Since birth, Susanne Veder Berger was taught to hide herself, to cover the six-inch “port-wine stain” that dominated nearly the entire left side of her face. (Doctors call the condition “naevus flammeus,” a vascular birthmark resulting from deep dilated capillaries below the surface of the skin.)
When Susanne was only four years old, she was taught how to apply a mask of thick makeup to her face each day in an effort to avoid teasing and humiliation. Susanne did this literally every day of her life for more than 50 years as she attended Seneca College in Toronto, got married, moved to the New York City suburbs and raised two children.
Conditioned to believe that if the mask ever slipped — from careless application of her makeup or perhaps by shedding a tear — the world would see what she really looked like, and the result was too painful for Susanne to even imagine. At the age of 30, Susanne underwent a laser surgery — a series of dozens of “pulsed dye” laser treatment sessions — that changed her life. I was curious to know if 30 years of living with this skin condition had taught her any life lessons, so I interview her here.
1. They say that kids who grow up with knee braces or acne, or with skin conditions such as your own, build the character strength they need to get them through life. Have the difficulties you have encountered hiding your real face contributed to your own resiliency?
Susanne: In one sense, hiding my face from the world for 30 years because of that huge “port wine stain” birthmark covering the left side of my face taught me that I was a strong person, able to carry on despite a tremendous handicap like this. On the other hand, I was very fortunate to have been raised by supportive and loving parents. From the earliest age, they encouraged me to hide my face by applying thick makeup. My father and his family are Dutch Holocaust survivors, and they knew a thing or two about preserving oneself by hiding. Covering my birthmark with makeup was the right thing to do, and as a result, I never really had to endure cruel teasing by other children. The world never knew that I had a disability because I hid under my mask. Wearing the makeup each and every day protected me, and, ironically, it also protected my skin from sun damage. Kids with knee braces, in wheelchairs, and who must rely on help of some kind because of disability actually have it much harder than I did, because they can’t hide their disability — and I really admire them for their strength and courage.
Learning to cope with my birthmark for so many years, and knowing that I can endure and carry on, did help me because by this point in my life I realized that I am strong and I can make it through. It has also been helpful for me to remember my family heritage, and the fact that many of my ancestors survived the Holocaust, which was certainly more horrible than anything I’ve ever had to endure. Over the years, I’ve learned how to detach myself from painful situations, and look at those situations from an outsider’s point of view. This ability has given me the clarity I’ve needed to overcome even the most traumatic experiences.
2. If you could dispense wisdom to a young child with a large birthmark or any handicap that made her stand out among her peers, what would you say?
Susanne: The most important message I have for any child with a large birthmark or a handicap is “Believe in yourself.” It can really hurt when you’re the victim of teasing or bullying by mean children. I wish I could give you a secret method for changing meanness and cruelty into love and understanding, but unfortunately there are always going to mean children and adults. We each need to carry on and hold our heads high despite all of this. What these hurtful people think of you really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you like who you is inside.
Many children with disabilities have found a way to rise above the meanness and teasing, and you can do it too. Don’t be afraid to dream big! Work hard. You will be amazed at what you can achieve. Do what makes you happy. I promise you that if you are happy and feel good, you will excel in life. Be proud of “you.” If you find yourself worrying about the fact that you’re not perfect, just remember that there are no perfect people. Despite what you might think, very few people have “perfect” lives. I encourage young people to focus on building good relationships with other children who are thoughtful and caring about others. I made it a point to stay away from relationships and situations that made me feel stupid or ugly or inadequate. Nurturing, loving, giving relationships made me feel that I am perfect just the way I am.
3. They say that true beauty is found underneath the skin. However, you know better than most. Did your surgery fundamentally change how you perceived yourself, and your self-confidence?
Susanne: After my first treatment session of laser surgery treatments ended 1989. I felt very different. This was a turning point in my life. I realized at that moment that I needed to change the way I perceived myself.
To help remind myself of my value, I listed positive statements about myself on a piece of paper. I would pull out the piece of paper with my list and kept reading the list over and over again.
I am not stupid
I am not ugly
There is nothing wrong with me.
I’m a great mother.
I’m a nice person.
I can have a very successful career.
Slowly, I started believing the statements to be true. Like magic, I began to develop self-esteem and started to become more confident.
I realized that if I felt good about myself, then my children would learn how to develop self-esteem too. It was time for me to be a role model, and lead by example. I had to do it for myself and for them.
From birth, I knew there was no way I was ever going to look good. I knew I’d never have to prepare my acceptance speech for any beauty contests! There was no doubt in my mind about that. The stain was on my face, but it felt like it was also inside me. My Grandpa Goldstein kept telling me that I was just like the ugly duckling in the nursery rhyme. Some day, he said, I would turn into a beautiful swan. I tried hard to believe this, but knew that I was never ever going to be beautiful.
Because of the advancement in the technology of laser surgery, and my amazing doctors – Dr. Leonard Bernstein and Dr. Roy Gernamus — there is now almost no trace whatsoever of the port wine stain birthmark that once covered half my face. Grandpa Goldstein was right. It’s a miracle!
Life recently threw me one more unexpected “curve ball.” My husband Sidney passed away last year, so I now have no choice but to once again re-create my life. These days, I enjoy jumping out of bed in the morning and taking my dog Monty for his morning walk. No make-up. Imagine that! These days, I’m also keeping very active – playing tennis, biking, doing bikram yoga and swimming too. And when I’m not involved in physical activities like that, I’m taking it slow and appreciating this very special time in my life.