David Wheeler is an adult who was born in 1966 with a unilateral cleft lip and palate. He started ‘Young CLAPA’ in 1990 to provide a forum for older teenagers with a cleft, and this ran for a few years. He was previously a member of Adult Voices, who work with CLAPA to ensure adults with a cleft get the best possible treatment and support in the UK. Here, he shares his experiences of growing up with a cleft.
Did you ever experience bullying growing up which you think was because of your cleft? Did it change as you got older?
I had a bit through school, and being sensitive I would come home and get upset, which usually resulted in my parents going into school to try to sort things out.
I was over-protected growing up, resulting in me even now having problems confronting difficult situations. I asked my parents a few years ago why they didn’t gently push me out to learn to fight my own battles – the answer was that because I was so upset, they felt they couldn’t just leave the situation.
The worst bullying came in the sixth form. I was bright at school and of course, bullies go for the weak spot (crumple zone) which of course was the cleft and I would be constantly mimicked. Chemistry was the worst, and the teacher must have known what was going on so either felt I was of an age to deal with it myself, or that drawing attention to the situation would make it worse.
There were 2 ringleaders who would instigate the bullying, and a few others who would join in. It was ironic that the ringleaders both wanted to do medicine.
Revenge was sweet on results day, when I got what I needed (to study biochemistry at Manchester) and neither of them did.
The bullying did make me self-conscious, and at the time I would be blushing everywhere one can blush and wishing the floor would open up. Unlike earlier times, the bullies were vicious and knew exactly how to hurt. However, with doing a lot of music outside school I was able to get good escapism and I guess without that I don’t know where I would have been.
It was such a relief at Uni to find friends and not to be picked on. Incredible too, as we were in tutor groups of 4 or 5 by surname, and in my group was another boy with a cleft. At first we wondered if we had been put together deliberately, but it was purely by surname. It was fascinating to see how he handled the cleft – he was able to throw it off much easier than me.
Apart from a few spiteful comments over the next few decades, I haven’t been bullied. On the Friends Reunited website once I saw where one of my antagonists had lost an eye on army service. I don’t go in for revenge but it did make me feel how odd life is at times.
Is there anything you wish had been different at the time? What would have made things easier?
I guess I wish I’d had more courage to confront the bullies, instead of walking away (in every sense) and trying to pretend it wasn’t happening.
I suppose too, I wish a teacher had asked me about it privately – to see how bothered I was by it, or if they could do anything to help. I probably would have hated that idea and just wanted it left alone, but it would have been nice to know it had been recognised instead of us all being in this sort of parallel universe where there was audible nastiness which nobody apparently could hear…
After Uni, I had a breakdown, and I know some people thought the cleft was involved. I don’t think it was at all; it was just my brain biochemistry sending me to extreme moods. A good friend from school said he knew how hard I had found the bullying to deal with but wasn’t sure whether to intervene. He was another ‘soft target’ for the hard gang and was reluctant to bring attention on himself in case they started on him as well.
I found it difficult to tell my parents just how much bullying I was getting at 17/18, mainly I think as I was expected to be making decisions e.g. Uni choices etc and for once they were expecting me to handle things by myself.
Adult Voices are CLAPA’s group of adult volunteers who were born with a cleft lip and/or palate. Click here to find out more about them, or join the Adults group on Facebook to meet others around the UK (and worldwide!) and share stories and advice about living with a cleft.