For some reason, I didn't think getting Botox would hurt.
But I soon discovered that having a needle jabbed repeatedly into your forehead and around your eyes feels a lot like being stung by a swarm of wasps.
"If you can't stand a little pain, you need to learn to age with dignity," joked plastic surgeon Michael Niccole of Newport Beach.
In Southern California, people who age with dignity are as rare as summer rain, a fact that has made the Southland the de facto Botox capital of the world. And on a recent morning, in Niccole's offices just yards from the yachts bobbing in Newport Harbor, I joined the swelling ranks of Botox users.
In 2006, doctors nationwide performed more than 4.1 million Botox procedures, the top cosmetic fix for folks with wrinkles, according to industry statistics. Of those patients, about 90% were women.
At 46, I had earned enough wrinkles to give the viability of Botox a fair test. Before getting started, Niccole told me how it works. A Botox injection contains the botulinum toxin, which when found in food causes botulism poisoning that paralyzes the digestive tract for months.
Botox harnesses the upside of this paralyzing agent by injecting it into facial muscles, causing them to relax and making wrinkles decrease or disappear.
Patients who like the results must get follow-up treatments, usually every four to six months, to keep the muscles paralyzed. The cost is in the neighborhood of $300 per 1 cc (cubic centimeter) injection, with treatments usually needing 2 ccs or less.
Before he stuck the needle in me (repeatedly), Niccole studied my creased face and concluded with a smile, "You should have come in years earlier."
If my wrinkles got treated with Botox as soon as they appeared, he said, the results would have been better and follow-up treatments less frequent. Unfortunately, I'd arrived at his office 10 years too late.
I'm a father of four boys, have been married 19 years, have a deadline-heavy job and have spent too many days in the sun. My forehead had three deep wrinkles running its width -- and more when I raised my eyebrows. I also had a nice collection of laugh lines around my eyes.
Niccole said he could pretty much eliminate the wrinkles around my eyes, but that the muscles in my forehead were "very powerful" and would take a couple of treatments to completely eliminate the lines. Still, he said the "deep furrows" would be lessened quite a bit with the first treatment.
The procedure itself is mercifully short. It took less than five minutes. The amount of pain surprised me, but subsided with the final injection. Afterward I went straight to work, and no one noticed anything unusual about my face.
Niccole warned me that it would take several days to see the full effect. He was right. A week later, the wrinkles around my eyes had been reduced to faint lines. The furrows on my brow also showed marked improvement and I guess that one more treatment will make my forehead as smooth as a baby's bottom.
My wife thought I looked years younger. My friends who didn't know about the procedure remarked about how "rested" I looked. My facial muscles didn't feel any different, and I didn't lose any expressions because Niccole won't paralyze the entire muscle.
I just had fewer wrinkles.
It's tough to admit this, but I'm in love with the results. I never gave my wrinkles much thought before. But with a lot of them gone, I can now see how much they had aged me. Yeah, I know that shouldn't matter, especially to a manly man such as myself, but I'm not as evolved as I thought. You probably aren't either. Imagine: For the price of a few minutes of pain and a few hundred dollars, you can look 10 years younger.
It's a temptation I've never had to wrestle with before. But after becoming a Botox patient in the name of journalism, I'm now confronted with this dilemma: Do I concede to looking a decade or so older as the procedure wears off over the next few months or do I get another Botox fix?
The answer: Some matters are between a plastic surgeon and his patient.
Next Tuesday: William Lobdell delivers a sermon as a guest pastor at a Unitarian-Universalist church.