'How I lost my confidence when I lost my face'

Tammy Image copyright Channel 4

When Tammy Saunders lost part of her face her confidence died. But getting back into the world of dating has helped her re-find her self-confidence, she writes.

I don't think there is anyone who could honestly say that they are 100% confident.

We all have those aspects of our appearance, personality or abilities that cause self-doubt at one time or another. The teenage years are often the worst and my teens were an uphill struggle against bad skin, frizzy hair and body woes. The beauty and charisma of childhood were gradually chipped away. By my mid-teens I was so self-conscious that I would try my hardest to avoid any activity that might involve people looking at me.

My mum could see that I was having issues with self-esteem and decided to do something about it. Not being a fan of the softly-softly approach she made me apply for a job in a local restaurant. I was terrified at the mere thought of it and even more horrified when I was given a job as a waitress. There is a method of teaching babies to swim where the parent simply plops the infant into the water and lets it get on with it. I was like one of those babies and I got on with it just as well.

Image caption Tammy before her illness

Within months I had blossomed into one of the best members of staff they had. I still hated the way I looked but it wasn't the main focus anymore. I was praised and liked for my strengths.

By my 20s I had built on this and, with the addition of some foundation, mascara and lipstick, I actually felt pretty. I had a boyfriend, a home, a career and for the first time in years I was fairly happy with my looks and life in general. However, at the age of 32 my looks and my life changed forever.

Christmas of 2013 was much like any other, going to my mum's to spend the holiday with family. I had planned a trip to London on the 27th to see my sister and her family but I woke up that day feeling lousy, so postponed until the next day. But by the next day I was in the intensive care unit of my local hospital.

What I had assumed was a hangover got progressively worse until I could barely get out of bed and even a sip of water made me vomit. I passed it off as a nasty sickness bug, convinced my brother was being dramatic with his talk of doctors.

When my legs and lips went numb I was slightly more concerned. My extremities felt cold and nothing I tried could warm them up. I went into my mum's bedroom and with one look at me she shouted for my stepdad to call an ambulance. Two hours later I was comatose in a hospital bed hooked up to drips, monitors and machines to keep me alive.

It took ten days for me to be diagnosed with meningococcal septicaemia, a strain of meningitis that causes blood poisoning. I also had disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) which is a severe version of the rash associated with meningitis. The DIC caused my blood vessels to haemorrhage and bleed under the skin, looking at first like bruising and then turning black as my circulation shut down. My extremities were the worst affected and it resulted in necrosis on my face and limbs. I lost the bottom half of my nose and almost all of my lips. The flesh on the bottom half of my legs and small areas of my arms, hands and feet had to be removed and the surviving skin on my limbs is criss-crossed with burn like scars. Tendons, muscles and nerves were also damaged so I have been left disfigured and with mobility and dexterity problems.

Image copyright Channel 4/Betty

So here I was again with a face and body that I was deeply unhappy with. I was in hospital for four months but outside of the safety of the hospital, where it seemed OK to look such a wreck and everyone knew why I did, I became very self-conscious. Before my illness I had worked hard to become a very social and active person but when I got home from hospital I would rarely leave my flat for anything other than hospital appointments.

I felt broken and pathetic. It was as if the old, independent, free-spirited Tammy had died and in her place was this person I hardly recognised. I didn't like what I saw and not just because of my appearance. When I mentioned these feelings to friends or family they were surprised. To them I was the same old Tam but with the added bonus of having fought through a terrible time with a smile on my face.

As embarrassing as it was, and still is, to hear words like "inspirational" and "powerful" I started to think to myself that all these people can't be wrong. I was still the same person inside and deserved to be happy.

That's why I applied to be on Channel 4's The Undateables - a dating programme for people with challenging conditions. I'd cheated death for goodness sake so I was pretty sure there was nothing I couldn't do.

Image copyright Channel 4/Betty

So, like the drop in the deep end that my mum had given me in my teens, I decided to make myself take a leap.

It worked. Being on the programme has given me the boost I needed. I have been reminded of my good points and was pleasantly surprised to find that everyone I met also saw those good points, not just a bad face. Coming from strangers who have no "old Tam" for backup this was uplifting and I found telling my story a cathartic process.

The date itself was the icing on the cake.

Image copyright Channel 4
Image caption Tammy meets her date for the first time

I had been a bag of nerves beforehand but within minutes of meeting him I was able to forget my appearance. He looked into my eyes, not at my scars and liked me for my personality. It finally proved that despite everything that has happened I am still an attractive person because of how I am inside.

Since filming I have been back in hospital three times and each time I have made new friends. When I was first admitted into hospital I wouldn't even see my old friends for fear of how they would react to how I looked but now I have the confidence to share a ward, to chat, laugh and cry with people I hardly know. With each person that says something lovely or stays in touch because they care about my recovery, that confidence grows.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption Tammy's appearance on The Undateables received positive reactions on Twitter

I am often told that it doesn't matter what other people think about me, but it does - especially when their thoughts validate something I already feel about myself.

I have had negative reactions. I do get stared at and whispered about and while I understand this behaviour I also know it is wrong.

Since my episode aired the level of confidence that I felt at the end of my date with Gary has increased tenfold. I had braced myself for the response, knowing that there are people out there who thrive on giving negative feedback but I needn't have bothered. While I expected friends and family to support me I also received praise from people I'd never met and endless reams of heart-warming tweets. It has confirmed to me again and again that I am a lovable person.

My journey with confidence is still a work in progress and I am thankful the majority of people want to help me on the way. I am determined to keep their focus, and mine, on the good points. I know now that confidence comes from the inside.

The second episode of The Undateables is on Monday 11 January 2016 at 21:00 GMT on Channel 4.

Produced by Kathleen Hawkins

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