He has one eye, one ear, and growing up wasn’t exactly easy for Joel Whitwell — in fact at times, the bullying he received was nothing short of heartbreaking.
In an exclusive interview with That’s Life!, an Australian entertainment and lifestyle magazine, Joel says staying positive has helped him achieve his goals.
Here, he tells his somewhat heartwrenching, but utterly inspiring story in his own words…
Fidgeting impatiently as my mum, Peta, helped get me ready for school, I wondered how much longer it would take.
Aged five, I’d just started kindergarten and couldn’t wait to spend the day playing with my new mates.
But, unlike other kids in my grade, my morning routine looked a little different to most.
Not only did Mum have to help dress me and brush my hair, she also had to make sure my prosthetic ear was glued on straight and my glass eye was intact.
Born with a craniofacial deficiency in January 1979, I’d made my grand entrance into the world with only one ear and one eye.
At first, doctors worried that my brain function would be impaired, but when the test results came back normal, my parents were thrilled.
Despite me being born with only half my face, Mum and my dad, Gordon, never hid me away from the world.
In fact, they couldn’t wait to show me off to everyone in the main street of our small country town of Harvey, WA.
When I was 10, doctors used one of my ribs to reconstruct my face.
Growing up in a close-knit community meant most people were aware of my condition and I was rarely bullied, but sometimes I’d catch people staring.
‘It’s because you’re so good-looking,’ Mum would remind me.
As a child, I believed her.
But as I got older, people were much more upfront with their opinions.
Aged 19, walking into a party with my friends, I was shocked when a stranger brought my world crashing down after just one look
‘You must be the ugliest person I’ve ever met,’ he said. ‘If I looked like that, I’d kill myself.’
His words hit me like a tonne of bricks.
Maybe I am better off dead, I thought, crushed.
But, thanks to the support of my friends, I quickly realized I couldn’t let one bad night ruin my entire life.
I had so much to live for, and there was still so much I wanted to experience.
So, the following year, in 1999, my friend PJ and I decided to fly to Sydney to experience life outside of Western Australia.
Taking in the beauty of the Harbour Bridge and the famous Opera House, we felt on top of the world.
Afterwards, we retreated to a nearby bar to celebrate.
But as we chatted over a beer, I noticed a man seated alone, who couldn’t tear his eyes away from me.
At first, I was unnerved, but I’d had such a good day, nothing was about to dampen my spirits.
Besides, I knew if I wanted to keep traveling the world, I couldn’t let the judgemental stares from other people hold me back.
From then on, I refused to let other people’s opinions get the better of me.
Over the next few years, PJ and I spoke often about visiting the US and the adventures that awaited us.
But, sadly, we never got to fulfill our dreams after he tragically passed away in a car accident in 2003.
Devastated, I fell into a deep depression.
Thankfully, Dad could see how much I was struggling and agreed to travel overseas with me if I could save up enough money.
For the first time in months, I finally felt like I had something to look forward to.
In July 2004, we set off for a three-week tour of Canada. Visiting Niagara Falls and the spectacular Rocky Mountains, we had a ball together.
Better yet, I found the confidence I didn’t even know I had to make new friends along the way.
Maybe I can do this on my own after all, I thought, proudly.
Before I knew it, it was time to make our way back home, but by now, I’d well and truly caught the travel bug.
So, over the next few years, I worked harder than ever at my job as a meat inspector to save enough money to explore the globe.
Traveling to the US, Europe, and Asia, I often splurged on nice hotels and decadent meals, determined to make every moment count.
Making lifelong friends along the way, I was thrilled that others were able to see past my physical differences to get to know the real me.
‘You’re so inspiring,’ many would say to me.
It made me realize that by staying positive, I could teach others not to let their fears prevent them from living their lives to the fullest.
So, in 2017, I made my first speech at a TED conference in front of 250 people.
After sharing my experiences about navigating my way through life, looking different in a superficial world, I received a standing ovation.
Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to share my story with several schools across Australia and have just released my first book to help others embrace their differences and feel confident in their own skin.
I’m proof that by being true to yourself and chasing your dreams, you can achieve anything.
Joel’s book, ‘One Eye One Ear No Worries’, is available now on Amazon.
If you are struggling with your mental health and need help, call Lifeline, free 24/7, on 13 11 14 (Aus) or 0800 543 354 (NZ).
This story was republished with permission of That’s Life!, a wonderful source of inspirational stories.