At first, being born with a cleft lip and palate can feel like a curse. Growing up, I faced bullies and enormous self-esteem issues. I saw my cleft not as a beautiful part of my identity, but as the absolute total of my personage. I felt so lonely as a child, assuming that I was alone on this journey of life with a facial condition. I was the only person in my school with any sort of visible irregularity, so of course, I was an easy target for other kids to tease and poke fun at. Amidst being called names like “nose-freak” or “no-lip” (it was middle school, the bullies weren’t very creative) I did find my niche in a group of other social outcasts, and we made our way through the best we could. The biggest issue present and the only minor animosity I still hold from my childhood was the steps the school’s institution took to help. Their idea of making the situation better involved pulling me out of class to meet with the counselor to see how I was feeling and how my day was going. Perhaps things would have been better if they had instead directed their efforts towards the children that were inflicting pain, rather than the children receiving it. Through it all, my parents fought for me in meetings with teachers, principals, and counselors. Eventually, they had enough and switched me to a smaller school in seventh grade. I felt much more comfortable in my class of thirty than my previous class of one-hundred plus students. Even though the bullying had stopped, I was getting older and was still quite uncomfortable with my image as a whole. I still saw my cleft as a negative defining factor in my identity, regardless of the number of times my parents told me I was perfect just the way I was.
Fast-forward to high school and my insecurities only grew. High school is tough enough for some kids with puberty and some developing faster than others. Being a late bloomer, and my cleft lip and palate to boot, it was a recipe for low self-esteem and a poor self-image. I still felt alone in the world, not knowing the vast numbers of other kids with cleft. Sure, I saw a few at my monthly doctor appointments but in my day to day life, I was alone. I felt this way until my sophomore summer when I attended a leadership conference put on by Operation Smile, an organization that performs surgeries on cleft patients in underdeveloped countries. It was here, at this conference in Ireland that I felt like people didn’t see me for my cleft. It was here for the first time that, when meeting someone new, their eyes didn’t flick to my nose or lip and instead held eye contact. That conference was only the beginning. I continued my involvement with Op Smile and found myself on a medical mission in Ethiopia the following summer. That mission trip is what I attribute my change in perspective too. I saw all the kids who were far less fortunate than I, and I dedicated myself at that moment to making life better for people with cleft lip and palate. I no longer saw my cleft lip and palate as a flaw but as a part of my identity that made me a better person.
With all my experiences in school, all my surgeries, and all my image issues, I found that the empathy I possessed was far greater than any of those negative feelings. In my late teenage years and now my early twenties, I find myself with so much love to give, and more compassion than I’ve ever felt. My cleft lip and palate is a defining characteristic, but not a negative one. I now see it as a doorway to empathy and assisting my fellow clefties and peers. I’m channeling this into my career path as well, in studying nursing to eventually become a pediatric nurse in a craniomaxillofacial department. I want to tell all those reading this with cleft lip and palate or any feature they think defines them negatively to look inward on yourself and know that you are beautiful. This one feature does not condemn you to a life of loneliness and neglect, but rather is a doorway to a community of love and acceptance that is always here to help.
Author's Email: Hishmehbrady@gmail.com