When my neurologist suggests Botox for my never-ending headache, I’m instantly resistant to the idea. He’s a very short, very thin man with a retreating hairline on the top of his head. It’s endearing, like a monk. And, he called me hummingbird once, as in “What’s the buzz, hummingbird?” to use it in a sentence. I find this odd, yet oddly comforting. Maybe that’s the point. His own unique brand of bedside manner. Now, he can see in the way I scrunch my face that I do not love this latest treatment.
He says, “Botox is perfectly safe. It’s 30 injections around your face and neck. Small pokes and a little pressure. You may have a few weeks where it’s hard to move your forehead muscles, but that will go away.”
I think I’ve never wanted to do anything to alter my face, my body before. Not really. I’ve never even dyed my hair. And, I only wear makeup for my enjoyment—never because I felt like I had to. And I guess I also shave my legs and armpits because I like the feeling of my own smooth skin, but it grows back. Then, I think about the time I tried to shave my pubic region, but every time I looked, all I could think of was that scene from Return of the Jedi where they try to feed Han Solo to the gaping mouth of some desert monster and then Boba Fett gets eaten instead. I didn’t want my vagina to look like an alien desert monster so I grew it back and now I just trim the hedges.
More than that, I think of all the women I admire most in my life, the ones who smile to expose years of laughter at the corners of their eyes or the sides of their mouths and I find so much beauty in that. So much grace in the lines of their foreheads, or the way a strong neck can still look so ready to shoulder so many burdens, even as the skin has begun to thin and sag just the slightest. There is something exquisite in the thin wisps of silver in my mother’s hair. The strands are so clearly defined, I can almost count them individually, as though I know how she earned every one.
This is how I want to be as I get older. So strong and so proud of the years behind me. In some ways, to commit to this Botox, even if its a chance to alleviate the headache I’ve now had every single second for over year, almost feels like a betrayal, like I’m already trying to hold onto this idea that age is something we can control. Like we can buy our bodies more time. Like we should even try.
“I’m worried about my face,” I tell him. He looks at me with raised eyebrows. “How so?”
“It won’t mess it up, right?” I feel foolish even saying it, shallow. But I have an image in my head, and I can’t escape it. “I don’t want to look like Cris Jenner.” He laughs. “You’ll get to keep your looks.”
“Okay,” I say. I suppose this is the answer I’m looking for. In the end, the chance to be pain-free wins. It always does, no matter the stakes.
He does the first injection in my forehead, and it feels like cement being poured just under my skin. My eyes tear up, and I cringe, tensing.
“Relax,” he says. Then, he sticks the needle in my temple. After several injections around my face, he moves on to my back and neck.“So,” he says, “Are you seeing anybody?”
A strange question for small talk, I think, made stranger by the fact that his intern stands awkwardly in the corner of the room, watching us. I tell him a little about the guy I’m seeing—super casual—pausing with each new pin prick.
When I stop talking, he says, “Is he a nice boy?”
“Sure,” I say.
“That’s important,” he says, sticking me in the crook of the neck.
By the time we’re through, I’ve been injected exactly 37 times. There are small red dots on my face and neck where the blood seeped and pooled, almost like freckles. The feeling of cement in my forehead doesn’t go away. I find myself flexing my eyebrows, challenging my skin to crease the way it’s supposed to. Now I think I look like Jack Nicholson, which might be even worse.
“A smooth forehead is an added bonus,” my neurologist says, this should please me.
I want to tell him that I hate it, this feeling of something so hard and unnatural under my skin. I want to scratch at my forehead until I can make it go away. Rub it out. Then, I think, this is what my headache is, an intruder. Just under my skin, the proverbial pebble in my shoe. We’ve intruded upon the intruder with needles and botulism and hope this is enough to make it vacate the hold it has over me, over my life. So many intruders in my head.
A few weeks later, I’m back at the clinic in excruciating pain, an unfortunate negative reaction to the Botox. My neurologist gives me a massive dose of IV steroids, and a prescription for more to take at home, and I vow never to try Botox again. My face, my head, my body, I’m not sure it can bear another incursion. And yet I know when the dust settles and I’ve had time to settle back into my daily pain equilibrium, I’ll be back in his office, seeking another intervention, another way to put this headache—the worst intruder—to death. What other choice do I have? It is my face, my head, my body, and I have to keep fighting.