‘It’s a girl, but she’s got a cleft lip so don’t look at her.’
‘Of course I want to see her,’ my mother protested.
Hesitating at first, the nurse held me up so that my mother could look at me.
‘You were so round and beautiful,’ she’d tell me years later.
Moments afterwards, they whisked me away for closer examination. Not only did I have a unilateral cleft lip and palate, something was also wrong with my oesophagus the nurse noted as she was trying to put a tube down to remove fluids. I was immediately taken for an x-ray, which revealed that the upper end of my oesophagus didn’t connect to the lower end and stomach. Instead, the lower end of the oesophagus was fused with my windpipe.
In order to enable me to swallow at all, I required immediate surgery but since a flu virus was making its way through the neonatal ward, it was decided I should be transferred by ambulance to another hospital for the procedure. My mother, still recovering from labour, stayed behind. Two weeks passed before she was allowed to visit and hold me for the very first time.
My birth and its aftermath left little room for the kind of celebration that the birth of a baby normally occasions. Instead, focus was squarely on repairing my broken body and face, making me whole.My early childhood as well as teenage years were punctuated by surgical procedures, aimed at restoring my face to something closer to what it should have looked like, had nature not played a trick on me. Little wonder I came to believe that I was born defective and in need of mending to make me whole.
Not quite a beauty queen
For years I carried that belief with me and when I left my native Sweden to attend college in the US at the age of 19, I went to see a prominent plastic surgeon recommended to me by my Swedish doctor.
‘Pity about the lip,’ Dr Peck said as I visited his clinic in New Jersey. ‘Not much can be done about it, but I could probably do something about the nose and why don’t I also fix that chin of yours.’
In the end, he left my chin alone but did what he could to straighten my nose. That was the last operation I had. As I woke up from surgery with my face covered in a massive bandage that left me unable to see anything, I instinctively knew I’d had enough. I just couldn’t be bothered anymore. I was never going to be a beauty queen, but so what? Perhaps, as I was maturing, falling in love and dating, I came to understand that my happiness had little to do with how I looked.
But it would be another twenty years before I began to view the circumstances of my birth in less depressing terms.
I’d gone to see a therapist following a series of mini strokes in my thirties that had left me anxious about my own death as well as that of my asthmatic two-year-old daughter. It was by no means my first experience with therapy. Having tried everything from psychoanalysis to CBT to body-mind therapy and transpersonal psychotherapy, I could easily gather all my experiences into a ‘Rough Guide to Shrinks.’
The problem is I am great at intellectualising matters, including my own emotions, which is perhaps one of the reasons why therapy didn’t quite work. I’d understand something intellectually, but emotionally I had not internalised that knowledge, therefore making real change and healing very difficult.
‘I don’t do vulnerable’
During one of my weekly sessions my therapist suggested we’d do a visualisation on the circumstances of my birth and revisit any trauma I’d experienced as an infant. It involved me lying down with eyes closed, trusting my therapist as he guided me through the exercise.
Initially I balked at the suggestion, for visualisations were not something I was very keen on. Since I’ve got a hearing impairment for which I often compensate by looking at the face and mouth of the person speaking, I was anxious that I wouldn’t be able to hear properly if I had to keep my eyes closed. Lying down, unable to see my therapist, also reminded me too much of my disastrous experience with Freudian psychoanalysis in my 20s. The whole idea made me feel vulnerable. And I don’t do vulnerable very well.
‘Think it over,’ my therapist said, not wanting to pressure me into doing something he knew might be helpful but which I resisted.
During the next few days I deliberated with myself. Should I give the visualisation experiment a go, even though it scared me? What was the worst that could happen? Either it worked or it didn’t but there’s no harm in trying. As my mind kept regurgitating the pros and cons of agreeing to the visualisation, I knew somewhere deep inside that it was something I needed to do, for reasons my mind might not comprehend.
Back to the beginning
Lying on the mattress in my therapist’s office the following week, I could feel my heart beating painfully fast and my body twitching nervously. What if I couldn’t hear what he was saying? What if it didn’t work? What if it DID work – what would I discover?
‘What do you see?’ my therapist asked as he invited me to visualise the room in which I was born.
‘Doctors and nurses, lots of them… And my mum of course… They all look very serious. It’s not a happy room.’
None of this was new to me, for it’s how I’d always envisaged my birth: lots of serious faces looking down on my disfigured face as I came into the world. But, lying there on the mattress, I also saw something else, something that the doctors and nurses hadn’t seen.
For the first time in my life, I saw my newborn self not as broken and in need of fixing, but as beautifully, perfectly whole. Tears streamed down my face as a tidal wave of warmth enveloped me. What I felt in that moment was pure love, happiness and celebration; very similar to what I had felt when my own daughters were born.
In my mind’s eye, I turned to the doctors and nurses, telling them to cheer up and celebrate this new life of mine, instead of stamping me with a label that said: faulty goods.
Wholeness, I’ve finally discovered, has little if anything to do with what we do in life, how we look or what kind of genes we inherit; for wholeness is a state of being, which we are all born into, no matter what.