This interview first appeared in Issue 12 of Left Clip, our magazine for young people with a cleft that has since been discontinued.
Like lots of our Left Clip readers, I hadn’t met many people born with a cleft like me, let alone sat down over a cup of coffee and chatted to them about their experiences. But Farah Ahmed answered an advert on our company website appealing for help with this magazine. I’d seen her around the office, but never noticed the telltale scar above her lip. Yet, as I’m discovering editing this magazine, each scar is sewn with a story and I was fascinated to hear Farah’s over one lunch-hour.
We got the basics out of the way first: she had studied law at Luton University and whilst waiting to apply for a job at one of the city firms, took a position with Sweet and Maxwell. Five years later, she has just been promoted to Team Leader in the Digital Products team and is entering her sixth year with the company. As well as a new job, she’s also busy “looking after her new husband” as she puts it with a grin. On a dreary, drizzly day in our local coffee shop, she still glows with the suntan souvenir from her February wedding in the Maldives. “I’ve always wanted to have a dream wedding like any little girl” she tells me, and from gentle hammock rides over soft white sand to candle-lit dinners overlooking hazy, ocean sunsets, it sounds as if she got it. But when I ask her if she ever thought she’d see herself in her own fairytale, she tells me it’s hard to picture when you look in the mirror and see an ‘ugly duckling’.
You see, Farah was born with a severe cleft lip and palate. “My mouth was completely open and my nose was quite deformed. As soon as I was born they had to operate. It was a complete surprise as no one knew and it hadn’t been detected on any scans.” From the age of 12 months to 16 years, she went into hospital about five times. All the reconstructive surgery was completed at University College Hospital in London, including a bone graft to reshape her palate. She is still amazed at the results, but remembers how difficult each step was to take.
“You’ve got to prepare yourself for each operation and then there’s the eight weeks you need to recover. You come out and your face is all puffed up and stitched up, there’s blood everywhere, basically it would just be really gross!” She tells me how she has always seen herself as beauty and the beast. I suppose the swelling, the stitches, the tears, what Farah would call the beast, is all part of and has created the newly promoted, recently married beauty that sits across from me chatting.
I ask if she feels it’s all been worth it.
“Definitely, I’m so glad I went through all the pain and torture of the surgery. At a young age you’ve got to form quite a strong character. It would be so easy to say ‘no I don’t want this’. Until you’re about six or seven you don’t know what’s going on, but as soon as you start realising what’s happening, that’s when you have to be strong and look at the longer term and think well, I’m going through all this now to get to a certain place”. In fact, Farah makes me see how this beast has made her stronger. “I found out I was having my last operation when I was sixteen. By then you’re quite rebellious and you’re going through a different stage in your life. I was a comfort eater, particularly when I was in and out of hospital. But after this operation, I began to see myself differently”. She couldn’t find the ‘ugly ducking’ in the mirror anymore and consequently, her attitude started to change. “I went to the gym and started aerobics and completely transformed my image. I used all my negative experiences to do positive things. I decided I wasn’t going to let people at school dictate everything, even though back then they did. I wouldn’t let it continue into my whole life. Having all that completely changed my perception of things. I don’t think I would be the person I am today without it.”
Farah tells me how she’s an advocate of the “light at the end of the tunnel theory” so I ask her what advice she would give to those struggling to find their way. “When you look at yourself in the mirror, don’t focus on what you don’t like about yourself. I mentally trained myself not to look at that particular part of my face. Concentrate on the things that you love most about yourself, if you bombard yourself with all the positives, you soon forget what you don’t like. When I look in the mirror, I never see my scar and my husband always says he never notices it. You just think that there’s so much more to life!”
I wonder how she makes the most of it. “I do yoga three times a week. After everything that’s happened to me I’m quite a spiritual person. When I was getting stressed out at school, I learnt to refocus my energy inwards. I’d say to myself, you’re a good person so it doesn’t matter what other people think. Especially as children can be very cruel and everything can be based on what you look like – you’ve got to have the new trainers and follow the latest craze. True friends will like you for who you are, not what you look like.” Farah is certain that she wouldn’t feel so strongly about this if she hadn’t experienced all the things that she has.
Lots of our Left Clip letters talk of bullying and difficult times at school, experiences Farah certainly shares. “When I was at school, I didn’t really have many friends because I looked so different from everyone else”. She saw herself as an obvious target, but struggled to cope with the taunts of bullies alongside the nerves before operations. “I had a really rough time at school. It just affects the way you are, the way you socialize with people, your grades.” She feels she missed out on a happy school life and still notices the gaps in her education from all the time off she had to take. “Having said that I feel I did quite well. I studied law and I got a 2:1. You never forget and you always still have the feelings but you have to put that aside. Otherwise all your pain and unhappiness will end up ruining your whole life.”
So how do you go from lonely, bullied school girl to confident, happy, ambitious woman? How do you live with beauty but put the beast to rest? According to Farah it’s a change that trickles through you rather bowls you over. “You don’t just wake up one day and feel differently, it happens over time. You suddenly think ‘oooo I look quite good in this’ and as soon as you feel that, you want to do more things to make yourself look good or feel good, you make a subconscious decision to say I’m not going to let my problems affect me. Everything else will then just fit into the puzzle.” So all you need is a few positive pieces and everything else will fall into place.
As we brave the rain and traffic and head back to the office, I thank Farah for sharing a story which I know she found very difficult to narrate, and I wish her the very best of luck with that puzzle of hers