Bell’s Palsy

With the stresses and strains I’ve endured it stands to reason that at some point, the trauma would take its toll. But, in style truly singular to myself and the distinctly un-fortuitous circumstances that seem to surround my life the toll was taken out on my face; the ‘Money-Maker’ if you will.

Now, I’m not going to toot my own horn and protest that I am any great beauty (unless you happen to like petite brunettes with a slightly Jewish appearance that overpowers a 1/8th Persian lineage topped by an inexplicable head of frizzy, out of control hair and eyelashes that are barely there and give the essence of top-lid alopecia areata) but I’d say I’m at the shallow end of the ‘Offensively Ugly-O-Meter.’ Imagine my dismay, my mortification, my utter apoplexy to feel, rather than see, one side of my face sliding into a frozen, drooping, sagging state. And stay there. For months.

For those who are blithely, and fortunately, unaware of what this affliction is, Bell’s Palsy is where one half of your face simply stops moving. The more lucky – and I am grateful to whomsoever out there cast a positive spell on my poor soul the day Bell’s Palsy was being dished out – freeze in an unmoving state of nonchalance. That is to say, your face is emotionless and just freezes in a casual appearance of nothingness (until you try to move it, of course, when it stays in its state of paralysis and juxtaposes with the emotionally expressive side). For those poor, poor devils who get the condition very severely, or are not able to capture the effects within the first 24 hours of feeling the slide into doom, their face actually droops downward, often sagging at the lower eyelid and mouth, giving the impression of the theatre masks; at once happy and unhappy. 

It all happened like this…

At the point my personal life seemed to break down entirely my career rocketed into heady heights of corporate success. At home, Jim had just succeeded in beating me in the hierarchy of love and prioritisation held in my mother’s heart and I was unceremoniously cast out from the house I had grown up in. After a brief stint sofa surfing I settled with the elderly mother of a distant Uncle and now resided in a pokey (but convenient) lilac box room in Eton Wick. Dorothy was very wonderful to me and I’ll eternally be grateful for the evenings that 80 year old and I spent together slagging off my mum over a glass or two of Malbec. But was it the kind of place you could bring friends or, perish the thought, prospective beau’s back to? Absolutely not!

Conversely, my work life was coming on leaps and bounds. I had been promoted to a corporate role and now felt I was a pretty big deal as I travelled from Datchet on the 06:26 morning train to Waterloo in my little wiggle dresses teamed with Air Force 1s…a totally staple and acceptable commuter look. The job was completely new to me but I was able to throw myself in and really immerse myself into the alien environment as a delightful distraction to all that was going on in my shambles of a personal life.

The office I worked in was open plan as it was felt this was conducive to inter-departmental relationship building. The office was all exposed piping and white walls with glass-doored offices and I felt like the stereotypical twenty-something career girl in the Big City; views of the London skyline stretching out from my window like a playground for hipsters and socialites who took themselves too seriously in their rolled up chinos and charity shop vegan Dr Martens.

Across the way from my desk was the Marketing department, the epicentre of the ‘Cool Crew’ and didn’t they just know it! One girl in the team even dared to wear a tailored suit in coral with tailored fucking shorts rather than trousers; we were all both appalled and floored with admiration…until the passive aggressive email with the uniform policy was distributed the following day. A tall and slim blonde gentleman in his twenties worked in the team in the Digital Marketing echelon and I found myself peering at him like a creep from my desk from time to time, wondering who he was and what he was about as he strolled to the kitchenette to refill on Tchibo coffee. Sometimes he would glance my way too and we would occasionally converse in the kitchen area if he chanced to happen upon me in there while replenishing our caffeine. I was the interesting new outsider I suppose; the one who made jokes nobody really understood as a way of passing the awkward time and always wore high heels to hide her tiny stature. I can’t remember the guy’s name; clearly he’s an unimportant pinprick in the pock-marked canvas of this particular memory. The reason I mention him, though, is because I enjoyed the harmless flirtation with Mr Digital Marketing – he helped pass the day and he was nothing more than that.

About a month into the new role I had really settled in. It was fast-paced and stressful but I enjoyed it and I was good at it. Yes, people outside my own team probably felt I was funny though really awkward and weird but my own team liked me and I was really rocking my office attire with frenzied fervour. Similarly, living with Dorothy was going OK. I began to relax into this new life and embrace the recent plethora of changes. I had not spoken to Mum or Daniel over the Jim situation since the event but I was keeping up relations with the rest of the weird bunch of the family. I felt I had burnt some bridges but not all. However, while I may very well have felt a sense of peace after the madness of the maelstrom there was obviously some inner-turmoil I was burying, unbeknownst to me.

One Thursday evening I had been invited, after work, to join my friends for Kimberly’s 21st birthday. Kimberly is one of my favourite people and she definitely needs an entire blog post dedicated to her escapades but for the purposes of this particular post we need only to note that it was her 21st birthday and a group of us had planned to have a garden party and BBQ to celebrate. As soon as my train stopped back in Datchet I hightailed it back to my sweltering Kia Picanto (it was a heatwave in July) and floored it over to Kimberly’s lest I should miss out on any of the food or fun.

It started like any other garden party. We laughed, we chatted, we congregated on the grass in a circle, Pimms in hand, to while away the Thursday evening. And then it happened…

Someone in the group said something funny. I laughed. The smile felt wrong somehow – I could very clearly feel that the left side of my smile had not lifted as far as my right. Surely I had imagined it though? I waited, quietly panicking that I was in the midst of a stroke or cerebral haemorrhage, for someone to say something I could smile over to ascertain whether I had imagined it or whether my smile was lop-sided as I thought. I tried grinning once more; it was as I suspected, my mouth very definitely was not reaching as far on the left side as the right. I could feel I was smiling, apples of my cheeks rising into the view of my lower eye line…but I absolutely knew beyond doubt my smile was much wider on one side than the other.

I was immediately conscious of the sagging smile and kept my mouth covered when I laughed for quite some time, feeling out the early on-set paralysis. If I made a comment during the conversation I pointed my head down to the grass below so no one could see my downturned left lips. Were it not for the occurrence of a mouse randomly crawling onto Helen’s exposed and be-sandled foot to die I believe my droopy smile would have been detected much before it did.

I knew beyond all doubt I had Bell’s Palsy. I didn’t need to look in the mirror, I could feel it. Working in healthcare one gets to know of these afflictions – they are amongst the list of conditions clinical staff pity highly and make comments over such as ‘Poor girl, that must be bloody awful – imagine having that happen to your face!’

I can’t say why I sat in the circle not doing anything about it for as long as I did. For a good 10-15 minutes I simply sat, shell-shocked and panicking internally while giving off an impression of serenity externally. Finally, when I felt ready to expose my ailment to the group and hear their comments of concern, I very matter-of-factly stated:

‘I think I’ve just got Bell’s Palsy.’

The group went silent. I don’t think many of them would actually have known what Bell’s Palsy was and probably thought I was showing off about some new brand of footwear or some such triviality. The silence reverberated deafeningly until Helen said, ‘you know what? I thought there was something wrong with your face but I assumed you’d been to the dentist!’

Oh my god – it worse than I thought! Helen could always be relied upon for an honest opinion and though the news was not welcome, I needed to hear it to kick-start me into action. I realised I had what looked like post-dental surgery to the mouth…numbness and sagging of one side from the chin up. I bolted from my spot on the grass, no longer caring what anyone in the group said about me or my affliction, and threw myself into the bathroom. I needed to see the damage.

The mirror was not my friend that day. I smiled into my reflection and what peered back at me sent my stomach descending into my perineum. Immediate nervous poo required. The right side smiled every bit as normally as usual…but the left side was at least half an inch lower and less wide. While you could see my pearly whites glinting back from the exposed right side, the left teeth remained almost totally concealed by lips that refused to part. And worse yet, the smile crinkled up my right eye like smiles do but the left side stayed rooted still, open and unfeeling. I grimaced to try a different facial expression; it was the same thing. I blinked at myself, now noting that my left eye felt dryer somehow and was horrified to learn that the blink was not reaching fully into the inner corner. I could literally see the whites of my eye closest to the bridge of my nose.

I composed myself with trepidation. How could this be happening to me? My face, the thing everybody sees and judges people on first and foremost – whether we want to or we don’t – was sliding downward toward my neck and it was getting worse as time wore on. The paralysis spread like fingers choking the life from a tiny neck.

‘Guys, I’m going to make a move.’ I glumly reported as I returned to the partygoers a little while later. I sensed them all trying to catch a glimpse of my melting leftie with interest and pity but I kept my head down and refused eye contact. I said my goodbyes swiftly, wishing Kimberly a happy birthday (she was too drunk to know what the fuck was going on by this point) and Helen walked me out to my car, imploring me to let her know any updates as soon as I could.

That night I cried myself to sleep; or rather, I half cried myself to sleep as the other side didn’t really seem to do anything. I had googled Bell’s Palsy to within an inch of my life and scoured the archives of the internet for any remedy I could possibly employ to restore my face back to full movement. The results weren’t good. There was no cure, the symptoms could last for months and, in very extreme cases, were permanent and if not caught within the first 12-24 hours there was simply no hope of controlling the onset of the symptoms. It was a sleepless night; I spent much of the time trying to squidge my drooping left side into the pillow and push it upward, as if gravitationally controlling the skin on my face would somehow stop the effects from taking hold. When I readied myself for work the next morning I could already see the effects were even worse.

I felt I couldn’t call in sick at work as a normal person would have done – I was only one month in to the role. I would still need to ask to go home early and I felt awkward even to request this of my new bosses. I made an emergency GP appointment that evening and spent the train journey into London silently crying from behind blackest D&G sunglasses – paralysed left side or not, there was never a reason to not be stylish. Fortunately, I got a seat on the right hand side of the train and therefore hid my crying side; the betraying left side was exposed to the microcosmic world on the train so onlookers could see only that frozen visage.

Walking into the open plan office that morning was a hellish ordeal. Head down, I scuttled to my desk blushing furiously and attempting at all costs to conceal the paralysis taking a grip of my left side. Mr Digital Marketing and his well-dressed clique appraised me in my dressed-down Friday attire, failing (I hope) to note the frozen visage emerging from the left cheek outward. I went to the loo for one last glimpse of the Palsy before I had to make that call to my new boss and beg for an early finish before the damage was irrectifiable.

The kindness people have shown me over the years never fails to amaze me; as someone who has been bereft of good deeds made toward them it always strikes me hard when people do nice things for me though I am terrible at showing my gratitude. On this day, my boss showed me more empathy and consideration than I could ever convey and I wouldn’t be able to find the words to verbalise just how much a simple act of kindness meant to me in one of the darkest moments of my life.

I telephoned my boss, Mark, to ask him if I might leave early. He was a GP and the most lovely man one could hope to work for. He was gentle, considerate and extremely kind (in case I haven’t mentioned that before!) He worked from home on Fridays as a rule and I tried to protect his time wherever possible by refraining from contacting him unless absolutely necessary. However I felt my facial health was a valid excuse to break this enterprise. He answered his phone with a tone of surprise – an 8am call from his Assistant was a rarity.

‘Mark, it’s XX. I wondered if you would mind if I leave work early today? I need to go and see my GP at 4pm.’ My voice shook though I tried to hide my heightened emotional state.

As I knew he would, Mark did not hesitate in giving his permission. He asked if everything was OK, obviously picking up on my ill hidden cry-vibe.

Feigning nonchalance I certainly did not feel I responded, ‘Oh yes, all good, thanks. It’s just one side of my face won’t move. I’m sure it’s nothing but I want to get it checked.’

From that moment, Mark went into GP mode. He made telephone calls, he ordered taxis and he told me to shut down my computer, go to Main Reception and wait there. I was not to do another thing and I was certainly not to even consider work. He told me I could be having a stroke – though he doubted it very much – and I needed to be immediately checked.

The taxi picked me up and took me to Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital in London. I was met at the entrance by a Physician colleague of Mark’s who whisked me away and did multiple tests on me. She explained that little is known about the Bell’s Palsy virus though some think its onset is often caused by stress. They believe it affects a nerve in the base of the brain and that nerve has three tranches emerging from it, affecting the mouth, the eyes and the ears. If just one of those facial features is affected then clinicians are able to deduce exactly which nerve has been affected, however if all nerves are affected (as mine were) then it indicates that the main nerve has the virus. While I was being educated in all this I sat, riveted, gleaning as much medical information from this reliable source as I possibly could. She told me I was very lucky I had caught it so early as the effects were ‘barely noticeable’ – though I certainly didn’t believe her. I still had the crease which ran from my nose to the outer corner of my mouth and this, apparently, is a telltale sign of Bell’s Palsy. My face had not noticeably dropped or sagged, rather it was frozen with partial movement. She put me on a course of more steroidal medication than I have ever been on in my life and told me the effects would be captured before they could worsen any further. Sweet relief washed over me as I began to see the peachy orange glow of a horizon at the end of what had been a very dark tunnel with no windows and no doors.

When the panic and the horror of the initial diagnosis subsided, I began to see the funny side of having Bell’s Palsy. While I could never look at or speak to Mr Marketing Man again this was the only real negative of the situation. It lasted around two months, give or take. Mark assessed me every single day at work, offering advice and acknowledging the true extent of the hold the Palsy had taken over my face – it wasn’t so very terrible, but there were clear signs something had happened to me. True to her word, my Physician had been quite right when she said the medication would catch the effects and stop them exactly where they were; the affliction never got any worse than they had been that day. I have Mark to thank for that and I will never be able to express fully my gratitude to him that I didn’t have to walk around with a face in a state of half-perpetual misery for the longevity of the condition.

If you did not know me, I don’t believe you would immediately be struck by the lopsided nature of my face for those two months; of course those who knew me were well aware but beyond that it was relatively mild and easily concealed by employing a permanent expression of misery or anger. The most notable (and hilarious) effects of Bell’s Palsy were thus:

When I blew someone a kiss (I only found this out when joking around with a friend) the kiss would come out from the right side of my mouth only; I couldn’t purse my lips together and the kiss would therefore travel from the centre of my mouth to expulsion from the right hand corner. I now believe this was the inspiration for the kissy-face emoji (once you see it, you’ll never unsee it so I apologise for giving your emoji Bell’s Palsy):

When I brushed my teeth, the toothpaste I spat out spurted in a powerful line out of the right side of my mouth. I got caught out with this a number of times, forgetting that minty water shot out from the corner of my right lip and could flow like urine across the sink and floor.

I couldn’t raise my left eyebrow. I had to learn to control my surprise in as many circumstances as possible otherwise my facial expression merely raised one eyebrow in a quizzical motion. Strangely, this is one residual symptom which never fully left me. Even after all these years, one of my eyebrows never raises as high as the other…I don’t mind this though – it reminds me that things could be so much worse.

I look back at that time sentimentally. It truly was a roller coaster of emotions; the self-diagnosis, the panic through the night while elevating my face with pillow-tools and then the mildly entertaining side effects of what can be a truly horrible and humiliating condition. I don’t have much luck in life – fortune is not my friend. But in the 24 hours that Bell’s Palsy started to wage war on my face I must have seen two magpies, or missed three drains in a row, or perhaps Misfortune just got so sick of me by that point he left my side for the briefest of moments and Lady Luck was able to moonlight in his stead. Whatever the reason, thanks be to God my face remained in a frozen state of nothingness rather than melting like some overheated wax work into my jawbone. I can pull off many things including making a hideous childhood sound entertaining and glamorising pre-sex nosebleeds but even I couldn’t turn a left-sided facial wilt into light entertainment.

Actually…who am I trying to kid? Of course I could…but just let’s all reflect on and be grateful for the fact I didn’t have to live as an orphan in a house with an 80 year old woman and a numb face that had half slid into sadness for two months. Also, while we’re on the whole ‘I’m grateful for…’ chat – I can’t say I’ve ever been more happy not to have suffered from drooling.

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