By Peter Corrigan
The sunlight reflects off the pool water and the sounds of kids splashing fill the air. It’s a free time day at my summer camp, and most of my fellow campers decide to skip the archery range and volleyball court in favor of the pool to escape the Hawaiian heat and humidity. I also tag along, but there’s a glaring difference between myself and the other kids. While they’re happily playing in the water without a care in the world, I’m sitting on a chair in the shade with an over-sized black shirt on and not getting into the water. One of the counselors sees me sitting there alone and takes it upon himself to see what’s the matter. This is the part that I hate the most, the inevitable questions, the repeated long-winded explanation as to why I’m afraid to take my shirt off, and the well-meaning face of kindness melting away into one of pity. I know they mean well; but sometimes I just wish they would leave me in peace. It’s bad enough that I have to live with this defect, but sometimes the pity outweighs the looks of disgust and makes me feel worse.
Still wondering what this defect is that I keep alluding to? Alright, then I’ll tell you. I am one of the lucky ones who have hit the genetic lottery. My prize, a sunken-in chest wall known in the medical profession as pectus excavatum. Yay!!!! Best prize ever!!!!!
One would think that this condition is something rare, it’s actually a lot more common than people think. The medical community claims that 1 in 300 births result in pectus excavatum, and this condition affects men more than women. While the physical symptoms of this condition are well-documented and researched on, such as sleep apnea, decreased exercise tolerance, possible heart valve issues, etc. there isn’t a lot of work being done on the psychological effects of this condition. That’s where this article comes in.
Situations such as the one I’ve wrote about at the beginning of this article are all too common for those of us who were born with pectus. We grow up being ashamed of something we have absolutely no control over and as a result, many of us grow to hate our bodies over time. It’s not uncommon for those with pectus to avoid any and all activities in which their chests are exposed. As a kid in Hawaii, I would swim wearing a surf shirt even at the pool, and I refused to wear tank tops because I was afraid it would slip down and expose my defect. These feelings of shame only served to worsen as I got older and my peers started to ask questions as to why.
There are surgeries you can get to fix this defect, the most popular one being the Nuss procedure. What this procedure entails is a long metal bar inserted under the sternum via two small cuts on the side of the torso, the bar is then flipped forcing the chest wall and sternum into a more, for lack of a better term, normal position. The implanted bar is then left in place for three years, and then removed in an outpatient procedure. Think of it like getting braces on your teeth except more scary and painful. While the surgery itself is fairly simple, the recovery period is anything but, requiring several weeks to months of bed rest and strong painkillers. The last time I had the procedure performed on me, there was a female patient in the next room who claimed that the pain from the procedure was significantly worse than childbirth. Since as a male I am biologically unable to know what childbirth feels like, I usually just tell people that it’s what I imagine the scene from the movie Alien where the newborn xenomorph burts through your ribcage to feel like. That usually gets my point across.
Even though this procedure exists, that doesn’t mean that it’s a guaranteed fix. There is a chance that upon removal of the bar, the chest may sink back in. Sadly, I’m also one of the unlucky ones in that department. I have attempted this procedure several times and my ideal chest is slowly starting to look like it will just be another pretty, yet unattainable, dream. As much as I want my perfect chest, after awhile the thought of going through all that pain yet again for a result that may not materialize is not very appealing.
As I strive to reach a place where I’m content with how my body looks, there are two other big factors in my life that only helps to exacerbate my feelings of shame and self-loathing, I’m an openly bisexual male living in Los Angeles. Now I realize that the stereotype of the gay male community being vain and obsessed with perfection is simply that, a stereotype; but in my experience of the community here in LA, I can confirm that not only is this stereotype true, it’s amplified here. Don’t believe me? Just take a seat outside the Starbucks on Santa Monica Blvd & La Cienega and you’ll see what I mean. Out here, anything that isn’t either muscle-bound or twinkish is barely noticed, if at all. When you live in the land of never-ending summer, shirts are more of fashion guideline than an actual rule.
In addition to the gay community, Hollywood reigns supreme in this town. Anything that isn’t essentially perfect is also viewed as less than, and those of us who don’t fit the traditional mold of what a man or woman should look like is either ignored or ridiculed for being different. For someone like me, with a glaring defect that he can do nothing about without surgical intervention, my already battered self-image can’t help but take more hits. However, while there is a great deal of hardship to overcome in regards to being born with this condition, there are still many gifts that comes with being born with this condition.
Due to knowing what it feels like to have been born different, my sense of empathy has been heightened to the point where I find myself very attuned to the feelings of others. I have developed a caring and understanding nature because I know what it feels like to feel as if you stick out, and easily deduce when someone is troubled or has something on their mind. Definitely comes in handy in social situations, I’ll tell you that. As a result, many see me as a type of “safe haven” to unload their troubles on which gives me a sense of purpose in life.
Being born different isn’t easy. It doesn’t matter what your situation is, whether it’s pectus or something else, if you don’t fit the mold of what this messed-up world we live in deems as “normal”, you pretty much have to find some way to just move through. I’m still working on myself, both in the physical sense and otherwise, and like the old saying goes, “I have my good days and my bad days.” I still haven’t given up on hope that one day this dented body will be but a distant memory; but until then, I’m just taking it one day at a time. As they say in twelve-step, progress not perfection, but my twist on it is that I’m progressing to what I deem is my own perfection. I’m learning to love myself despite of what others may deem as my flaws; or maybe I’m simply learning to love myself because of my flaws.