where the birthmark starts and ends.  (Not that I go around looking up my nose or asking people, "Hey!!  You want to see the inside of my nose!??!?"...I am pretty sure that is socially unacceptable, and 100% socially awkward.  This is just an observation that doctors have made.)   The older I get, the darker it can get, and the texture of my skin is also at risk of changing (due to thickening of the blood vessels).  I also have to avoid getting too much sun without protection of sun screen, as that can damage the birthmark as well.  (Although, fun fact: I will add - when I get really, really cold...My mother and close friends can always tell.  My birthmark gets really dark, changing like a mood ring.  However, this change in color is only temporary.)

My birthmark goes all the way to my brain.  Occasionally I have to have MRIs done of my brain to make sure that none of the blood vessels have strayed into a more dangerous location.  When I was born, the doctor's had to watch me closely for my first 24 hours to make sure that the birthmark didn't cause any seizures.  If I didn't have any seizures in the first 24 hours, I would be okay.  I'm thankful that I didn't - as I am sure that would have greatly affected the way my life would play out.

Not only does my birthmark go brain deep, but it also affects my bone structure and density.  Even my teeth are affected by this.  It also adds to the lack of symmetry in my face - even more than the average person that doesn't have a birthmark.   The extra vessels make features expand a little more.  My lip is a perfect example of this, as the left upper lip is a little larger than the right upper lip.

Also, because it is more than skin deep, I also have had to deal with a disease called glaucoma in my left eye.  Glaucoma is an 80-year-old lady (or man) disease that I've had since I was about 8-years-old.  Due to all the blood pressure in my eye from all the blood vessels, I have to use eye drops twice a day, and see a doctor two times a year, just to make sure I don't go blind.  There is a surgery that can relieve glaucoma patients - but I don't know much about it.  Due to my type of glaucoma and the reasons that I have it, if the doctor makes one little wrong move - I would go instantly blind in my eye.  We've decided it's not worth the risk and have not asked for further information.

Pretty much, my birthmark is more than just something that alters the skin tone on my face.  Due to the color alteration, I sometimes have laser treatments. 
The numbing cream.  I have to
wear this for an hour before
the treatment.  It also has to
be applied on super thick.  It was
like icing a cake. ;-)

Okay...What is a laser treatment, and what does it do?  What is the goal?

The overall goal of the laser treatments is to lighten my birthmark. It's recommended that I have them every two months for the treatments to work at their best.  When I have the treatments, heat is sent from the laser, basically heating up the blood vessels.  When they get hot, they shrink - or burst.   When they shrink, the color lightens and other risk factors are lessened - such as the texture of my skin changing.

If I don't have the treatments, my birthmark will get darker as I age.  The blood vessels will get bigger, causing the darker color - and for my birthmark colored skin to become lumpy and a pebble-like texture.  By having the treatments, I am lessening my risks of it changing the color and texture - which is my main purpose of having the treatments.  (As really, I don't feel the need to hide.  Making it lighter is more than just about the color.)

After the treatment my face is extra purple for about a week - varying after each treatment.  It's swollen and painful, and I can't scratch or rub my face.  For the first few days I can't wear makeup either.  As long as the dark and purple color is around, I can feel heat radiating through my skin.  The lighter the purple gets, the less pain and heat that I feel.  Once the extra purple color disappears and my birthmark returns to normal color, my birthmark will lighten even more.

How do the treatments feel?  Afterwards it reminds me of a horrible sunburn.  Imagine your worst sunburn - and there you go.  That's the best way I can describe it.  During the treatment?  Well, the doctors like to describe it as a rubber band shooting the face.  I've decided that once they have a birthmark on their face and go through the treatments themselves, then they can describe how it feels.  The way I've decided I like to describe it is - it's like eating a spicy dish.

When you first start eating, your mouth is okay.  (In laser terms, the numbing cream I wear for an hour before does it's job to ease the pain to where the laser is barely felt.)  The more you eat, the more it stings - or feels like a rubber band. (Numbing cream starts wearing off the more laser pulses they send to my face.)  Eventually, it the food gets hot, and the spice intensifies.  (The pain gets even stronger - more than feeling like a rubber band.)  And occasionally, you hit a  jalapeƱo - or other spice/pepper - and your senses are sent through the roof with spice. (I would consider theses to be the really tender and sensitive areas on the face, such as the lip and nose.  I hardly let them treat these areas because of the intense pain.)

When I was a young child and toddler I use to have laser treatments on my face on a more regular basis.  To be honest, I'm not really sure how many I've had in my lifetime.  I would guess more than 25, more likely more than 30.

Since I was a child, they would let me sleep through the treatments by the use of anesthesia.  Once I hit the age of 11, that was advantage was taken away.  I was now "old enough" to stay awake during the treatment - only needing an hour of numbing cream before the procedure.

I went through one treatment awake at 11-years-old before I decided to stop.  Staying awake wasn't worth it to me.  The pain wasn't worth the outcome, as the laser machine they had wasn't making much of a difference.  The pain of the treatment was too overwhelming for me as well - so I decided to stop.  I decided that with the pain combined with an outcome that didn't show any differences - if I continued, I would be lettings stupid happen all over again.  My mom let me make my own decision about stopping, and I was glad.  I guess her theory is - it's my face, my body, the treatments aren't mandatory or needed, and I'm the one who has to go through it - not her.  I'm thankful for letting me choose for myself.

It wasn't until 2010 (at the age of 18) when I decided to try again and had a better outcome in comparison to when I was 11-years-old.  (Every three years, the hospital upgrades their machines as new medical advancements take place, so the machine was advanced at least 2-3 times since my last visit.)
My birthmark about an hour after
a treatment.  Please excuse the greasy
looking hair.  After the treatment,
Vaseline is applied to my face
to help prevent blistering and
other possible reactions from the treatment.
I promise I did shower that morning. :-)

In 2011, I planned to have another treatment and even blogged about it before I went, but we had to cancel at last minute.  Then, during spring break of 2012, I decided to attempt at the treatments again.  This time we were able to treat more than 80% of my birthmark, excluding my eye, nose, and lip area.  (Again, those areas are super sensitive for me.)  It took 200 laser pulses to get that much done.  It's been a few weeks since the treatment, and I've already noticed a difference.  I have another appointment for another treatment set up for May.

If you ever have questions about my birthmark or the treatments - please feel free to ask!  I am okay with people asking questions and they don't make me uncomfortable if they are asked in genuine curiousity and kindness.  In a way, I consider it a type of honor to be able to help others have a better understanding of this difference.  After all, you know my birthmark is there and I definitely know it's there...So why avoid talking about it if someone has a question or curiosity?   If you don't ask, it doesn't make my birthmark disappear.  It also doesn't make your questions go away either.  I would rather you know and have an understanding - so again, please ask if you want to know more!

Oh - and just because I am trying to lighten my birthmark - please don't think that I would change who I am today or that I am doing it due to any personal insecurities.  That's not the case.  Often I walk around with confidence in who I am, regardless of my birthmark. 

Just as any other female, I've had my ups and downs when it comes to my personal appearance.  However, that's normal for any female.  I just have a birthmark added to those ups and downs - but that's my normal.   Yes, I've wondered what it's like to have a 'normal' looking face.  But how many brunettes have wondered what it would be like to go blonde?  Rumor has it, it's just easier to dye your hair a different color than it is to change your skin tone.

Because of my birthmark, I've had to overcome a lot of different unique situations.  I've had to smile at the slightly rude person who has been awkwardly staring at me for five minutes.  I have also walked in stores or on a college campus, hearing comments and questions being spoken about me - but not to me.  (In a sense, sometimes it feels like I, as a person, am invisible in these situations - except for my half purple face...with people forgetting that I do have eyes that see them stare, I do have ears that hear them talk, and that I do have a brain that understands their reaction.)

I find it to be a joy to have the opportunities to share about physical differences that most people are not use to.  And sometimes, I even forget that I look different than most people…Until certain things are said or when people stare long enough.

My family and I have received comments such as, “How did you burn your baby??”  or  the most common question from adults - “What is wrong with your face?”  This is a prime example of how you shouldn't ask people questions if you're curious about something so personal.  This style doesn't come across as genuine, curious, or kind.  It comes across as mean, rude, nosey - and sometimes hurtful.  Nothing is wrong with my face.  Usually I try to be kind and ignore the tone of the question.  But, as I am human, and depending on my mood - sometimes I have to bite back sarcastic responses such as, "Nothing is wrong with my face.  What's wrong with your attitude and manners??"  (Sometimes I really need to work on my sarcastic internal and silent responses.)

People have even argued with me, telling it it’s not a birthmark, and that I have something like skin cancer or something contagious.  On the opposite end, I’ve had a woman in a clothing store tell me that she was jealous of me and that she wished she had a birthmark covering her face too.

While usually comments and stares don’t knock me down for long, I do have my weaker moments in liking my physical appearance - just like other people have.  Over the years I’ve had to overcome this obstacle when it arises, and even today it can sometimes be a daily practice.  For example: When an attractively handsome man stares at me.  Is he staring at me because he thinks I’m pretty, or is he victimizing me with his staring? 

Those feelings of insecurities don't usually stick around long, though.  As, again, there is a certain kind of joy that comes from being different from the world.  You see life differently and there are a lot of chances to teach others that’s okay to stand out a little.  It’s okay to look different!

I also know that my extra confidence comes from how I was raised by my parents.  When people would stare, like I mentioned above, my mom is the one who taught me to me to smile at them.  Maybe the staring person is having a bad day and needed a smile to lift their spirits.

My parents have also taught me to have a sense of humor.  Once I was asked by a man, “What’s wrong with your face?”  I told him, “It’s just a birthmark.”  He responded, “Oh – I thought you were beat by your husband or something!”  While my friends who were with me at the time got upset and offended over the comment, I just laughed.  For the first time in my life, I realized that I was old enough to be married if I wanted to be.  I didn’t feel offended or angry.  It was a moment of realization of the fact that I was old enough to marry!  I was an adult! 

Despite all the things I've had to over come in those areas, I also have unique stories that no one else has.  I've developed a sense of humor, learning to laugh at the awkward situations that I am faced with on a daily basis.  I have the blessing of having the ability to teach others that's okay not to fit in the mold that the world and society has given us.

It's a beautiful opportunity to be different.

The Travelin' Chick,

PS: Sorry if any of what I've written today is a little repetitive of any posts in the past.  (Although, I've only posted about this topic twice, so hopefully there wasn't anything found to be repetitive!)

***Update September 19, 2013***
In May, the cause for port wine stains was found!  It's due to a rare gene mutation  - but is not the fault of the mother or genes of the father.  For more information, click here!