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“Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”—Tyrion Lannister
I remember that December day, the day my whole life changed, as though it were a reel of film moving in the back of my head. It's five in the morning. I am wearing a blue, paper-thin gown and walking down a tight corridor. The space is dark and polished—like the undeveloped side of a polaroid picture. There is silence, yet tension. And then, like a light at the end of a tunnel, a white room appears. I enter. They are all clad in mint attire. They're giggling, speaking in jargon, but it all sounds muted. They point to a flat blue chair in the center of the room and I obey, laying down. Closing my eyes. Counting the seconds until my transformation begins.
A woman drapes a heated blanket over my body, and a corpulent man with baggy eyes presses a circular patch to my chest. The anesthetic faintly smells of lavender. My legs become paralyzed. My breath slows. The darkness deepens. Is this what death feels like?
"Sweet dreams, Kathryn," says the woman just before I am gone.
I've been to the Hall of Faces and back. It is not a beautiful stone temple filled sky-high with the heads of those who have passed, but a branch inside Staten Island University Hospital dedicated to oral and maxillofacial surgery.
I didn't ask for my life to mirror Arya Stark's. In fact, when I started watching Game of Thrones, she was my least favorite character. I disliked her coarseness, the way she put down Sansa and flicked food at her face during the feast with the Lannisters. I liked Jon, Tyrion, Rob, Catelyn: The characters far older and wiser than I.
But as I kept watching the show, Arya grew on me. Maisie Williams and I are the same age. We have short brown hair and tiny statures, so it was easy to see myself in her character. During my tween years, I was a self-proclaimed tomboy who loved Indiana Jones, video games, and running through the woods. I chopped off my long locks in the third grade and wore a pixie cut until freshman year of high school. Because of this, strangers often mistook me for a little boy. A small girl even yelled at me once for being in the wrong bathroom.
As I grew into my late teens and twenties, the similarities between Arya and I multiplied. When I felt lost in life, a father figure similar to The Hound took me under his wing and led me in the right direction. In high school, I had a female nemesis who wanted to best me in everything, like The Waif. And for a short time, there was a Gendry in my life. I really cared about him and he wanted more. It was more than I could give him though, and I had to say, "No," because, well, "that's not me."
But if there's one parallel between Arya and I that overshadows the rest, it's that we've both worn other faces. Literally.
When I was 12, my mother took me to an orthodontist's office. I was too busy gazing through the window and sticking my tongue out at my pudgy marshmallow of a little brother to comprehend his words...
"It's called an underbite," he sighed, "or more officially, a malocclusion. Your daughter's is class three, meaning she has an overgrowth in her lower jaw bone instead of a simple tooth problem. Braces won't do anything for her."
"If braces won't help, what will?" There was a trifle of fear in my mother's voice.
"Well, I would suggest one of those catcher's mask-looking contraptions to push her face back, but she's too old for that. Therefore, I think it's best to leave it be, and if she wants, she can get surgery to correct it when she's older."
My body froze. Surgery? I imagined knives and needles pricking through my gums while being strapped into a seat, screaming bloody murder.
"No way, I'm not getting surgery!" I nervously chuckled.
"Don't worry," the orthodontist said, "It's optional. If you find your jaw causing you problems in the future, you can consider it." He beamed at me, then my mother, then my brother.
"But honestly, Katy, you may just outgrow it."
You may just outgrow it...
I wish I could say things got better. After all, plenty of people in this world have underbites. I practically forgot about mine. Like any child, there was a stretch of time when I didn't care about my looks. But when 14-year-old me got hold of a smartphone and saw a video of myself singing one day, I noticed my mouth moved differently than the rest of the choir's. Insecurity festered. I looked at my reflection, my protruding chin, and saw a freak. The internet didn't help. Multiple articles referred to underbites as "facial deformities." People made memes about underbites, about how unfortunate it was to have one.
And then the bullying started. Nasty people always find clever names to brand people with underbites. I knew the common ones: "bulldog," "jaws," and just plain, "ugly." The rowdy boys at my high school christened me "Crimson Chin," like the character from the cartoon, The Fairly Oddparents.
The gap in my mouth had grown wider. At 17, I had a lisp, as well as TMJ that comprised of aches and clicking pains. (Sometimes people could even hear my jaw make clicking sounds.) It was a miracle I never got lockjaw. I also had chewing problems so bad, I occasionally choked on food. One time, at a Japanese place, a piece of seaweed from sushi snuck past my useless molars and down into my throat. The air grew thinner. I gripped my neck and my dad rose from his seat to help me, but the seaweed dislodged itself and I managed to cough it back onto my plate. I looked to my right to find dozens of concerned customers staring wide-eyed at me.
Every day after school, I would look in my bedroom mirror and push my palms against my lower jaw until my whole face turned red. A real-life crimson chin. It felt like a scarlet letter. Unlike all my close friends, I never dated or had a boyfriend. Boys never looked at me in that way. Of course I had depression. Of course I felt suicidal. Of course I dabbled in self-harm. This wasn't me. There were old photos of me with a perfect smile. Now, for some reason, I looked like a monster.
Of course, I empathized with Tyrion greatly because of that. When your reality is a nightmare, you use fantasy to cope, to escape. I'm sure plenty other writers on this website will agree with me when I say Game of Thrones got me through the rough patches. I might not be alive without it. It was a distraction from the pain, but also a teaching tool.
Additionally, I found solace in theatre. I was pretty good, often getting supporting roles in the musicals. Pretending to be someone else was another form of escape to me. Of course, I was never considered for romantic roles or pretty leading ladies. I auditioned for college acting programs, but, obviously, got rejected from every one. I would later realize this wasn't because I lacked talent, but because I didn't have "the look" college programs wanted. With my face, of course I never stood a chance.
I didn't meet my Jaquen H'gar until the end of junior year. Dr. David Hoffman, DDS. Slim grey glasses, slim grey hair. Head of Staten Island University Hospital's Oral and Maxillofacial surgery department. A little aloof, a little cold, but very good at his job. He'd traveled the world fixing cleft palettes for kids in impoverished countries, and made a living using his "magic hands" to help people with oral and facial misalignments. He agreed to be my surgeon for corrective surgery.
"There's no way we'd be able to do this instantaneously, however," he told me the day I first met him, "we have to wait until your bones are done growing. We need to take out all of your wisdom teeth and put braces on you. Should be another two years or so."
I nodded—frustrated, but accepting.
Like Arya with her kill list, I had to learn the difficult virtue of patience. It was during that limbo of time, between junior year and the start of college, that I gravitated towards Arya's storyline on Thrones more than ever. At that point, she was training with the Faceless Men. She was preparing herself for the rest of her life, and that's how I felt after my wisdom teeth removal and multiple orthodontist consultations. I had even learned that, in the books, Arya was branded with the nickname "horseface" by Jeyne Poole. "Horseface" is another common nickname for folks with underbites, since underbites can make your face look longer.
Arya Horseface. Katy Crimson Chin.
Someday I'm going to do great things like Arya Stark. I'm going to have everything I've ever wanted. I just have to keep going. I just have to make it to college...
My eyes open.
It's 11 AM, six hours later. I am in a hospital bed and can't feel my swollen face. My lips won't move, let alone talk. The procedure was a success, and all that's left is post-op recovery.
The nights in the hospital are horrible. Dried blood clogs my nose, warm blood clogs my mouth. But Dr. Hoffman helps me get through it with painkillers, a nasal cannula, and a little nostril vacuum that sucks out the crusty blood.
"You're stronger than you look, kid," he says to me with encouraging smiles.
The days get easier. I stick to a liquid diet for a few weeks. Eventually, Dr. Hoffman lets me eat soft solid foods. My first real meal post-op is a grilled chicken sandwich from Wendy's. People stare at me with odd looks because I'm so excited about being able to chew with my molars and incisors, but at least it's better than the way people looked at me in that Japanese restaurant.
It's been more than two years since my surgery. Arya's training has come in handy for her: She's used what she's learned in Braavos to defend those in Westeros. I haven't slew White Walkers or survived a siege on a burning city, but I've used what I've learned from my underbite journey to inform others about the process. I made an Instagram page documenting my jaw surgery from pre-op to recovery, and have posted vlogs discussing my personal tips for smoother recoveries. It's nice getting to answer people's questions and giving advice I never received during my process. One year, I wrote about my underbite experience and surgery for a spot in my college's annual literary magazine. I figure the more awareness I can raise, the better.
Additionally, I'm a working actor now. The pain I've experienced in the past has helped me tremendously in the present, as I can access the emotions I've felt when crafting characters who go through tremendous circumstances. Arya has west of Westeros to explore, and I have a budding career to navigate. Every time I'm on a film set, it feels like a new adventure.
Wearing another face teaches you things. Arya learned the consequences of revenge from doing so, and I've learned the importance of recognizing inner beauty. It's crazy: You compare a picture of my face before I was 12 to my face now, and you wouldn't know anything happened to me. I could lie to myself, to others, and say I've always looked the same. But I'll never let myself forget the true experience. The trauma keeps me grounded throughout the present triumphs.
When Arya stabbed the Night King, she looked at the pain that plagued her life, death, and used all she'd learned to kill it. Talking about my past is a way I can beat it. What do we say to pain and sorrow? To misery, and the God of Death?