One Saturday morning a few months ago, I woke up with a stiff neck. I thought muscle strain was all there was to it but, later during the day, I noticed my mouth had become a little lopsided.
The following day, when I couldn’t close my left eye and take a shower without water entering my eye, I started to panic. I began researching online what it could possibly be, and while I had a sneaking suspicion, I rushed to the doctor the following day.
After a thorough evaluation, the neurologist confirmed my suspicion that I was afflicted with Bell’s Palsy.
Bell’s Palsy is a form of facial paralysis from a dysfunction of the VII cranial nerve (facial nerve), resulting in an inability to control facial muscles on the affected side. Named after Scottish anatomist Sir Charles Bell, who first described its symptoms, it is sometimes mistaken for a stroke. However, there are a few subtle differences that doctors will rule out.
Bell’s Palsy sufferers usually find themselves morphing overnight. There are no warning signs, and most people simply wake up to discover that they can’t move half of their face.
What causes it is still unknown, though most doctors attribute it to exposure to the herpes simplex or herpes zoster virus, which leads to swelling of the facial nerve.
To be on the safe side, most patients are prescribed antiviral medication together with high doses of prednisone, as well as rounds of physiotherapy to control the inflammation and restore normal facial movement.
Most people get better after a few weeks of treatment, but in my case it required a few weeks of medication and more than two months of thrice-weekly physiotherapy sessions.
Because it was a struggle to schedule the physiotherapy sessions with work, my physiotherapist eventually advised me to buy my own portable device to be able to continue the facial nerve stimulation at home.
Upon the recommendation of a friend, I also resorted to homeopathy (a form of alternative medicine) to aid in speedy recovery.
With Bell’s Palsy, you don’t realize how important routine movements are until you can’t perform them. Aside from feeling facial pain, I struggled to eat, drink and talk for several weeks. Ordinary activities like chewing food, sipping from a straw and attending short meetings at work would tire me out.
I also had to use lubricating eye drops and tape my eye down when I went to sleep to avoid scratching my cornea.
While Bell’s Palsy can be physically excruciating, the emotional effect was more difficult to handle. Socially, at least, and considering Facebook, Facetime and such, it was quite challenging to deal with.
Not being able to smile or greet someone properly was frustrating. It’s especially not a great thing when your work requires constantly talking to a lot of people, because with Bell’s Palsy, there is nowhere to hide —everyone can see it and you can’t cover it up.
But I tried to stick to my usual schedule. At times, when I wore sunglasses or a facial mask in crowded areas, or tried to hold my face impassive in certain situations or in photographs, it wasn’t as obvious. I just had to temporarily shove aside my notions of vanity, stop worrying about how other people might react, and try to put on a brave face and go about my usual business.
The fashion industry is a very image-conscious one, and while other people around me constantly talk of cosmetic surgery and other enhancements, all I could think of at that time was how I appreciated my face much more, and wanted it back.
Today, except for a very slight weaker movement around my nostril and eyelid, I’m pretty much back to normal. Doctors say full recovery can take months, but all things considered, I no longer have to keep answering questions and explaining the situation to other people.
My face might not be perfect but, after this experience, I’ve learned to love it.