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Putting Better Face Forward Eases Her Road Back

December 14, 1987|CARLA RIVERA | Times Staff Writer

Like a script from a daytime soap opera, the scene faded on Catherine Mary Williams eight months ago, as she lay in an Irvine hospital room awaiting an operation that would change her face and, she hoped, her life.

Nearly a dozen years earlier, a car had hit her and dragged her along 1,500 feet of asphalt and railroad tracks. The accident had disfigured her face and nearly destroyed her life.

Self-pitying and self-conscious, she began a life of drugs and anonymous sex to pay for her habit.

Then, at age 30, Williams was confronted by a judge who seemed to believe the automobile accident and her subsequent life style were deeply entwined.

Instead of a jail sentence or probation for her conviction on drug-abuse charges from the previous year, North Municipal Court Judge Arthur D. Guy Jr. asked, would she consider undergoing surgery to repair her damaged face?

A UC Irvine plastic surgeon, the same who had attended Williams after the accident years before, offered his services free, although Medicare later paid.

"I don't expect a miracle," Williams said the day before the operation, "but I do have high hopes."

Today, after the wounds from the first operation have healed, the results are neither miraculous nor disappointing.

Williams can see a physical difference since the operation and says she feels "a little better about myself." Her brown hair, which wouldn't grow in some places after the accident, is now a source of pride, reaching her shoulders. And she has been experimenting with makeup.

The operations have not ended; her doctor has scheduled another for next month to repair the right side of her face, which still droops somewhat. Another physician is constructing an ear to replace the left one that was destroyed in the accident.

But it has been hard to change old habits and she still struggles to come to terms with herself, she said.

In May, a month after the operation, Williams' suffered a major relapse. She dropped out of the Hope House drug rehabilitation program, in part, she said, to escape the attention focused on her.

"I felt overwhelmed by the publicity and lost sight of why I was doing things," she said. "I felt like I wasn't there for me but for everybody else--the doctor and judge and all the people who sent letters. I felt I had to live up to people's expectations."

After what Williams says was nearly nine months off drugs, she returned to the streets. But it was not for long. Her abuse of cocaine caused a kidney ailment that put her in a Buena Park hospital for 16 days. She says now it was a reprieve.

"Sure, I feel like somebody was trying to tell me something," she said. "I was so caught up in my appearance. Then, when I was in the hospital, I felt like I let everybody down. I'm still trying to deal with the resentment that built up when I thought that nobody cared. I'm beginning to realize that what matters is that I care."

Because of her love for animals, Williams, who grew up in Buena Park, once dreamed of being a veterinarian's assistant. She now wants to work in the medical field, and has applied for financial assistance to attend a community college.

But the road back will not easy, she said. After spending a few weeks at Straight Ahead, another rehabilitation program, she recently left and has been living with her family in Anaheim.

"I have to deal with one little thing at a time and accept that. But I know I want to take advantage of things in life. I have more ambition now; I realize I've been given an opportunity."

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