This is the text of a speech that I gave recently at the Ahwatukee Kiwanis Club in Ahwatukee, Arizona. Many thanks to all of the Kiwanians that were present and quite kind. I’m available for speaking engagements across the Phoenix area and elsewhere.
It all started after my freshman year in high school. I went to have my final reparative facial surgery done, and ironically it happened on the day that actor John Wayne died in 1979.
So I went into the operating room at a Houston, Texas hospital and had the work done. When I came out, I did not see my face in the mirror for three days. Good thing because when I did, I looked like I was in a street fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. … and I definitely lost.
Needless to say, my face was swollen from the work done around my nose and lips. I left the hospital four days after the surgery and my mom and I drove back to Beaumont, Texas, where I was raised. It is about 80-90 miles east of Houston.
Now I had to go back and visit my plastic surgeon, who was a really good man and took care of me. Upon the initial post-op visit (as I remember it), he checked me out and said everything looked pretty good … except for some additional skin around my upper lip. He suggested doing an in-office procedure that would reduce the size of my upper lip. I said “OK” and, again as I remember it, Mom and I drove back to Beaumont only to return a week later for the procedure.
I sat up in a chair and one of his assistants came in and numbed my upper lip. I could not feel anything. Before anything happened, though, the plastic surgeon did explain what was going to take place. He was going to use an electric implement to burn away this excess fatty tissue. He let me know what would happen and that there would be some stitches, which would come out later.
OK fine … and so the procedure started. Yep, it started … and I felt absolutely nothing around my upper lip. Here’s the catch, though. Nothing was done to prevent my nasal passages from picking up the scent of the procedure. In other words, I could smell my own skin being burnt off from my lip. In fact, I remember even seeing a couple of smoky wafts pass by my eyes.
I was 14 years old at the time.
Now the reason I share this story with you is not to gross you out. I share it because there were definitely some emotions and feelings rumbling around my stomach. I felt nauseated and frustrated. I know this much. Upon leaving the plastic surgeon’s office, I told my mom that I didn’t want to have any more surgical procedures done at all. She said OK and that was that.
I have not had any further procedures since then … yet that memory … and those feelings and emotions … are quite present with me in this moment as I share my story with you.
Why is this important? Because many people with facial differences, including cleft lip, cleft palate and craniofacial anomalies, have to deal with feelings and emotions on a regular basis.
Anger, fear, sadness, frustration, loneliness, happiness, joy, bliss, serenity … you name it. All of them rumble around inside the hearts and souls of children, adults and parents.
One in three children around the world are born each day with a facial difference. While there are opinions all over the place about how this happens and a few even connect a certain medication to these births, no hard-and-fast evidence has been produced to singularly say that “this” is how children are born with these facial differences.
Many organizations that are international in scope do incredible work by providing surgical procedures in foreign countries. Children and adults who never have had the pleasure of fully smiling brightly now can do so thanks to these organizations and groups.
Let me share this story from a well-known international organization called Smile Train
. I’m not affiliated with the group personally, yet I do honor the work that it does around the world:
“When Lackson Koliesa was born, his mother Joyce was devastated when she saw that he had a cleft lip. Joyce learned from an early age how kids and adults treated people who look differently and she knew the suffering that lay ahead for her sweet boy.
Joyce was from a large family, including an uncle with a cleft lip. “My uncle had a cleft lip and was called an ‘ogre’ by people in the village. When we walked down the streets kids used to scatter whenever they saw him, they all had their harrowing theories on why he had a cleft lip,” Joyce recalls.
Joyce tried as best as she could to get her son’s cleft lip fixed. But her hopes dwindled as time went on. She couldn’t afford to pay for a reparative surgery for her son and she thought Lackson was in store for the same future as her uncle.
When she learned of Smile Train and the free surgeries local Smile Train surgeons help provide, she finally found her answer. She embarked on a four-hour-long journey from her town in Solwezi to Ndola. Joyce was filled with uncertainty the entire trip, wondering if her son would receive the free surgery. When Joyce and Lackson arrived in Ndola, little Lackson was screened and cleared for surgery.
It frightened Joyce to send her baby into surgery, but when he emerged from the operating room less than an hour later, she knew she’d made the right decision. Lackson will never have to suffer the way her uncle did.”
That is quite a success story indeed.
Yet what about the emotional effects of having facial differences? What about living year after year, day after day, with people staring and looking at us like we’re some ogres from another planet, as was just mentioned in the story? It happens. Even parents whose children are, thankfully, in good health and look facially OK, seemingly will let their kids pick on or bully those who have facial differences.
It is quite hard to find safe spaces where those in the cleft and craniofacial community can healthily express their emotions. Even smiling can be a challenge … not merely because of the facial differences themselves, but there also are other health-related issues that prove difficult, too.
The reason that I speak out about the emotional aspect so much is that I believe it gets short circuited. I mean that those who feel their feelings may not be in a great place to express them openly. Consider those who live in Third World countries … even Latin America and Central America. Some cultures where children like me are born seem to be under the misguided belief that we are “Satan’s spawn” and “children of the devil.” No, it really is true. Family members will make sure that we are hidden in the back of homes or shunned when even seen in public.
Really? Tell me. Do you think that leads to healthy self-esteem, no matter what language or culture it is in?
Even here in the United States, as advanced a nation as we are in spite of our similarities and differences on many issues, people will tend to just see people like me as “less than.”
It’s baloney. It really is and I’ll tell you why.
I can smile and you can, too.
Now my smile might not be like yours, yet I can smile and you can, too.
Have you ever given yourself an opportunity to truly smile at a sunset, a sunrise, gazing upon your wife, husband or partner, your child?
When was the last time you felt your own feelings and emotions? Yours … not someone else’s?
I can smile and you can, too.
Consider the fact that there are many muscles within the human face. Our emotions can engage the face to either smile or frown. Are there exceptions? Yes, if a person has been through a stroke.
What are you feeling right now? Do you know? Are you aware enough to identify them?
This is a bit embarrassing to admit publicly, but I never really got in touch with any of my own emotions until I was nearly 40 years old. I’m 50 now.
Take time to write out what emotions kick up inside you today. There are no right or wrong answers.
In doing this little exercise, you will be able to tap into an infinite stream of emotional well-being that lies within you. The same stream that lies within every single person in this room.
Now you can call me a little nutty in my belief around the connection between emotions and feelings and how they can affect the facial difference community.
Yet there is simply no getting around it that your emotions and feelings affect YOU. They really do.
Are you going to take time to smile a little more today? Or continue to let others’ attitudes derail whatever you have planned?
Let me offer three suggestions that can help all of us smile a little more today.
1) Try a little tenderness. Just like the old Otis Redding song, it is OK to let a little tenderness in your own heart and share that with another person. There is something magical when it happens.
2) Stand in another person’s shoes. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Yet if someone is really getting your goat or upsetting you, then try standing in their spot and see what emotions stir up for you. Maybe it is not the other person who is upsetting you so much but YOU.
3) As hokey as it sounds, love can heal a lot. The emotion of love simply stands head and shoulders above hate, fear, guilt, shame and loneliness. Those in the facial difference world have dealt with these hardened emotions for a long, long time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of us — and I mean myself as well — loved a little more than trying to “beat out” that other person … our perceived enemy.
With the world of facial differences, there are people thirsty for love. Thirsty for acceptance. Thirsty for a smile.
I believe these are all possible. If you will carry inside your heart today that “I can smile and you can, too,” then observe how many people become infected — in a positive way — by your emotional state.
This is not impossible. It is quite possible … and it all simply comes from your own heart.
As I leave you today, hold on to that smiling thought.
Always remember … every minute counts … and you are loved.