Jonathan Lancaster was rejected at birth by his biological parents.
He said he struggled with his self-image but now loves his face and wants to help others like him.
This is Lancaster's story, as told to Jane Ridley.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Jonathan Lancaster. It has been edited for length and clarity.
It wasn't until I reached the age of 25 that I had the emotional stability to read my adoption papers.
Jean, the woman who formally adopted me at the age of 5, said in my early childhood — with as much tact as possible — that my birth parents "couldn't cope."
As I got older and was able to understand things better, she said they "just struggled to accept" that I was "different."
The difference is my facial appearance. I have a rare genetic disorder called Treacher Collins syndrome. The textbooks say that it's characterized by "abnormalities" of the head and face.
These days, after more than a decade of hating myself, I love how I look. But it was hard to read about my parents' decision when it was spelled out in black and white.
Their names and signatures appeared on the documents. They'd signed over their rights to me 36 hours after I was born.
They were a married couple in their 20s at the time. They'd told social workers and other staff at the hospital that they didn't want other members of their family to meet me.
I thought, "These two people were supposed to love you, but they were not able to bond with you."
My adoptive mother didn't care about my appearance
My form of Treacher Collins is termed "sporadic." It's said to affect 1 in 50,000 people in various ways. In my case, my ears are folded over and small. I love the fact that they look like Bart Simpson's. I don't have cheekbones, and my eyes slope downward.
My mom, who'd fostered kids in the past, took me home when I was two weeks old. The hospital spoke to her about my appearance and said she needed to prepare for how I looked. She said, "I'd love to meet Jonathan." She's always told me that the first time she saw me, she couldn't help but smile.
She did a fantastic job protecting me. I'd see my reflection in the mirror. But as a little kid, I thought nothing of it. I was popular in school. I even enjoyed going to the children's hospital in London, where I had pioneering surgery to help my hearing.
Then I went to high school. I was exposed to kids who hadn't known me before. They hadn't met anybody with facial features like mine. They'd pull down their eyes, fold up their ears, and joke that my birthday was Halloween.
I dealt with it poorly. I put up a wall. We live in a world that's obsessed with image. John Denver's song "Take Me Home, Country Roads" resonated with me. He'd sing, "Country roads, take me home/ To the place I belong." I craved to be taken to the place I belonged. I wanted to be in a tragic car accident so I didn't have to live anymore.
Much of my teenage anger was directed at my parents. I'd think, "How could they have done this to me?" I went to college to study sports science when I was 18. But the dark feelings took over my life, and I hid away.
My life changed after I kissed a girl who said, 'I love your face'
My life changed forever when I was 21. I got a job in a bar and fell for one of my coworkers. I thought she was the coolest person ever. But I couldn't imagine that a girl like that would be interested in me. We became close, and she asked me out for some drinks. I wanted to play it cool, but I was like, "I'm free tomorrow, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday."
There was chemistry. I felt as if I'd stopped being fake. One night, over a bottle of wine, she leaned in to kiss me. I went from thinking that I was unlovable to feeling like the sexiest guy in the world. She said, "I love your face." I'm 37, and we still keep in touch. I keep going back to her comment all those years ago. I'd believed my face was a bad thing, but from that moment on, I thought, "I love it, too."
The most groundbreaking thing for me was realizing that when I was younger and somebody stared at me, I'd assume it was in a negative way. The truth was, I had no idea what was in their head.
I wanted to spread the message that facial differences should be embraced. I've spoken to hundreds of kids with Treacher Collins, telling them to open up and talk about their feelings. I've traveled around the world meeting people and doing public speaking. I'm an ambassador for the nonprofit organization Face Equality International.
I hold no grudges against the people who bullied me and called me names. Social-media trolls have left comments on my Instagram like, "You're subhuman," and, "You should have been aborted." I feel sorry for them. Unlike me, they're unable to celebrate their lives.
As for my birth parents, I sent them a letter in 2009 after reading those adoption papers. I said that I wanted them to know that I was OK; that I'd be open to contact.
I'm happy that my biological parents gave me life, and I'm using it to help others
We got a response from their lawyer a few days later. It said, "We do not wish any contact, and further attempts will be ignored." It was crushing.
Ultimately, when I think about my parents, I feel that I never have to "forgive'' them. There's nothing to forgive.
They brought me into this world. I need to live the life that they gave me. It's been a long journey to get where I am. But I'm in a place of happiness and joy.
Families and connections are created uniquely. I'm blessed to have amazing relationships with incredibly beautiful human beings. There was a time when I thought I would never attract other people. Now I celebrate that all kinds of opportunities and energies have come my way.
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