Weathering the Storm

Ashley McFarland

Featured In Print Edition

Tornadoes are a part of life when you grow up in Minnesota. From May to October, there is an unpredictable threat of severe weather. In elementary school, we had tornado drills to learn how to react when the signs appeared: we would file into the gymnasium or cafeteria—any room that didn’t have windows, really—and cover our ears with our tiny hands to drown out the wailing alarm. We learned when the sky turns a strange shade of greenish gray, it’s time to turn on the news and await further instruction. As soon as the weatherman confirms the path of the storm and issues a tornado warning, you need to head into a safe shelter, usually a basement or stairwell. When the shrill emergency alarm starts howling, it’s too late—the storm is upon you.

I grew up in a storm. The sky was permanently tinted a menacing shade of green. The wild winds gusted at break-neck speeds, churning the dense clouds into thunderstorms before my eyes. The alarm was relentless, a constant and deafening reminder that I wasn’t safe, but there were no drills to prepare me. When the storm finally erupted and the crashing lightning and pounding rain were unleashed, it was too much for me to endure. I needed shelter, a reprieve from the storm. I was young; that shelter should have been my mother—but she was the storm.

Have you ever felt that skin-crawling itch that comes when strangers are talking about you? I became familiar with that itch at a young age. My first memories involve grocery shopping with Amy, my mother. Every turn down a new aisle brought a fresh jury. Accusations of abuse were whispered as we passed each juror, and I witnessed strangers shoot the evil eye at my mother before tenderly smiling at me. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always seen my mom as the Wicked Stepmother to my frizzy-haired Cinderella. She’s not actually my stepmother, but there aren’t a lot of Disney movies with superficial, judgmental biological parents. Cinderella’s sweet mother never would have told her she needed a nose job or that her hair needed an overhaul or that her skin was flawed and needed to be corrected, but her wicked stepmother would have jumped at the chance. Am I being too hard on her? My mom is gorgeous and she yearned for a matching doll to show off—flawless alabaster skin, delicate features, silky golden hair. She didn’t know how to cope when I came along, with the bright red and purple birthmarks covering my body from the neck down, the massive masculine nose corrupting the femininity in my face, and the dark hair so curly and thick that many brushes lost their lives fighting in the grizzly war to tame it. Should she be given a free pass because she didn’t get her wish? I don’t think so. She didn’t get the beautiful doll she so desperately wanted, so she spent her time and energy trying to turn the damaged doll she was given into something she could show off, slowly suffocating my confidence until it shriveled to nothing.

So why were these strangers glaring at Amy? My tiny body was covered with bright, colorful birthmarks. They were my defining feature, the first thing anyone ever noticed about me. Depending on the temperature, they changed from the bright red of a welt to the deep purple of a bruise. Anyone who didn’t know my family would jump to the conclusion that I was physically abused. When I was six weeks old, my mother enrolled me in daycare so she could return to work. Soon after I was dropped off on my first day, the daycare workers noticed my marred skin and promptly called the authorities. When my mom returned to pick me up, she was stopped by police officers and denied entry into the building. She hysterically told them she had explained my condition to the manager, but the manager wasn’t there and hadn’t bothered to pass along that information. I wasn’t returned to my mother until the manager could be contacted to confirm my mother’s story.

I didn’t really notice the birthmarks on my own until I was five or six. People had always pointed and whispered, but I didn’t worry about it because they were all so nice to me. I started to realize I was different in the bleak examination rooms of various physicians. I was a medical mystery. Every time I went to a doctor appointment, no matter the doctor’s specialty, it was the same strange routine. I would change into my thin paper gown and flip through an old Highlights magazine while my mother caught up on the latest Princess Di gossip in People. The exam room was always freezing cold, transforming my birthmarks into elaborate red and purple patterns. There would be a knock on the door, and the doctor would enter. He would fumble around with the stethoscope on my back and then stop his exam and exclaim something like “Oh, my. What is this?” I would shrug and my mother would stand up and dive into her well-rehearsed spiel:

“Well her father was on a prescribed medication that wasn’t approved by the FDA while we were trying to conceive and was later found to cause birth defects. We don’t really know what it is.” She would deliberately cross the room, stop at my side, and lovingly rub my arm or leg. “Some say it’s simply port wine stain, some say Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome. She doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. I just wish we knew what my poor baby was dealing with.” She should have been given an Academy Award for her performance; she was dripping with melodramatic flair.

“Hmm… Let’s take a look,” the doctor would reply as his eyes widened and a slight smile appeared on his face, excited at the prospect of being the chosen one to finally give this unfortunate woman the answers she sought. After a few minutes of prodding and poking, the doctor would holler into the hallway for reinforcements.

“Hey, Donald, can you come in here a sec? I’ve got something interesting.” Donald would want to invite his friends and they would invite whoever happened to be in the halls to come take a look at this anomaly so nicely presented to them. I might as well have worn a big plastic bow to my appointments because they only saw me as a gift that might lead to research grants or bragging rights or at the very least an amusing anecdote to share at their next cocktail party. Inevitably, the doctors couldn’t crack the code and would, one by one, admit defeat until it was just the first doctor, my mom, and me in the room again. He would knit his brows, mumble something about going to do some research and leave. It’s miraculous I survived childhood—I don’t recall ever receiving a complete physical exam.

I started feeling self-conscious when I was eight and my mom signed me up for a support group. I’m not sure how she picked a support group or even what it was for (this was the early nineties, you couldn’t just Google “my child is a freak” or “support groups for ugly children”), but I do remember my first (and last) meeting. It was a pizza party at French Park, so I was excited to go. I’m not sure why I loved French Park so much—it had lots of trees and a big lake with a beach and a really amazing playground, but many of the slides and equipment were metal and would scorch my tender hands and legs after just a few short minutes in the sun. The excitement I felt turned to horror when we arrived, though.

One quick look around and I could tell I didn’t belong. These kids needed a support group—not me. Some of them had growths covering half of their faces. Others had arms or legs that had overgrown and now were much too large for their childish frames. Some were even confined to wheelchairs. I had no right to be there. My birthmarks didn’t live on my face; my limbs had, for the most part, all grown in proportion to my body. I had a few veins popping out of my legs, but that was easily covered with shorts. These children had no reprieve.

I quietly ate my pizza and avoided eye contact with everyone while Amy emphatically commiserated with the other parents, as if she understood their pain. Even then, with my few years of life experience, I understood we were there for her, not me. My condition was more vexing for her than I had ever realized. I decided I must be missing something. If my mother, who I trusted and loved more than anyone else, thought I was so damaged, then it must be true. From that day on, I saw myself as it seemed she did: different. Not enough. Broken. I refused to go to any more of the support group meetings, but that one fateful day at my favorite park forever changed me. The sky shifted from a pleasant blue to a gloomy gray as the storm clouds that would hover for years began to form.

Remember those veins popping out of my legs? It turns out that’s not normal for a child. A few years after my embarrassing support group encounter, a doctor told my mom I could receive sclerotherapy to get rid of them. Sclerotherapy is basically injecting a salt solution into the affected vein, causing the veins to shrink and shrivel over time into small, imperceptible scars. The process sounded familiar to me—I had been receiving sclerotherapy for years. Things kept getting thrown at me that made me feel smaller and smaller; maybe I would get lucky and I would just shrink to nothing. I heard the doctor tell Amy that the procedure wasn’t mandatory and we could wait until I was older. She cut him off and told him we would have it done now. Her doll was being upgraded! (She didn’t say that part out loud… I think that would have raised some eyebrows.)

We went to a medical store teeming with supplies designed for old people who had been diagnosed with diabetes or a broken hip. We picked up the hottest accessory of the fall—thick beige compression stockings! There were knee highs and full-on support top pantyhose and, with my great luck, I was destined for the pantyhose. The procedure itself was painful and slow. It felt like a porcupine was walking up and down my legs, randomly deciding when and where to attack. After the procedure, I felt uncomfortable all the time—either my legs throbbed and burned or I was too hot because of the heinous stockings or I was simply worried someone would notice I was a freak. It was exhausting. Amy would make me take the stockings off every night so she could marvel at the medical magic taking place. I swear a few times I heard her whisper, “my precious,” like I was the One Ring to her Gollum, as she possessively stroked my legs and told me how beautiful they were becoming. Weird, right? Unfortunately, shrinking my veins fed her obsession with making me into Daughter Barbie. What could she fix next?

My hair has always been a source of contention. It was straight and manageable until I was around six years old. I don’t know what I did to offend them, but all the little hairs on the top of my head had a meeting one night and decided to ruin my life. My straight, beautiful hair turned into a dark, giant, thick, frizzy mess overnight. Amy didn’t know what to do with it. She’d only ever played with dolls that had hair like hers—long, blonde, thin, and straight.

For a while, she battled with it, pulling and tugging at it every day. When I was in 2nd grade, I missed my class picture because Amy got a brush stuck in the rat’s nest of hair she was trying to tame. I started crying because I loved class picture day; my tears infuriated Amy. Somehow, she was able to rip that brush out and smack me across the face with it. Now my hair was a mess and there was a brush-shaped mark on my face; obviously I couldn’t be photographed in that condition, so I had to stay home from school. Eventually Amy grew weary of fighting and decided to cut it all off. If you’re not familiar with thick curly hair, allow me to enlighten you: if you cut it all off, you’re left with a big poof of hair surrounding your head like a fuzzy halo, and it takes eons to grow back. When you have straight hair, an inch is an inch—but when you have curly hair, an inch of growth is really much less because it twists and twirls up into itself.

My hairstyles grew worse as my hair took its sweet time growing back. First it was a huge brown puffball. Eventually, it was too long for that but too short for anything else, so my mom came up with a hairstyle that, quite frankly, I’m surprised didn’t become the next Rachel. She gathered hair from above my ears on both sides of my head, piled it on top, and secured it with a big tortoise-shell claw clip. She let the bangs and the back just hang however they wanted, forming some sort of crazy mullet. It was atrocious. I wore it like that for years and was teased the whole time.

I remember a particularly mean boy named Adam. He hated me for some reason, and it was his little life’s goal to turn kids against me. One day, I was in front of him in the lunch line and he turned to our classmate Bruce. “Look at that bush on top of Ashley’s head! It looks so stupid, doesn’t it?” he taunted. I will forever be thankful for Bruce’s response. He simply said, “No, I don’t think so. Leave her alone man.” Most people sided with Adam though. Even with a few kind souls like Bruce, I started to withdraw like a tortoise into its shell. I had horrible hair to add to the freaky skin I was already dealing with. Things were starting to look grim—the winds were picking up speed and a faint alarm was sounding in the distance.

Amy had lost the fight with my hair, but she regrouped and moved on to the next battlefield: my nose. Much like my hair, it had decided to turn against me and grow overnight. Amy started working the idea of a rhinoplasty into trivial conversations. “You know,” she’d start, “you’re so pretty. Really. Except your nose. But don’t you worry, we can get that fixed.” At first these words didn’t mean much to me. Crazy mom with her crazy talk, I thought. After a while, though, I began to see what she saw—a gigantic, offensive nose. After a few more months of “we can get that fixed,” I realized that my nose didn’t belong on my face—it belonged on a full grown man, and even then it would look a little obnoxious.

I’ll never forget the day I finally gave in to her persistent petitions. We were out on the lake at French Park in our family boat. It’s funny how so many of my defining but soul-crushing moments took place there—seriously, why did I love that place so much? Boating was one of my favorite activities. I always sat in the front of the boat with my sister, basking in the warmth of the sun. As my dad was steering around the lake looking for the perfect place to fish, Amy decided this was a great time to make her case again. She yelled up to me, saying, “Why won’t you just let me fix it for you? Let’s just go for a consult. Please!” That was it. I couldn’t live my life like this. It wasn’t worth fighting anymore. Maybe boys would like me more if I had a smaller nose. Maybe I wouldn’t walk with my head down in the halls at school, hoping no one noticed me. “Okay, Mom. If you want,” I conceded. I could see the joy just bursting out of her face. A cloud floated in front of the sun, and I wrapped my towel around me a little tighter.

I still can’t believe she found a plastic surgeon willing to operate on a fourteen-year-old with no medical reason to do so. I’m no psychologist, but that’s too young for plastic surgery. The procedure was done in the summer between 8th and 9th grade, so I had plenty of time to heal before going back to school. My mom was ecstatic; I had an identity crisis. I could see that I looked better—like a girl, even—but I didn’t feel better. Boys didn’t like me more. I still didn’t want to be seen. It’s almost like my self-confidence level wasn’t the inverse of the size of my nose, but maybe came from something deeper and more substantial. It’s been about sixteen years since I went under the knife. I wish I would have held out until I was older. My face wasn’t done changing yet because I was so young and so my nose didn’t quite heal correctly. I’m constantly aware of it because I can barely breathe through one of my nostrils, which affects everything from my allergies to my athletic ability. But hey, at least I’m prettier.

After my mid-teen identity crisis, I became consumed with how I looked. Amy was constantly after me: “You should exercise more. Let’s dye your hair blonde! We should look into getting your birthmarks removed; it’s only a laser procedure like removing a tattoo!” People were starting to ask me about my birthmarks. “Were you burned in a fire? Do your parents beat you? Do you have a rash? Is it contagious?” I was constantly being reminded of my flaws. No one can thrive in that environment. I became so painfully shy that no one would talk to me because they all thought I was a snob. I didn’t try to prove them wrong because, well, I wasn’t good enough. Everyone knew I was worthless, so it must be true. The dark clouds that had always hung over my head finally burst, releasing the thunder and lightning. A funnel cloud was forming, but I had nowhere to hide.

When I was looking at colleges, I decided to get out of town, try to escape the storm. Maybe a fresh start and a life further from Amy would be the change I needed to move on. I decided on BYU and moved to Utah to start my freshman year. I have never been more terrified and excited. Luckily, everyone in my dorm felt the same way. I quickly made friends. We bonded as we learned how to live on our own. Why did these pretty, funny, lovely girls want to be friends with me? I was shocked. The strangest part was that no one even mentioned my birthmarks. My hair had grown out, and I was learning how to tame it. People were actually complimenting me; I thought they were insane. Still, my confidence started to grow. Boys started to like me. I wasn’t any prettier than I was in Minnesota, but I was starting to learn that I had a personality. I was funny and I had a big heart and people liked being around me. I was slowly building a shelter for myself.

My shelter was fortified when I met the man I would one day marry, Shane. I could see warmth radiating from him the moment we met. He’s one of those people everyone just wants to be around. We built a friendship, and I started to see how he protected me from the storms in my life. If my mom had said something judgmental on the phone, he would make sure to tell me he loved my beautiful, curly hair. When I said something like, “my mom would hate the way I did my makeup today,” he would assure me I looked gorgeous. At first I just rolled my eyes—boys will say anything to get you in bed. But when we got serious and he still spoke words of encouragement, I began to believe him. The rains were slowing to a drizzle and the winds were dying down for longer periods of time. Even when they picked back up and raged for a while, I was able to endure it without feeling consumed.

I discovered the source of Shane’s warmth when he introduced me to his family. They are truly the kindest, most loving family I have ever met. At first I didn’t understand them. They made fun of each other and laughed. No one was ever upset. The youngest daughter in the family, Haylie, was born with a few minor complications. She had a hemangioma on her eye and little skin tags growing out of her ear. She had baby fuzz instead of hair for years because it just wouldn’t grow. Her mom called her “Old Fuzz Head Horn Ear”—she even had a song to go with it. Instead of treating her like a problem that needed to be corrected, they laughed about it, and she was stronger because of it. They loved her even though she wasn’t perfect. Wait… what? How could that be? Why wasn’t her mom obsessed with fixing her? Why wasn’t Haylie broken like I was? I saw what she had, and I wanted it. I resolved to make a change. I would start to see my quirks as blessings. I would figure out how to laugh at myself, because that way I wouldn’t care so much if someone else laughed at me. I could reinforce my own shelter.

I had the chance to laugh at myself soon enough. I was at a Christmas party and for some reason I thought it was a good idea to wear a short-sleeved turtleneck sweater in the middle of winter. Bad idea—I was freezing. Since I was freezing, the birthmarks on my exposed skin were all sorts of strange colors and exotic patterns. An old woman came over to me with that same concerned look in her eye I used to get while grocery shopping with my mom. “What’s happening to your skin?” she asked, “can I get you something to help?” I said I was fine, they were just birthmarks and nothing to worry about. She rubbed my arms a couple of times while she thought of what she might say. “Well…they’re very festive, at least.”

I had two choices. I could break down crying, letting this oblivious woman ruin my day because she said something crazy, or I could laugh about it. For the first time in my life, I chose laughter. Who else can say they have built-in Christmas decorations? That one bizarre comment changed my life. I started telling the story to my friends and family, and we all laughed together.

After that, I made a conscious effort to change. I didn’t let my birthmarks dictate my wardrobe. I tried not to stress too much on days when my hair was more frizz than curl. Sometimes I left the house with no makeup on my face. I even wore sweatpants while running errands to Target. The craziest thing was that people still liked me, regardless of my hair or makeup or fashion choices. In fact, I would venture to say no one even noticed on the days I didn’t try to doll myself up. Maybe, just maybe, if all these people thought I was enough when I was just being myself, then I was really, actually enough.

I may not live near my mother anymore, but she will always be part of my life. I still catch myself falling into old habits around her, though. Recently Shane and I took a trip to see her for the first time in almost a year. I started coming up with witty retorts I could use if she brought up my weight or my hair or anything else she found unsavory. With tears in my eyes, I asked Shane what he thought about my responses to her imagined judgements. He looked at me and simply said, “You’re beautiful. Nothing Amy says changes that.” I believed him. It was a stormy trip, but we survived. She just couldn’t help herself.

Want to hear something ironic? She has aged so rapidly and lost so much weight following a gastric bypass that now she looks like the Crypt Keeper’s twin sister. At fifty-five, she’s a mere shadow of the beauty she once was. I could tell her that she should cut her lifeless hair or wear more makeup or tan her pasty white skin or turn the grimace living on her face into a smile, but I don’t. I don’t ever want to be a storm in someone else’s life—not even hers. I don’t want her, or anyone, to have to deal with the pain I’ve dealt with, the pain that flares up from time to time even now.

I’ve learned a lot from weathering the storms of my life. You can’t please everyone. There’s always someone who has it worse than you do. It’s okay to laugh at yourself. Sometimes the people who are supposed to love you unconditionally are the ones who have the strictest conditions. It’s okay to think you’re beautiful sometimes—maybe even all the time. I still struggle with that one. Most importantly, I’ve learned that you can be the umbrella in someone else’s storm. I hope that if I have a daughter one day, I will be able to remember what I’ve learned and build a shelter for her instead of being her storm. I think I’ll be able to do that, especially knowing what I now know.

On the other hand… heaven help me if she gets my nose.