Born To Smile By Nora Abu Hassan
I WALKED into the 21st century with baggage, armed with the awareness that something had to change and that I needed to start with a commitment to improve myself. I have the genes of pro-active parents who often spoke about self- improvement and being a better person so that we could serve others. I only started thinking about this as an adult when I was thoroughly exhausted by the insecurities of my childhood.
Courses in leadership, language proficiency and business practice almost immediately made me better at managing the kindergarten. I signed up for hypnotherapy, neuro-linguistic programming and coaching too. The objective was to learn how to help others but actually I needed to learn how to help myself.
In 2002, I went to Singapore to listen to Anthony Robbins, the world-famous motivational guru. The Indoor Stadium was filled with thousands of people encouraged by his rah-rah cheerleading style as he spoke about personal excellence in every aspect of life. I’d never seen or heard anything like it. The experience opened a window in my mind.
I translated personal excellence into social work. I joined Kiwanis, an international community of over 215,000 volunteers and 8,200 service clubs in 80 countries dedicated to improving the lives of children.
This was an especially rewarding experience — managing the club, driving membership, raising funds, and then developing an agenda and executing projects. It was a leadership position which offered a new perspective – you can’t be bossy with volunteers. They need to be engaged in a special way.
I was blessed with a fabulous team who loved charitable work. We raised a substantial amount of funds which was then distributed to children in need and various other causes. We visited many orphanages and homes to understand the needs of these marginalised children. Over those years, it was quite an eye-opener to see so many children and babies left in the care of strangers like that.
This work caught the attention of the Malaysian Women’s Weekly magazine which presented me the Great Women of Our Time – Education and Public Service award in 2007. Another award, this time from Utusan Karya, followed in 2008.
It was a great honour to be recognised like that in such a short time. I didn’t expect it because I already felt highly rewarded by the act of social service itself. It’s something I strongly recommend — everyone must serve society in some way, it’s really good for the soul. As I happily accepted these awards, a question popped in my head: shouldn’t I be working for children with cleft lip and palate? I had worked hard and sincerely for other causes, and it gave me great satisfaction. Had I short-changed myself because I was too embarrassed to bring it up? I think so.
That year, I listened to leadership guru Robin Sharma speaking in Kuala Lumpur. He had a calm, soothing manner as he spoke about overcoming his own adversity. The word “heal” came up and another little window opened, this time in my heart. I began to examine my feelings in a new way. He planted a big question: “ What is your life purpose?”
Thinking that I might indeed find my life purpose, I signed up for neuro-linguistic programming. Trainer Andreas Dorn taught the class to take charge of our minds, and therefore our results. My focus improved. I even influenced my children with these ideas. It showed positively in their schoolwork. I was inching my way forward. I could feel my head getting organised but my heart was still a wreck. I was nowhere near telling my then husband or the children the truth about me.
Still, I was on to something. I had flashbacks of my childhood. I remembered the nights I lay in bed and in my little-girl way asking God “why me?” over and over again. On some nights, before I fell asleep, I would transport myself and play a game in my head. It was like a movie with me as the lead actress and occasionally in a supporting role. There were all kinds of scenes, mostly happy ones with an imaginary husband and even children. I saw myself as normal and beautiful.
As a child, when I was alone, especially at night, there was no one to talk to except my Creator. It was like talking to a friend. As a teenager, I would scrutinise my face in the mirror and be overcome by the dreadful, sinking feeling that I was hideous. Then I would stuff tissue paper into my nose to give it some shape. To God, I would say “make me pretty” with perfect faith and child-like innocence.
There were days when I stared at people with perfect noses and desperately wished mine was too. As a teen, I had only two goals: to look pretty and have many friends.
After attending all these programmes as an adult, I learned that, as a teenager, I had been “visualising” and allowing the power of my subconscious to set goals. Emotional pain, I learned, helps us find clarity. Making a statement and forming a picture is like setting goals. Prayer is like that too. This was new insight, and I began to see God and my faith in a different way.
In 2011, I Googled for help and found Isaac Lim, a therapist in Petaling Jaya. Over the course of a year, Isaac used the Emotional Freedom Technique to help me find the emotional scars that surgery couldn’t remove. I was carrying the imprint of a lifetime: the victim mentality. Only recently, I viewed a short video of me speaking about my issues at Isaac Lim’s office. The audience was made up of people also seeking help. Boy, did I look angry! In these therapy sessions, by examining my energy, my reactions, and my conduct, I was learning to let go.
The big shift was to start talking to the important people in my life — something I had never done.
On an otherwise uneventful day, I sat my daughters down at the kitchen table and told them everything. Both girls remember that I burst into tears. They were upset to see me crying, and assumed that something terrible had just happened. They were less concerned that I was talking about a cleft lip. Instead they sat there waiting to hear about some catastrophic event.
At the time, I felt raw but today, I look back and laugh. Nadia tells me that she had always noticed that one of my nostrils was larger than the other. As a child, she had assumed it was because that I picked my nose aggressively. That day gave them insight into their mother — and her moods and her temperament. Since then, I’ve been able to talk about anything with my children. It opened a talking culture in my home. These days, Nadia says I sometimes talk too much. Oh well.
I told my university buddies Chithra Subramaniam and Audrey Danasamy. Over dinner in a Kuala Lumpur restaurant, they told me that, yes, they had seen the scar but never bothered to ask me about it because it simply didn’t matter. As far as they were concerned, those were happy days filled with fun and laughter and friends. I was filled with insecurity but they thought I was a happening chick. Audrey said: “Heck, you even had a boyfriend!” I laughed out loud. I never saw it that way.
It was hard to tell Amir. It was especially difficult to talk about the bullying. I was not prepared for his response: “Do you think I didn’t know?” I sat there on the bed like a deflated balloon. Had someone told him? I had believed that he never knew but obviously I had done a lousy job of hiding it. I felt really silly.
That year, I attended programmes in public speaking and self-actualisation by the well-known Malaysian trainer Anthoni Dass. It was scary but I wanted to do this. Amazingly, I actually spoke about my cleft history during the small group practical sessions. I didn’t cry. Soon I was a part of MIM Toastmasters as well. Again, I spoke about it. I had crossed a line that I had feared all my life. That got me the Best Speaker Award… I don’t know if it was for speaking eloquently or for the pure honesty but I felt liberated. Clearly, these were gigantic breakthrough strides and I had thoughts about being the voice of the cleft lip and palate community.
Jenny Chan, my business partner of many years and with whom I had built a good friendship, provided me with insight. She had noticed the little scar on my face on the first day we met and guessed that it mostly likely came from a cleft lip but it wasn’t important enough to ask about it. Over the years, she had spotted occasional moments of my insecurity but it wasn’t an issue because we worked so well together. She observed that I still seemed to find it hard to talk about my cleft with my immediate family.
When I spoke to my parents, they too said that I was not ready to become the voice of the cleft lip community. Could I handle the scrutiny? Or could it be that they were not ready for this?
Then, a big powerful jolt into reality hit. In December 2014, my brother Hasri passed away after a heart attack. It was a shock to the whole family. No one saw that coming. He was so young, and so was his family. Hasri was funny, bubbly, loveable and I adored him. It was a deep kind of loss and sorrow, and it hurt so much to see my parents grieving. That shook me to the core.
Hasri’s passing pushed all the big questions to the forefront. What was I doing with my life? Was I really going to change or was I just dreaming of it? Was I truly going to break through my own insecurities and walk the road to self-acceptance?
And I began to think about God’s will. I didn’t ask to be born with a facial deformity but here I am. Everything happens for a reason. I needed to surrender to God’s will and not fight it, to please God and not argue over the details of lip scars and nose shapeliness. How was I going to convert the energies of my insecurities into kindness and compassion?
I took a break by attending a retreat in Phuket in 2016. The venue was a beautiful tropical resort where the palm trees swayed to breezes blowing in from the Indian Ocean. It was the first time in my life I had actually gone on my own to a place where I didn’t know anyone. It was so different from my previous trips – it always felt like there was a family entourage.
Here, for several hours a day in between sessions, the participants were required to spend time alone – by the pool, on the beach, under a tree – to contemplate what each one wanted in life. For five days, we drank only fruit juice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No solids were served. Oddly, I didn’t feel hungry.
We exercised and listened to the facilitator Skip Archimedes. He had overcome teen obesity and became a champion gymnast. One day, during training, he injured his spine so badly that every doctor he saw in his native England said he would never walk again. He changed his life with new regimes for health, diet and exercise, got out of his wheelchair, returned to competitive gymnastics and won more medals. Today, he’s like a super athlete. Underlying it all was the attitudinal change. I was moved by his life story. Gosh, what was my excuse?
At the workshop, we were shown ways to let go of unhappiness, grief, insecurities, and toxic relationships. I came home feeling physically and mentally detoxed, lighter, energetic and more vibrant.
A year later, I attended another of Skip’s retreats at which I listed out some goals, one of which was to write a book. This book. It was the first clear indication that I was ready to be open about everything to everybody. I was healing. Really healing, and taking powerful steps forward from Isaac Lim’s gentle push towards self-acceptance.
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