In a single night during my second year of graduate school, my life took an unexpected turn. I began noticing that my face felt unusually tense, as though it was taking a lot of effort to stretch my mouth into a smile. When I began brushing my teeth before bed and realized I couldn't spit into the sink properly, I knew something was really wrong. Staring at myself in the mirror, I attempted to smile and raise my eyebrows. My heart dropped as I realized the problem: half of my face was stiff, unmoving.
Am I having a stroke? I wondered. But at 23 years old, I realized that was unlikely. Then I did some research and realized the culprit. It was Bell's Palsy - facial paralysis caused by damage to the 7th cranial nerve for reasons unknown. It strikes without warning and it can last anywhere from a few weeks to… well… forever. When a doctor confirmed my self-diagnosis the next day, a new chapter of my life began.
Bell's Palsy: The Initial Days
After 24 hours, my face had gone from slightly taut to completely asymmetrical on one side. My mouth drooped down, taking away my ability to drink from a straw, form explosive consonants, and, above all, to smile. My eye would not blink, so I had to wear an eye patch. My skull ached. I felt exhausted. After attempting all treatments for possible causes, the neurologist who I was referred to me told me there was nothing he could do. The nerve just had to heal on its own, and it should do so within a few months.
And so I faced the world with my Bell's Palsy, armed with faith in God and a sense of humor, but it required a huge adjustment in my way of thinking and behaving. I was used to being able to use my face to communicate my feelings. I could no longer smile at strangers I passed on my walks or indicate my delight when someone made my day. I couldn't raise both eyebrows in surprise. I couldn't blow out candles. I couldn't even blow a kiss.
Accepting the New Reality
As weeks turned to months, my face slowly began to regain its functionality, but it never quite returned to normal. I went to physical therapy after I'd had Bell's Palsy for about two years, and that helped strengthen my weakened muscles and regain some tone in my face, but it was altogether too little too late.
It's now been 4-and-a-half years since I was afflicted with Bell's Palsy, and my smile is still crooked. It seems that my nerve didn't heal correctly, and so when my brain tells my face to move a certain way, the muscles disobey. Instead of turning the corner of my mouth up, it stretches down. I know what I used to look like and mourn the loss of my countenance, but to people who meet me now, this is just how I look, and people without a trained eye don't even realize anything is wrong.
I'm More than a Face
In a way, my vanity decreased as a result of my Bell's Palsy because I no longer wanted to be in the spotlight. I used to be excited to have my picture taken. Now, I smash the "broken" half of my face into someone else's or hide it, trying to minimize the ugliness of my droopy smile. During photo sessions, I ask the photographer to shoot me from my "good" side and catch me at angles that don't highlight my paralysis. But when I take a look at what's going on, this isn't a decrease in vanity at all - it's an increase in the importance I place on how I look.
Luckily, I have someone in my life that reminds me I'm more than a face. I met the man who would become my husband after I'd already recovered as much as I would from Bell's Palsy. There are probably some guys out there who wouldn't have given me a second look due to my facial paralysis, but he saw beyond it right away. Having someone fall in love with me while I look the way I do reminds me that love goes so much further than a recognition of objective beauty.
Whenever I feel sorry that he didn't know me before I had Bell's Palsy, he reminds me that it wouldn't have mattered if he had. To him, I'm just me. If I miraculously recovered or one day relapsed, it wouldn't matter to him. True love is between two souls, and he reminds me to face the world with pride in what lies beneath, not preoccupation with what the world sees.
Although in many ways I wish I'd never gotten Bell's Palsy, it's now become a part of my story. It's taught me resilience, humility, and acceptance. But most importantly of all, it's reminded me that beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.
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