Throughout my treatment, there were so many 'encouraging' sayings that they now seem clichéd to me. Ultimately, when you’re having a bad day it can be difficult to turn yourself around and believe what people tell you, particularly when you’ve "heard it all before". In that moment, no words of positivity can be true.
However, whilst it's hard to hear the same things again and again, these clichés are usually true.
‘‘It’s what’s inside that counts’’
This is such an important one. When you’re living with a cleft, you truly understand that whilst people shouldn’t ‘judge a book by its cover’, they often do. Although you know that those who are shallow enough to disregard someone based on looks isn’t worth your time anyway, it can still hurt to feel judged before you’ve even said a word.
Over time, you will learn from your experiences that ultimately it is what’s inside that counts. Recognising this means your life is likely to be full of more genuine people - they have not judged you and you have not judged them based on appearance. Katie McLaughlin, from online cleft community, Cleft Corner, has described this effect as her 'cleft filter' - whereby our visual differences stop shallow people entering our lives and stop us from being shallow in return.
"we can turn this cliché on its head"
I have another theory that as self-acceptance, self-esteem and confidence grows, we can turn this cliché on its head and say that what's on the outside counts as well! We are not just our thoughts and feelings. A massive part of the struggle with a cleft is to do with the relationship between our minds and sense of identity, balancing on our physical appearance. Saying "it's what's inside that counts" is fundamentally true, since your character is more important than the way you look, but our looks are still part of us. Rather than ignoring them with this statement, I believe we should embrace the way we look and be proud of it - love yourself inside and out!
‘‘Who cares what other people think?’’
‘‘I do!’’ I would cry to my mum whilst she'd try to comfort me. It is part of human nature to be curious and to want to understand why someone looks different, but stares, questions and comments can make others feel incredibly self-conscious and isolated.
Although it’s difficult, as a cleft patient, it is important to question how much you should really care what others think. They are either shallow if they judge you – in which case they aren’t worth thinking about. Or, they accept you for you – in which case they are worth getting to know in return.
"this level of acceptance can take awhile to build"
Having said this, I completely appreciate that this level of acceptance can take awhile to build. It can be frustrating to accept that some people may judge our differences and fail to recognise the person underneath. This is, on the 'face of it', simply an unfair extra challenge that those with facial differences may encounter.
However, it's worth remembering that it's hard-wired into everyone to care about others' opinions. The truth is, no one spends much time actually thinking about other people. When we think of them, it's usually to worry about how we are perceived ourselves, not to pass judgements. The people who spend time thinking about you are the ones who know you beyond your cleft. They know what you’ve been through and how strong you are, which is a good thing to care about.
‘‘It will be worth the wait’’
I struggled a lot with my self-esteem because of my cleft. I strongly felt that reconstructive surgery for my nose would help me overcome my internal struggles. However, I had to wait until I was fully grown to have this surgery. There is a lot of sense in this, since it avoids multiple operations to keep up with you as you grow (and your face develops). This ultimately reduces the amount of post-operative scar tissue and time spent in hospitals.
"try telling that to a fifteen year-old...again and again and again"
However, try telling that to a fifteen year-old...again and again and again. It's not that I didn't understand the logic behind waiting, but it's painful knowing that you simply have to wait and that you can't proactively do something to help your situation. Although on the outside I didn’t let my cleft hold me back, internally I knew that it was a major hurdle that I battled with for years. On my ‘down days’ I would wish the whole process would just hurry up and finish, I didn’t want to hear it would be worth my patience, I just wanted to stop feeling isolated.
Now, having had my surgery, I can firstly say it is worth the wait. Not having to have the same operations every other year as my face grew meant that I didn't have to spend weeks in hospital through my GCSEs or A-Levels (and could deal with the disruption more flexibly at uni), and that I have less scars on my body (I've still got plenty to show off!).
"it is worth the journey to grow into a more resilient, empathetic person"