When it comes to watching TV, I’m more a fan of US dramas than reality shows and Channel 4 ‘documentaries’ (as anyone who has read my blog will know), so Katie: My Beautiful Friends isn’t normally the kind of thing that would appeal to me. However, I’ve found it really affecting to watch and it’s made me think a lot about myself and an aspect of my life that I don’t think about very often.
For those who haven’t heard of her, Katie Piper is a former model whose life was changed forever when an ‘associate’ of her ex-boyfriend threw acid into her face three years ago. Since then she’s been having surgery after surgery to try and rebuild her face, and has become a high profile campaigner for people who have suffered burns and facial disfigurements. My Beautiful Friends has been a series all about this, meeting other people who, for various reasons, don’t look like ‘everyone else’.
My own story is a lot less dramatic than hers and a lot less sad than theirs. I was born with a cleft lip and palate, a condition that is not particularly rare (I share it with such luminaries as Doc Holliday, Richard Hawley and Tutankhamen) and, luckily for me, is something that can be repaired nowadays. Basically, when I was born, neither the roof of my mouth or my top lip were fused together, and it took a lot of operations when I was very young to fix it, then several operations over the next 18 years to refine it as I grew up.
30 years on from being born with this deformity, I don’t really think about it very often and I certainly don’t feel like a deformed person anymore, even though the scars on my lip are still easily to see. But watching My Beautiful Friends has made me reflect on a few lasting effects, mainly a lack of self confidence and self esteem, not to the extent that I’m scared to go out in public, but it is something that I know holds me back at times.
I had a very happy childhood, regardless of the operations, and the only time I came close to being bullied because of the way I looked, when I was about 8 (a couple of lads from the year above called me Flat Nose a few times), was very swiftly brought to an end by my mum and my teachers. But still, looking slightly different and having (mild) issues with speech does take its toll on your confidence when you’re young, and I can’t imagine how hard it must be for people with the kind of much more visible deformities shown in Katie’s TV show.
‘Taking ownership’ is a horrible phrase that sounds like something people do on their ‘journeys’ in reality TV shows and on Jeremy Kyle. However, watching My Beautiful Friends has, in a way, made me ‘take ownership’ (shudder) of having been born with a cleft lip and palate. I’ve joined and started monthly donations to CLAPA and Operation Smile and am even thinking of doing some voluntary work for them, even though the thought of public speaking and meeting new people normally makes me want to run away.
The irony of that is that my current job is working as Communications Officer for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, a role that involves lots of things that don’t come naturally for someone with confidence issues, so hopefully that’s an indication of how little I’ve been affected by the condition I was born with. I don’t think I’ve ever felt sorry for myself, and I guess that’s something to feel grateful for, as well as having been through the worst of it when I was too young to know what was going on, unlike Katie and her Friends, some of whom are still going through horrendous procedures.
To bring this to a close, there are lots of things that I feel thankful for when I think about my cleft lip and palate. For my parents, who made sure I grew up a ‘normal’ and happy person who very rarely even thinks about what makes me different from other people. For Mr Thompson and everyone else at Withington Hospital who did such amazing work fixing my face from the moment I was born until I was a fully-grown man. For my wife Gem who makes me feel special and handsome. For my other family, friends, colleagues and everyone who’s just treated me like James. For Lindsey, my boss at work, who hired me and fills me with confidence to do the things that I’d otherwise lack the confidence to do. And, mostly, for all of it, because everything that’s happened to me has made me who I am and given me the life I have now and I wouldn’t change any of it.
- Operation Smile, Surgeries Free of Cost to Children with Cleft Lip (chennaifocus.wordpress.com)