Life after disfigurement
By Hoe I Yune, Feb 01, 2019
This story is a continuation of Lee Khoon’s attack in her home one night and how she coped with the aftermath (part one can be read here).
When I awoke from my two-week coma, I was alone, but for the nurses. My step-siblings were young (the youngest only a year older than my son) so my dad and stepmum would visit but they couldn’t always be around.
It took another week before I saw myself in the mirror. The first time that I saw my reflection was when the nurses helped me shower in the bathroom. I couldn’t believe my new appearance, neither could I accept it. I had always been vain and I didn’t even look human anymore. I screamed. All I wanted was to die.
I was so hysterical that the nurses had to cover all mirrors and reflective glass in my ward. I later showed reporters pictures of my battered face and there were newspapers that deemed it too graphic to be published.
I fell into depression and contemplated suicide every day. The doctors wouldn’t let me out and there were moments when I felt as if I was going insane. I’d take off all my clothes and lie naked in bed. I looked like a mummy because of how all my wounds were bandaged.
Counsellors tried to reason with me but I struggled to accept my new self. I’d retort right back - “how would you feel if you went from having everything to looking like me? How would you live with yourself?”
They couldn’t answer me.
I wanted to die but what stopped me from jumping out of the window was the fear that I’d break an arm or leg but still survive the fall, and wind up having to live in more pain.
At my lowest point, I had to pop 48 pills a day to deal with insomnia, depression and other issues such as my fear of men. Even seeing doctors scared me. I was injected with painkillers almost every hour to help me cope. I couldn’t eat and weighed less than 40kg.
Reconstructing my face was a slow and painful process. I was transferred to a hospital in KL where a particular plastic surgeon had returned from overseas. In total, I went through 24 operations to graft flesh from different parts of my body - legs, thighs, back and arms - to my face. The procedures weren’t always a success and I spent three years of going in and out of the hospital. That was when I met a nurse who asked if I’d let her pray for me.
Helpless and open to anything that would make the reconstruction of my face go better, I agreed. The surgery was a success, but on the inside too, I took a step towards healing.
Truth be told, it was only when I met her and learned about Christianity did I find the strength to carry on. She introduced me to her friends from church. After the attack, I was petrified of men but from meeting her church friends, I learned that there are people not trying to hurt me. We didn’t know each other back then but they were selfless and willing to donate blood to me when I needed it for transfusions.
Some friends disappeared after I was attacked. Instead, it was this group of Christians who would keep me company and sing Gospel music. When hearing the songs, I felt comforted and would tear up. It was like they were speaking to me through the songs. When I caught him cheating, my husband called me names. Unlike him, these people were so non-judgmental and supportive. Gradually, I accepted the religion and begun to change - from someone wanting to die to someone who was willing to persevere.
Before the attack, my relationship with my dad and stepmum had always been strained. My dad was a player who would bounce from girlfriend to girlfriend, and I would see him drinking and hitting my grandma. Not to mention he was a terrible father who couldn’t support me through school.
The first Chinese New Year after my attack, I hesitated going home. I explained to the doctor that I’d rather stay at the hospital than return with him and my stepmum. The head nurse called my stepmum in.
I’m not sure what they talked about but for the first time, my stepmum said to let go of the past. I’m still their daughter, she said. I was touched by her words. It was the first time I heard her acknowledge me as her daughter.
Staying in her home, she gave me a room to myself, while my step-siblings crammed with her and my dad in another. When I couldn’t feed myself, she used a teaspoon to slowly feed me. Once, she saw the blood from my face trickling into my food, and broke down. It was the first time I felt motherly love. I was incredibly touched.
Another motivating force was my son. Although there were the trying times - at first, he couldn’t bring himself to look at me and would run away. He would say, “you’re not my mummy. My mummy doesn’t look like this.”
It hurt when my four-year-old son couldn’t recognise me. He was living with his father’s mother when the incident happened. My hours as a hostess meant I had to leave him with a nanny and my ex-husband was persistent about letting his mother look after him.
Thankfully, my former mother-in-law wasn’t biased to her son, but doted on me and believed that children belong with their mums. She knew that her son was at fault and wanted us to patch things up, but I had no way of forgiving him. After my accident, she brought my son to see me. He was afraid but I showed him old pictures and prayed to God that he would recognise me.
Eventually he stopped running away and would cuddle up to me. I was relieved when he called me mum again. Today, he’s in his 30s and we’re very close.
It took me four years before I dared to show my face in public. I would cover up and wear sunglasses, wear a headscarf over my head and use a handkerchief to cover my mouth. I was afraid of scaring others.
I had long black hair at the time and liked to dress in long, white clothes. It started a rumour in the neighbourhood that there was a female ghost. I overheard people talking about it in the market and saw strangers praying along the street in the morning. At one point, I even asked if I could live in the hospital - a place where nobody would
When I began attending church in 1991, I was still self-conscious, but my nurse friend reassured me that the church-goers wouldn’t judge me. I believed her and started to remove my “mask”. It took a much longer time before I walked outside without covering up.
The first time that I did, it was having breakfast at the market. I just sat outside. A crowd formed around me, as if they were observing a strange animal, but God told me not to worry about them casting judgment and then I’d be free and happy in life. I looked up at the strangers and gently smiled at a few of them. Some looked away, embarrassed for staring.
I realised that in helping me survive the attack, God wanted me to live on and had a way to help me overcome the hurdles. I asked for courage. I didn’t want to cover up as if I was the criminal when I did nothing wrong.
My assailant remained scot-free, so I sought help from a local welfare organisation. At first, the people at the organisation contacted the police and were told that the case didn’t exist. I was grateful that these people didn’t give up and held a press conference to ask the public to help find him. He couldn’t flee the country.
It turned out that the case was closed only because A paid a measly RM4,000 to be let out on bail. The organisation was outraged on my behalf and exerted pressure on the police to reopen the case. He was taken to court. After the hearing, he was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment and six strokes of the cane. A lot of people told me it wasn’t fair, but he was almost as young as I was and had an aging mother whom he had to look after. That resulted in a reduced sentence from 20 years.
Even so, the six strokes would’ve been a forever reminder for him, while mine is my face, which he destroyed.
Initially, I felt restless and wanted revenge, but religion was what helped me grow to be at peace. Every day I’d read the bible and it taught me to love my enemies. I learned that love doesn’t discriminate. Whether pretty, ugly, rich or poor, all people are the same in God’s eyes. I wondered why God saved me at first. When I was pretty and rich, I didn’t think that I needed to believe in him. I could work for my own money.
Yet when lying there in my pool of blood, it was God who saved me. Christianity made me realise that when I let go of all the hate and anger, and finally forgave the man for what he had done to me, a huge burden was lifted off my shoulders. I felt happier, lighter and free.
When my story was in the papers, I got by on donations and could receive up to RM20,000 in one day. I didn’t dare believe it, but it felt like God must’ve really loved me. Thanks to that, I managed to rent a home to live in with my son while he studied in primary school.
I thought money could solve all my problems growing up, but no matter how much I earned, it didn’t fill the void inside of me. I didn’t know what I was living for. Only now that I understand how precious life can be and now that I use my experience to help others do I realise that that’s what makes my life meaningful and fulfilling.
I’ve been in Singapore for over 10 years, working with senior citizens under voluntary welfare organisation Concern and Care Society. I’ve dedicated my life after the attack to helping others in need, ever since I met the CEO of a Taiwanese Christian volunteer group in the mid-1990s. He wanted to make a video - Life Can Be Good, based on my story. This was followed by an autobiography book titled An Uncommon Beauty (破碎天使心 in Mandarin).
Under his guidance, I travelled to countries such as Taiwan to share my story and help and counsel suicidal teens and youths-at-risk.
You can’t turn back time but you can make the most of what you have. I wanted them to know that if someone like me can choose to live and love myself, so could they. I also manned the Hopeline in Johor, counselling people in distress, and have reached out to other attack victims.
I’ve given talks in Singapore and overseas, and I hope that the youngsters I speak with can learn from my mistake. I only wish I hadn’t been so rebellious and took better care of my grandma during the later part of her life. I’m reminded of fond memories of her when spending time with the elderly at Concern and Care Society.
Back then, I didn’t know what I lived for, but I’m now grateful that God gave me the strength to pull through so that I can live the rest of my life meaningfully.
Today, Lee Khoon leads therapy exercises, trains volunteers, gives talks and organises other programmes for the elderly at the Concern and Care Society. Growing old can be an isolating experience but she helps them enjoy their days and befriend others in the community. When I met her, she seemed calm and at ease - nothing like how she once described herself to be in her 20s.
She is based in Singapore but still goes back to KL once a year and looks forward to spending time with her family this Chinese New Year.
The interview with Siow Lee Khoon was conducted in Mandarin and was translated into English.
Photos provided by Siow Lee Khoon.
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