How opening up about my mental health helped me overcome my negative perception of my appearance
Christian was born with facial differences known as severe craniofacial anomalies. Growing up, he had over fifty reconstructive surgeries to transform his appearance and improve his confidence and life outcomes. Opening up to the people he loved is what helped Christian change how he thinks and feels about himself physically, which in turn eased his mental health difficulties.
We spoke to Christian about the negative body image he experienced as a teenager and in his twenties and he gives insight into the detrimental impact this had on his mental health and confidence.
“Los Angeles International Airport, late 2005. My parents, sister and I were heading home to London after a two-month stay in LA. I’d just had the last of my major reconstructive surgeries. Having been born with severe craniofacial anomalies, profound hearing loss among many other issues, I’d waited all my life for this moment. Finally after over fifty reconstructive surgeries and an unbelievable transformation in my appearance, it was over. As a 21 year old man, I now had my whole life in front of me without another major operation on the horizon.
What slowly began dawning on me in the months that followed was that this was actually the problem. I’d spent my entire life preparing, waiting for this moment. But here I was still feeling unhappy with the way I looked. And it would take a good few years to overcome much psychological anguish before I realised that – cliché as it sounds – the problems were internal.
I simply hadn’t realised before that all the emphasis prior to this moment had been on fixing the external problems.
From a young age I had been thrust between constant surgeries. In between the operations, I underwent intense speech therapy, made all the more difficult because of my hearing loss. Despite my continuous surgeries, my parents were determined for me to have as normal a childhood as possible. Inevitably though, my education was often interrupted thanks to my medical needs. As a teenager I was given a ‘pause’ on surgeries to allow me to reach maximum facial development. That pause would take its toll psychologically.
Going back to that trip home to London after my last major surgery in Los Angeles, I couldn’t foresee the tough years of self-discovery that lay ahead. Looking back now as a married man in my late-30s, it’s so simple to analyse and assess that period of my life. I had effectively missed out on my adolescence. I was a 21-year-old trying to play catch-up and having occasional tantrums that you’d often see in teenagers, all because I’d missed out on and been through so much during my surgeries.
To delve a little deeper, my confidence was at a low ebb because I realised that, although my appearance had improved so drastically, the inner turmoil was still very much there. Socially I remained awkward and acutely aware of my speech and hearing loss when meeting people.
While I was blessed with a close-knit circle of friends from childhood, I remained a very closed character and I struggled to talk openly about what was really going on in my mind. My sister knew of my struggles, but even her occasional gentle prodding to open up to her wouldn’t yield any results until later on.
The tough times of my early 20s, don’t compare to the challenges of my adolescence when the psychological impact of living with facial differences hit me full on. My high school years were by far the toughest of my life and coincided with the first of two occasions when I contemplated suicide. Being a teenager can be difficult enough in itself, but being a teenager who looks ‘different’ is a whole other ball game and that’s why today I’m so determined to be there, to be a voice, for those who might be going through what I experienced at that age.
I ultimately realised it was down to me to find my way, but I know now that the path would have been much easier if I’d spoken up more. Despite all of this, I feel a sense of pride for how far I have come. I remember my mother being told by one of my prep school teachers that I’d never make it to higher education and it really stayed with me. That’s why going to university and eventually graduating was a great personal achievement for me.
There was no real catalyst which led to the turning point in my mental health; just a combination of time, reflection and learning from past mistakes. I remember the period when I felt a newfound sense of contentment for finally being in a place where I felt happy within myself – and it was no coincidence that it was exactly when I’d begun to open up more about my struggles.
Of course, I would never want to create the illusion that I’ve eradicated all my insecurities. We all have them, but it’s about how we deal with them and face up to them. A tolerant and accepting society is what we all strive and yearn for. We have made massive strides, but there’s much more to be done
As a society, we are now more aware of the struggles faced by those of us who look different – psychologically as well as physically. Mental health charities like Mental Health UK continue to offer wide-ranging support, and new mental health organisations continue to spring up, which is great. Groups which offer emotional and financial support to people living with facial differences – which were virtually non-existent when I was born – are now equally accessible, and I’m honoured to be involved with a few of them.
But for all our progress, there’s much to do. Those living with facial differences continue to face discrimination; a fact which is unacceptable in 2022.”
To find out more about Christian’s story and his work as a motivational speaker head to his website or follow him on LinkedIn or Instagram. If you have been personally affected by Christian’s story, learn more about body image and mental health or find out what mental health support is available to you.
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