“Steve” reads this column in Arkansas. He had an upbringing that left deep emotional scars because of being born with cleft lip and cleft palate, which came about when his lip and mouth didn’t form properly before his birth.
“Early on, I didn’t know I had cleft palate and lip or that there was something different about me,” said 59-year-old Steve. “I had a normal life until high school, and that’s when my troubles began. People started teasing my appearance. They called me “bunny” and “rabbit” because I looked like a rabbit to them. The cleft lip exposed my teeth.”
Following a recommendation from his father, Steve tried stuffing his feelings, but that only heightened his emotional pain. Eventually, school personnel referred him to a psychologist, which didn’t help. Kids bullied him.
He said, “I really didn’t have many friends. I was shy and too introverted to reach out. I kind of isolated myself from everyone. Except for band, I never felt like I fit into any group. At one point I lashed out at the people teasing me, but that only egged them on.”
Cleft palate affected his eating to the extent he couldn’t chew with his mouth closed. He couldn’t breath through his nose. (He still can’t.) At age 18, he had a corrective operation, which somewhat improved his confidence in social situations. Before the operation, he was using a denture fitted with a false tooth to hide the cleft. Afterward, a dentist would permanently attach a false tooth directly into his jawbone at the cleft.
Though gaining self-confidence socially, he still would carry a number of emotional scars with him throughout life. For example, at 59, Steve fights mental illness and still cringes when walking by groups of laughing teenagers because he thinks they’re laughing at him.
Only two of his high school classmates over the years ever apologized. Steve said, “One was a girl who apologized in the graduation line at high school. I was putting away my trombone and she came up to give me a hug and say she was sorry everyone had given me a hard time. It was a heartfelt apology. The other was a guy who had teased me quite a lot. He said he was sorry during our last high school reunion that he had given me such a hard time in science class.”