Being made to feel ‘different’ is not an expected part of being born with a cleft lip and palate, but it is certainly not unusual. People are usually just curious (and who can blame them), but curiosity cannot always be kind.
‘Difference’ is a concept that isn’t always celebrated – particularly among school children. Whilst I am very fortunate to have never been bullied, there have been experiences in connection with my cleft that have stayed with me from the moment they happened. I would often worry about what others thought of me and was anxious that my differences would hold me back. So, when the occasional hurtful reminder of my cleft came along, it was something I felt powerless to fight. My low self-esteem would often give me little empowerment against these hurtful comments, and they would only feed my anxiety.
As small as some of these instances may seem, they fed my darkest fear: that I would be judged on something I couldn’t help, and that I would be isolated from ‘normality’. Hurting someone in a place of themselves where they feel vulnerable and defenceless is the ugliest trait a person can have. I know these people were often (innocently) ignorant, but I hope these memories show how even something small, when based on your biggest insecurity, can become a much bigger problem. But also that, with patience and understanding, these people merely need to be educated in how they can offend someone and how they can be more considerate in the future.
A simple question
I remember being in Year 5, at a new school and a girl asking me why my nose looked weird. Although she did nothing wrong, it made me feel ‘different’, since this was probably one of the first times I’d been made to feel self-conscious about my appearance. At nine years old, I was just starting to become more aware of my cleft and was totally unprepared for the question (so I ended up saying there was nothing wrong with my nose and running away). Although at the time it hurt me, it also taught me that people don’t always know how to ask, and that in the future (although it might make me self-conscious to be asked about my cleft), I would know that educating someone is far better than leaving them ignorant.
I remember in Year 6 being in a que to speak to the receptionist at the school office. There was a boy in my year ahead of me who was whispering to his friend. As the pair turned to walk past me, I overheard him say ‘I don’t know, think she was in a car crash or something’. This made me laugh. It was so great to have this reaction, yet I quickly felt humiliated and isolated. I have since wished I’d stopped him and explained exactly why I looked ‘different’, which would have been the best way to deal with the situation. However, although I’d sometimes think about what I’d heard (which would make me wonder if other people thought the same thing), I would also use the memory of my reaction to empower myself: 9.9 times out of 10 people aren’t being purposefully inconsiderate, they merely don’t know how to ask about difference or are ignorant about the struggles of cleft patients. This is a positive to remember – and why I think I laughed. I knew he wasn’t being cruel (although he made me self-conscious), instead he was just ignorant (which I thought was funny), and that’s all there was to it.
‘What the hell is wrong with your nose!?’
I had just moved to my new upper school, and, due to the way our classes were organised, it meant I was put in completely different lesson groups to my friends from my old school. Joining a new school can be tough on anyone, but I was determined to make the best of it and use the opportunity to make some different friends and branch out.
However, during my first term, whilst waiting outside a classroom, my confidence was shattered and I was made to feel incredibly isolated. As I’ve said, the girls who would previously have known about my insecurities were split up from me so I was already feeling a little lonely. So when waiting amongst a large group of other thirteen year olds, a girl who I had never met before stormed up to me, shouted in my face ‘WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOUR NOSE?!’ and ran into another classroom laughing her head off with the rest of her friends. I felt so embarrassed and ashamed – I was left standing alone as the other teenagers just stared. They were my fellow classmates who hadn’t been able to get to know the real me yet, and I feared now would never want to.
This incident really upset me and made me feel so isolated. Unlike most people, I was unable to hide my biggest insecurity because it was right there, as part of my face, for everyone to see. The doubt and upset she caused me has haunted me for years since. Although seemingly small (and I understand that compared to other forms of ‘bullying’ this looks like a pat on the back), for me, this incident realised my worst fears – that I would be judged and ridiculed for my looks alone – something I had no control over. Her outburst made me question what pretty much anyone else had said to me that spoke positively about my appearance – I believed they were just being kind, and she was the only one ‘mean’ enough to be truthful.
The fact I was in the process of trying to make new friends just made the public outburst hurt that much more. To the extent it took two months before I finally told my brother about what had happened. I was so scared about the truth behind her malice that it made me feel weak – with the worse part being that I agreed with her – what the hell was wrong with my nose? In a short answer – nothing. Yes, it may not have been ‘perfect’ or how it ‘should have been’, but the fact her words were able to cut so deep unearthed a number of insecurities that I have spent years dealing with and overcoming.
The biggest step I took in overcoming her (and my advice to anyone dealing with a bully) was to feel sorry for her. She would always be ignorant to the fact that the best people don’t always come in the package you expect. Her world will remain shallow and mean-spirited, whilst mine is rooted in support and kindness. I can now look back and be thankful – the friends I made after this knew how to support me and show me the kindness that she will never understand. They weren’t fussed that being friends with me meant understanding a few complicated medical procedures. They were happy to learn and be there for me. Sadly she will never understand this sort of friendship, let alone be lucky enough to have friends as strong as mine.
In my constant effort to overcome my low self-esteem, anxiety over my looks and the way I sound, I was always outspoken at school. I’ve always wanted to achieve in school, but I feel even more so because of my cleft. However, after the release of ‘Avatar’ in 2009, a group of students in one of my classes kept discussing it and would say ‘Avatar’ pretty much any time I would give an answer. Without noticing, I became quieter and quieter during my lessons. That was until my teacher asked me if everything was okay, and that I hadn’t been behaving like my usual self. Her concern took me by surprise, since I hadn’t realised I’d stopped answering questions and speaking up. I went home and thought about what she’d said, and soon thought the only thing I’d noticed was what my classmates had been saying. I was annoyed that I had let myself be influenced by their childishness. I also felt supported and almost happy that I had a teacher who expected me to be confident and cared when I seemed down. In my usual determination to not let my cleft hold me back, I made a conscious effort to start speaking up in class again. Although self-conscious, I felt empowered that I was actively showing my classmates that I was confident in myself. The comments soon stopped, and, although I couldn’t confront them since their comments were so indirect, I knew I’d shown them that they couldn’t silence me because of my difference.
Behind my back
In the playground of my upper school, a younger student had shouted some ‘normal’ insult at me and my friends for shouting at him about kicking his football near our heads – usual playground behaviour. However, as I turned to walk away, he pressed his thumb down on his nose – blatantly making fun of cleft. Although I didn’t see this, my friends did. They immediately asked me if I was okay. At first this confused me since I thought he’d been insulting us all, so I wasn’t very bothered. As one went to go and report him, my confusion escalated until another of my friends told me what he had done. My emotions were mixed – it really upset me that he’d chosen to ridicule my biggest insecurity, yet having my friends react so protectively filled me with confidence that he would never have friends that would be so caring. Their support made a horrible, potentially isolating situation into a positive, supportive one, that knocked down a bully and made me feel unique – not because of the reminder that my nose was different, but because it reminded me that I was lucky to have friends that I could turn to and who would have my back when it counted.
From having these experiences, I can see now that I am stronger for carrying on regardless. I feel so proud that, although they hurt me, I can see through their bitterness and be thankful that I would never make similar judgments. They have also taught me the power of words, and more importantly the need to use them for encouragement, empowerment and positivity. Although I have been made to feel different, I am so grateful that these incidences have highlighted the true differences that having a cleft has given to me: loving friends and family, determination and compassion.