If all goes well, by Christmas Eve my 6 1/2 month journey with my bridge should finally come to a close. I have lost count of how many times I found myself in a dentist chair in 2009. Strangely, though, I don’t know if I will smile any more or less easily when it’s all said and done and teeth #8-12 are finally replaced and permanently cemented in place. I could not have said that a year ago. In tandem with my quest for dental wholeness has been a huge increase in personal confidence, a sense of calling, passion, and direction I have not felt in many, many years. For most of my life, my cleft and the feelings surrounding it have been an extremely sensitive area.
A little education if you please. I was born with a craniofacial birth defect called cleft lip and palate. The pictures I am sharing are of me, with multiple corrective surgeries beginning in my first year of life and, dental work excluded, continuing through about my freshman year in high school. I have a relatively mild cleft compared to pictures I have seen of kids in developing countries. (Do a Google Image search for “cleft lip and palate” but beware that some of the pictures you’ll see are pretty graphic.)
Throughout preschool and elementary school, I was teased by kids acting out of their ignorance. Being addressed as “hey, Crooked Nose” and “hi, Ugly” as if it were my first name is not helpful to a young heart. In middle school I once had a girl at a school dance bluntly ask me not to stand so close to her. Admittedly, I was quite the nerd and may have been wearing parachute pants, but I can’t help but assume that my cleft played at least a part in her reaction. By high school I had completed all the surgeries, leaving me with scars on and around my lip as well as my ribs where bone marrow was removed to graft in and support the structure of my upper jaw. It was also in high school that I really started to blossom as a singer and Thespian (pronounced with a hard S and P sound, thank you very much – rhymes with ESPN). But looking back, I wonder if I developed a theatrical persona for myself to keep the hurt hidden away.
2009 has been a time of intense personal growth for me. A large part of that has been some counseling, ostensibly to help develop a sense of direction for my career. What I quickly discovered, though, was that I have been holding onto emotions related to the physical and emotional trauma of living with a cleft for decades. When I was able to release the pain of these experiences and trust God to continue to heal me, it was like a switch got flipped in my soul. No longer do I need to listen to voices, from within and without, that call me a freak, a monster. You’d never have guessed it, but I heard them an awful lot.
I also have been able to forgive the many who have carelessly called me hurtful things and treated me unfairly. When a student asks me at school or youth group how I got my scar or “what’s wrong with your lip?” I no longer automatically duck the question. God’s timing was perfect as, just when I was confronting these things in counseling, I had chances to deal with them this summer on the mission trip and at camp. A conversation with a youth leader from another church on the mission trip turned suddenly to my dental work and the reasons for it. I was able to confidently carry myself instead of changing the topic. At camp, a camper in my cabin asked why I didn’t use the straw in my Camelbak, but instead tipped the bottle up to get water out. When I explained that I have a cleft palate and lip, he reacted in surprise, but not what I had expected. Turns out his mom does too! How incredibly good of God to allow my life experiences to cause me to grow. I am thankful for that.
For more information about cleft lip and palate, see the website for the Cleft Palate Foundation. If you have room in your heart (and budget) for another donation during the holidays or at any time, please check out the Smile Train. For $250, you can provide a life-changing surgery to repair a condition that would otherwise relegate a child in a developing country to a lifetime of not being able to speak or eat properly, being unlikely to attend school or hold a job, and enduring shame, isolation, heartache, and poverty. Smaller amounts can provide support services such as sutures or medications.
If I’ve bared my soul too much today, forgive me. This has needed to be said for a long time.