What It’s Like to Break Your Face Like Carrie Underwood

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Carrie Underwood performs at the ACM Awards. Photo: Michele Crowe/CBS via Getty Images

“It’s not that bad!” my husband says when I emerge groggy from the surgery I’ve just had to fix my broken face.

“It’s not that bad!” my friends and family say the next morning when I text them a glamour shot of my bruised and Frankenstein-stitched eye, the pre-op X my surgeon drew still visible on my skin.

It could have been worse, yes. But breaking your face is definitely bad. Carrie Underwood knows. She fell outside her home in Nashville this past November, breaking her wrist and sustaining a facial injury that required, as she explained in a letter to her fans, “40 to 50 stitches.” The experience left her so shaken that she kept her face off social media all winter long, only posting a full selfie this Saturday in advance of a big reveal at Sunday night’s Academy of Country Music Awards. Observers seem to agree that she basically looks the same — but I can bet she feels different, because I’ve been there.

***

Left: The author before her accident. Right: The author five days after.

One second I’m running down Broadway on a sunny June afternoon listening to Esther Perel in my ear buds. The next I’m crashing face-first into the sidewalk. Bouncing slightly and face-planting again.

I spring to my feet ready to shout “I’m OK!” to all the onlookers. But there aren’t any. Drivers go by. I’m alone in my upstate town, where I had recently moved after 14 years in New York City.

I crumble back to the sidewalk and cry. The right side of my face is throbbing — except for my mouth, which is numb. I feel my face for blood, scan the sidewalk for teeth. No signs of concussion — but would I even recognize them, being concussed and all?

Eventually I make my way to a new friend’s house around the corner to get ice and a ride home.

She takes a look at my face. “It’s not that bad!”

***

She’s right: Just some swelling around my eye, a brush burn on my cheek. But I still can’t feel my teeth and something else just seems … off. “Flatness of the cheek,” my husband, Mike, says, reading the signs of facial fractures he Googled. Yup.

X-rays at urgent care show a probable tripod fracture of the zygomatic arch. Translation: A cheekbone broken in three spots. But the fractures are “nondisplaced.” “You don’t need surgery,” says the physician assistant, who sends me home with an ice pack and instructions to follow up with my general practitioner, whom I haven’t gotten around to finding in my new town.

I call a dozen and can’t get in anywhere until September — three months away. Where the fuck am I living? Why did I leave my One Medical membership? I text my X-ray report to my best friend, a pediatrician, and she tells me to get my broken-ass face to a dentist (the whole not-being-able-to-feel-my-teeth thing) and an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist (because one of the fractures was near a sinus). I call an ENT, who takes a quick glance at my X-rays and says I need to see a plastic surgeon. ASAP.

***

I’m averagely attractive and averagely vain. After the cystic acne/Accutane years of my teens and 20s, when my skin (mostly) cleared up, I stopped worrying about my face all the time. Most days now, at 39, I don’t wear makeup, or even blow-dry my hair. But I’ve been thinking about my face more lately. After examining the perceived forehead flaws of a friend who was about to get Botox, I’ve been hung up on my own. Especially the deep vertical crease between my brows that makes me look angry when I’m just reading. Then the day before my fall I happened to see the Cut story with stark cosmetic surgery recovery photos. Thank god I’ll never do that, I thought. The Botox, though…

But now I’ve fallen on my face and I’m scrambling to find a plastic surgeon. When I do — in a bigger city, 40 minutes away — she orders a CT scan, which reveals at least one of the fractures is in fact displaced and tells me I could have surgery, which will probably improve it, or let it heal on its own, possibly leaving the dent in my cheek … or maybe not, it’s hard to say.

The idea of having work done on my face feels self-indulgent. Shouldn’t I be zen, self-accepting? Still, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life looking maybe a little busted. And if I don’t do it now, the only future remedy will be getting filler injections every however-many-months, ad infinitum. I decide to do it.

It’s a good decision. My surgeon tells me that once she got into my cheek — through incisions under my eye, along the corner of my eyebrow and inside of my mouth — it was worse than expected. The part of the bone above my mouth was so shattered she couldn’t repair it. But she was able to put a plate under my eye to fix the fracture that was causing the dent in my cheek.

***

It’s a minor surgery but I’m more incapacitated than I anticipated. I eat a soft food diet because I can’t chew yet — it may be months before I can feel my teeth again. I lie on the couch with a bag of frozen peas on my face until it starts to warm and smell putrid, then I get a fresh one. Thanks to anesthesia, pain meds, and antibiotics, I don’t poop for five days and when I finally do I legit think I might pass out from the pain, which is worse than anything I experienced having my son. I barely leave the house for a week, but eventually I have to.

***

Left: The author immediately after surgery. Right: In makeup for a TV appearance a few weeks later.

It’s hard to be a person out in the world and hide a face injury — even more so post-surgery. I wear hats and sunglasses and self-consciously start every conversation with “I broke my face running!” (I’m paranoid that people think I’m a victim of domestic violence, and then slightly disturbed when no one ever does.) With my marred face so obviously on display, I feel exposed — and, at the same time, invisible, because whatever currency my looks once held is gone. On the upside, the angry line between my brows has all but disappeared — a benefit of not being able to move half my face, I guess.

***

Due to a weird set of life circumstances and bad timing, I have to be filmed for a TV thing for my husband’s business. It’s just two and half weeks post-surgery — when my surgeon had said the swelling and bruising would be gone and I’d be camera-ready. It’s not; I’m not. My right eye looks bigger than the left and it doesn’t blink as often. I can’t smile fully and when I try it hurts. All my insecurities will be in high-def.

“It’s not that bad!” the producers tell me. Which is mostly true … in the right light … from the right angle … thanks to a shit-ton of pro makeup and Kardashian-level contouring.

“I broke my face running!” I remind everyone before the show airs.

***

I’m 40 now and it’s been ten months since the accident. My right eye tears more easily in the wind when I’m running, but the whisper-thin scars around it are barely noticeable. The angry line between my brows is back — welcome evidence that I can squint and wink, smile and laugh again.

I’d love to say “It’s not that bad!” and fake deep self-acceptance and infinite gratitude. But the recent proliferation of various AHA, BHA, and PHA acids and ceramide, niacinamide, and tretinoin creams in my medicine cabinet suggests otherwise. I think about my face more now. It’s hard not to after it’s been such an acute concern for nearly a year.

The emotional scars take longer to heal. The world seems like a more dangerous place, and not just because of current events. I walk around with the knowledge that a simple stub of my sneaker can send me careening. Yet I know I’m resilient — and a little wiser, I hope — too. On just about every (podcast-free) run, I spot some obstacle ahead and have a flash of falling, but I put my hands out before I hit the ground.

What It’s Like to Break Your Face Like Carrie Underwood