Only Half a Smile
Bell’s Palsy plagued her for 14 years. Then she found a treatment to lift her out of the chaos.
During my last pregnancy, I woke up thinking I’d had a stroke. I looked in the mirror and the left side of my face appeared droopy. I shook it off and went to go eat a pickle, but for some reason it tasted bland.
I asked my husband if he noticed anything different about me. He told me something was wrong and that he thought I had Bell’s Palsy. He’s not a physician; he’d just heard of the condition before. I made an appointment with my OB/GYN right away. He confirmed that I had it, and that thankfully our son would not be affected by my condition. I learned that Bell’s Palsy is a condition that causes a facial nerve to become inflamed, triggering facial paralysis. The prognosis varies — most patients make a gradual recovery, but a small percentage will not.
I was only one month shy of delivery, which meant I couldn’t get started on the traditionally prescribed medications. Usually an antibiotic and steroid are given at the onset of Bell’s Palsy, but it wasn’t safe for my son. Instead, I wore an eye patch at night to help keep my eye closed, and used eye drops to keep it lubricated. Even with that, my eye got so dry that I could never shake the feeling I had grit in it all day.
About 40,000 men and women are affected with Bell’s Palsy each year, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders. It usually hits between ages 15 and 60, and is very common during pregnancy. Most people recover after a month or so.
The good news was that I gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and began my medication after that. The bad news was that the drugs didn’t work for me. I never regained full use of the left side of my face.
Living with Bell’s Palsy
My expression looked distorted, so I came to hate looking at myself in the mirror. I felt horrible that it had happened to me. I cried a lot. Even then, it felt like only half of me could cry.
A few weeks after the birth of our son, I had to pick up his brother at elementary school. I tried to do it as quickly as possible, so I wouldn’t have to talk with anyone. But that was the day another mom asked me if I had Bell’s Palsy.
I’d been trying so hard to not have that conversation. She reassured me that she only asked because she’d had it during all her pregnancies, and she thought it was odd that I looked angry or sad each time I would pick up our son. Her facial expressions were frozen like mine, but less dramatic.
Even though she meant well, the encounter with that mother made me feel hopeless, like I would never recover completely. In fact, Bell’s Palsy would plague me for 14 years. But it would also end up playing an intricate role in my journey of reinventing myself.
First I decided that I would find a way to coexist with it. I practiced smiling more slightly so I wouldn’t look ridiculous when half my lips wouldn’t curl up. I tried face massage and exercises, but neither helped. Over the years I learned to ignore the windy sound in my left ear.
I was reluctant to have my photo taken. When I did have to, I learned how to stage a smile by not over exaggerating it. I would practice smiling while looking at a mirror ahead of time. I made it my business to be the person that took the photos of my family instead.
Frustrated and tired of looking strange, I began researching plastic surgery sites. That’s how I found Dr. Jonathan Kulbersh. Synkinesis is a loss of control of one’s facial nerves and muscles and, according to Dr. Kulbersh’s website, Carolina Facial Plastics, it happens to less than 5% of Bell’s Palsy patients.
But when I asked my husband to go see this new doctor with me, he refused. I felt hurt and angry that he wouldn’t go with me. Back then it felt like he was drifting away. I worried that if I didn’t find a way to look pretty again, that he might grow tired of me. My loss of confidence began eroding my self-esteem.
Dr. Kulbersh took “before” pictures and then explained how a continued regimen of Botox might help my condition with the feeling, function and symmetry of my face. By weakening a muscle with the injections, it made my lips more even. It also smooths away any fullness above my left eyebrow. He was so nice and down to earth that I felt completely at ease. He asked me to frown, smile big, pucker my lips, raise my eyebrows as high as I could, recite the alphabet and say “peanut butter.” As I did it, he marked my face where I needed the injections.
The injections were not painful. There were a few sensitive spots, but overall the procedure was easy. I was so happy! I had been given a big dose of hope and a renewed faith in life.
Finding Myself Again
After a few days I looked in the mirror and felt pretty again. The old me was making her way back to the surface. I finally let myself be more optimistic and positive.
I became more independent and even started archery as a hobby. That led me to finding a trainer at my local gym to help me get physically stronger.
During this phase I was still enjoying being a mom. It was never about quitting on my kids or my marriage. But finding this treatment truly changed my outlook.
A friend suggested that I start writing again. I’d been a freelance newspaper columnist for The News-Messenger in Ohio, but I let someone else take over the column when I moved to North Carolina.. I launched Lula Lucy in 2016. It’s an inspirational lifestyle blog that encourages women to pursue their goals, find their passion, to travel and enjoy family life.
I had to have my portrait taken for the blog. I was so nervous that the photographer stopped mid session and had me look at my images.
Though I’d already shared my story, she sensed I wasn’t completely relaxed. She knew I was worried about my smile. When I looked at the images, though, I thought I was looking at someone else. I no longer looked ugly. I felt beautiful. If I could have cried in that moment I would have.
That boost of confidence was exactly what I needed to allow myself to have a great time during my photo shoot. I could tell I was making a breakthrough, experiencing an empowering moment along my journey of self-discovery.
It felt like it was all orchestrated somehow by divine intervention. I could see now that those “in-the-middle-of-chaos” moments had a purpose, even though they didn’t make sense at the time. It all taught me how to fight for my marriage, to push through as a writer and to enjoy my life once again. It was like someone had shoved me over the edge of a cliff. A do or die moment. I chose to live again.
My marriage has improved, though it’s by no means perfect. After going through what I call “the drifting period,” we both learned that we needed to work harder together. My two boys are the glue that kept me together and forced me not to give up.
There may not be a cure for Bell’s Palsy, but Botox is a temporary fix. My doctor has helped me make the transition to using Dysport instead of Botox. This makes it last longer for me considering it takes me a couple of hours to get there. Someday, I may decide to age gracefully without the injections. At least for now though I smile for all the right reasons.
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