At some point in our lives, most of us would face problems with low self-esteem. Some of us get over it quickly. Some of us get plagued by the negative effects. For me, it was a rather long and arduous journey trying to overcome self-esteem issues.
Growing up, I got scolded a lot by my grandmother. Among all the other random things that she would scold me for, the most ridiculous one was about me “opening my mouth all the time”.
I was born with a severe underbite (also known as a class III malocclusion).
In a normal bite, the upper teeth cover the bottom teeth slightly. In my case, the bottom teeth protruded way in front. It looked like I was perpetually opening my mouth because of the huge gap in my teeth.
I hated my appearance. I hated that I was always scolded for my appearance. I hated that it was something beyond my control. I hated that I was “born this way”. I hated my parents for the under-bite. I hated how I was the only one in the family with an under-bite.
The discrimination happened not only at home but also in school. I was often made fun of because of how I looked. The under-bite further accentuated my already oblong face and that led to many unnecessary derogatory name callings. Some of the names included horse-faced, bird-faced, and many others that I don’t wish to remember and talk about.
My natural self-defense mechanism was to shrug it off and be as nonchalant as I could. That, of course, did not work well because I was still the butt of a joke in many people’s eyes. I would purposely think of ways to divert attention away from my face by doing silly things such as dancing in the public or singing out loud, and act like I was proud of it. Beneath this seemingly exuberant, unrestrained personality, I was still deeply conscious of my facial appearance.
I wanted to look normal, just like everyone else.
When I was about 17, I came across some articles on reconstructive jaw surgeries. As I researched more, I realized this could be my ticket to escaping from my ugliness. I told my mum but obviously, she wasn’t supportive at all of me going through a multi-year braces program, surgically break my face and then realign it afterward — just to look “normal”. The cost was also another concern because the whole procedure would cost us almost $10,000. This wasn’t a small sum given that we came from a lower-middle-income family.
It took a whole lot of convincing for her to finally say yes. So after an initial visit to the dentist, I was ready to start my 5-year journey.
Pre-surgery brace treatment (2 years)
The first 2 years of braces treatment was a pain. The monthly visits to the dentist was a dreaded affair. The constant realignment of the braces not only gave me ulcers but also worsened my bite in preparation for the jaw surgery. The only thing that I looked forward to, was choosing the colors of the braces. I would have red and green for Christmas, red for Chinese New Year and black for Black Friday.
Although I already knew for sure that there was no more turning back once I started this journey, I would walk out of every dental visit wondering if I made the right decision. During the pre-surgery stage, my teeth had to be straightened through braces so that it would fit nicely after surgery. This realignment would also cause a bigger gap temporarily between my top and bottom jaw.
At some point, the gap was so huge that I could slip a french fry in without even opening my mouth.
2 years passed and I was finally ready for my life-changing surgery. It was classified as a major surgery and I would have to be warded for a couple of nights after the surgery.
I was so excited yet so nervous the night before that I couldn’t sleep. I thought about how my face would change, how my life would change and what would happen if I died in the operating theatre.
It was one of those sleepless nights when you just reflect on life.
The actual surgery (5 hours)
I arrived at the hospital extremely early. The surgery was planned for 8 am but I was there 1.5 hrs before to go through all the paperwork and pre-surgery procedures.
Like any other major surgery, I was placed under general anesthesia and pushed into the operating theatre. To summarize what happened, I had a LeFort osteotomy done.
This would entail fracturing parts of my skull (both the top and lower jaws), cutting and rearranging them to correct the misalignments. Once both jaws are aligned, stabilizing screws are inserted to keep the jaws in place. The final step would then involve shutting the jaw completely using wires. This means that I won’t be able to open my mouth for the next 4 weeks post-surgery.
Recovery (6 months)
When I first woke up from the surgery, I had a rude, rude shock.
I thought I died.
Before the surgery, I was so used to breathing through my mouth but because it was jam shut with wires, I panicked when I first woke up. I remember struggling so much because I couldn’t open my mouth to breathe that I almost fell off the bed. Luckily for me, there was this nurse who rushed over and calmed me down, guiding me to breathe slowly through my nose. Although it was still hard to breathe with all the blood clots inside my nose, I managed to get over the initial state of shock.
The next 4 weeks felt like an accelerated weight loss program because I could only consume liquid food through a syringe inserted into the side of my mouth. I still remember checking out of the hospital with a whole carton of strawberry milk (which would be my sole source of food for the next 2 weeks)
I’ve stopped drinking strawberry milk ever since.
While the liquid diet was only for 4 weeks, I needed to be on soft food for the next 6 months because that’s how long the jawbones would take to heal. 6 months was also a key milestone for me because that was when I regained sensations on my chin. In some cases, the nerves on your chin may be damaged so you will have a numbing sensation for the rest of your life but luckily for me, the surgeon did an amazing job and I recovered.
Post-surgery braces treatment (2 years)
The next 2 years of braces treatment felt completely different from the first 2 years. With a new look, I started teaching myself how to smile properly again. I started becoming more (truly) confident, started taking more photos and slowly regained my self-esteem.
Although my wife (then girlfriend) Petrine, felt that there wasn’t a major difference in terms of how I looked, I enjoyed every ounce of how I could eat better, speak better, smile better, sleep better.
In other words, it was life-changing.
There are mixed responses whenever I tell my “life-changing” story to people.
Some applaud me for my courage to go through all the pain — in fact, it wasn’t the least bit painful. If anything, it was probably just a little inconvenient during the pre-surgery and recovery phases.
Some judge me for being fake because I went through a “plastic surgery”.
Some think I was crazy to go to these lengths to alter my look.
Haters gonna hate but through this experience, I was truly able to rediscover my self-esteem. No one talks about how I can’t close my mouth anymore. No one laughs at how I look like a horse or a bird anymore.
For once, I felt like a normal person again.
About the author
Caleb is a millennial dad to two beautiful daughters and enjoys exploring issues around technology, health, and parenting. In his free time, he daydreams about what the future holds for humanity. He blogs at https://medium.com/@Saycaleb