The author on stage with her band.
As the singer, I often griped at my bandmates for being too loud. But on this particular day five years ago, the volume was deafening, downright painful. "I'm in physical pain!" I hollered. "It's too loud!" My bandmates looked confused; they stared at me as I fell to the floor in a state of panic. "I think I'm having a stroke," I shouted. "Someone call 911." I felt like I didn't have any function on the right side of my face. Something was off.
I ran to the bathroom to get a look at my face. It appeared normal, but I could feel a difference. Then, my mind rewound back to when I was a teenager and my friend Brian got an odd disorder called Bell's palsy.
My late husband, Justin, loved to tease me and deemed me a hypochondriac. But who could blame me? Since the age of 5, I've encountered a string of bad luck, and I've learned to prepare for the worst. I have broken my left arm twice, been in numerous car wrecks, almost burned my childhood home down when I was a teen, gotten run over by a car while on foot, had a diseased gallbladder forcing me to have emergency surgery, been hospitalized while eight months pregnant with fetus-threatening food poisoning, and, most horrifically, recently lost my husband to unthinkable circumstances.
"What if I have that thing Brian had when his face was paralyzed?" I said. "Bell's palsy." Justin chuckled at me: "Are you serious?" I could hear the other guys whispering and realized I wasn't convincing anyone. While I don't recommend using Google as a way to self-diagnose (especially for a hypochondriac like me), on that day it actually gave me some answers, and I knew that I needed a professional opinion, so off to the clinic I rushed.
When the doctor entered the room, he looked at me like I was nuts and assured me that it couldn't possibly be Bell's palsy. Then he tested me anyway and discovered that my suspicions were correct all along. Yet, he still couldn't tell me what had caused it or how long it would last. All he could tell me was it was going to get worse before it got better and most people fully recover in a month or so. I walked out of the clinic that day with nothing but a diagnosis, a prescription for steroids, and a referral to see an ENT specialist. I was freaked out, depressed, and even pissed off. What frightened me the most was the uncertainty: I wanted an exact timeline, a detailed explanation, and a treatment method. But unfortunately for Bell's palsy diagnoses, this is not reality.
Bell's palsy can occur at any age and causes sudden weakness in your facial muscles. According to the Mayo Clinic, Bell's palsy "makes half of your face appear to droop. Your smile is one-sided, and your eye on that side resists closing." Doctors don't know the exact cause, but it's thought to be the result of swelling and inflammation of the nerve that controls one side of your facial muscles. It might also be a reaction after a viral infection.
For most people, Bell's palsy is temporary. Symptoms usually start to improve within a few weeks, with complete recovery in about six months. Some symptoms of Bell's palsy may include:
- Total paralysis on one side of your face
- Facial droop and difficulty making facial expressions, such as closing your eye or smiling
- Increased sensitivity to sound on the affected side (hence my aversion to my bandmates)
- A decrease in your ability to taste
- Changes in the amount of tears and saliva you produce
Having half of your face paralyzed would be a major blow to anyone's self-esteem, especially a young woman. As a professional singer, I was devastated. Every weekend, my job was to stand on stage and sing in front of strangers. It required that I be the center of attention, but now I wanted to hide. I convinced myself that people would point and stare, causing me to chicken out and cancel all of my gigs for a month. In hindsight this seems superficial, but at the time it was what I felt I needed to do.
Bell's palsy affected my daily routine in ways I couldn't have imagined. I am an avid coffee drinker, but while I had Bell's palsy, I gave it up. My reason for doing so? The first degree burns I received on day three while brainlessly attempting to take a sip. Remember leaving the dentist after having a cavity filled? That's what it's like while consuming liquids with Bell's palsy. Any slurping, sucking, or sipping abilities for the time being are long gone. You may as well forget straws were ever invented.
All food tasted pretty gross, and even chewing it was a dilemma. I discovered this one day when a piece of bread I was attempting to chew ended up in my husband's beer. Also, the drooling side effect is no joke. I always carried a rag or handkerchief to blot my mouth. I recall petting my dog, Axl, one day only to realize he was soaked with my saliva — payback for all the times he drooled on me?
The author, back to her usual self.
Anyone who has ever been to an extremely loud concert before knows how painful it can be to attempt to communicate with friends, yelling into each others' ears. That's how it felt anytime anyone slightly raised their voice to me, and it took my breath away.
I also gave up wearing any and all makeup. I saw no point in accentuating a droopy lip and one considerably larger eye. Plus, any mascara would have just ended up all over my cheeks from the excessive watering I caused by constantly rubbing my eye in an attempt to close it.
In the end, the absolute worst "functioning" side effect had to be my loss of eye movement. My right eye would not close on its own, which presented a major problem. Not only did it look creepy as hell when I attempted to close my eye — my eyeball rolled back in my head — but it made it utterly impossible to fall asleep. After watching a few YouTube tutorials, I took advice from others and opted to tape my eye shut at night. This was incredibly uncomfortable and required that I wake up multiple times a night to readjust, basically ripping my eyelashes off in the process. I was never so thankful for fake eyelashes!
In the end, I managed to recover fully in about 60 days, with my worst symptoms lasting around three weeks. Most recent reports show 5 to 9 percent of Bell's palsy patients report a recurrence with an average timespan of 10 years in between. I learned that for every bad situation you endure, you're never alone. With the internet, you can find tons of people with comparable circumstances, and it's beneficial to rely on one another when necessary. Reading blogs and watching YouTube videos helped me the most. It was why I decided to document my own experience, in an attempt to help someone in my situation down the line.
The author's daily documentation of her Bell's palsy symptoms.
I also applauded my husband (Justin Ayers was an amazing man!) for effortlessly putting up with a nightmare of a woman and never once complaining about it. After it was all said and done, I had gained a new perspective in life, I was actually thankful. My disfigurement only lasted 60 days, and I know I'm lucky; people who suffer from strokes often endure permanent damage and endless challenges. But most of all, I learned that life will always be unpredictable, with a mix of good and bad. The good is what we think what we want in life, but it actually teaches us nothing. It's the hard times that we can learn from and that allow us to become the best or worst version of ourselves.