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If you Happen to Catch the Palsy

By Allyson Smith

The trouble with being cosmetically disabled is that it is easy to forget. Maybe all disabilities are easy to forget; you get used to things however they are, and the way things are becomes normal. But I think that losing the surface tension on half of my face must be easier to forget about than losing a limb or your eyesight. Easier for me to forget, I should say. For everyone around me it is, of course, obvious.

Bell’s Palsy is a fascinating disease. One day you can pucker and blink, the next you can’t. Half of your face becomes suddenly paralyzed, and researchers are unsure exactly where to pin the blame. The best guesses are the common cold or an inner ear infection that just happens to trigger swelling too close to the seventh cranial nerve (you didn’t know this was going to get technical, did you?) Ninety percent of people who come down with Bell’s Palsy recover fully within six to eighteen months. Pregnant women however, whose odds of picking up this particular palsy multiply more than ten-fold at around thirty-two weeks gestation, frequently end up somewhere in the less fortunate ten percent.

Other than the fact that I was 32.6 weeks pregnant one New Year’s Day, I was feeling pretty good. Mild cold, stuffed up nose, but nothing substantial. My youngest sister had shown up and sprung a trip out of town for my husband and me, which included her services as babysitter for the rest of our progeny. Lovely dinner, lovely drive, and a night in a bed and breakfast with rooms decorated in early-‘80s-country-mauve-living-room. (Had you asked me before if I could ever find that particular décor romantic, I may not have said yes. In fact I may have vomited a little in the back of my throat. But now? Oh baby.)

The dinner was so lovely that I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that I had lost the ability to taste on the left side of my tongue. I wondered out loud if I may have licked some cleanser earlier in the day, but otherwise gave it little thought. The next morning, however, when I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and was unable to spit, there was no denying something was wrong. One more day and the entire left side of my face was immobilized. Completely.

And it stayed that way for two or three months. I wore a big black eye patch over my unblinking eye to keep it from drying out (which entertained my kids to no end) or hand blinked it every few seconds. And I could be laughing hysterically, but if you were directly to my left you might assume I’d been embalmed, which disturbed my husband to no end. “Are you mad at me?” he would ask from the driver’s seat in the car, after a particularly superb crack. “Would you just sit sideways so I can see if you are laughing?”

Once the baby was born, and some of the baby weight exited with her, pressure on the cranial nerves subsided and the muscles started contracting again, slowly relearning to pull. But they never caught back on entirely. Two years later I still have residual issues, and find myself solidly within the dreaded ten percent. Any time I move my facial muscles, I do this really seductive (or somewhat creepy, depending on your point of view) wide-eyebrowed wink. The forehead muscles pull up continuously, while the Orbicularis oculli muscles that surround the eye over-contract. Whether smiling or blowing kisses, I’ve always got one heavily closed eye topped with an eyebrow halfway to my scalp. Everything looks off center, but nothing feels off center. And therein lies the rub.

Now that I can blink and eat without drooling, my face no longer feels awkward. I feel like I look relatively normal, but I am becoming accustomed to being treated as though I do not. Every time I am the guest reader in my daughter’s grade school class, the hands fly as soon as the book is finished and the first question the kids ask is What is wrong with your eye? If I laugh in a crowd, I catch looks of confusion and interest, and once in a while of pity. Or sympathy. Or empathy. It’s hard to tell which, and I have an uncomfortable feeling that the meaning I assign to the looks depends largely on how I am feeling that day. If I am cranky, the looks are laced with judgment and disdain. If I am pleasant, they are filled with concern and support.

Over the past two years I have begun to wonder how people with substantial disabilities must feel when I look or don’t look, when I comment or don’t. Like me, they probably expect people to look, to comment, to engage, and conversely expect people to notice and not comment, to notice and not engage. And I have begun to wonder if there is anyone who doesn’t feel this same way, to one extent or another. I may not look entirely symmetrical, but then again, who does? Which of us doesn’t have some feature that is tweaked or some body part that is underperforming? And which of us does not have the power to control whether we are piling up offense or enrichment as our lives collide with others every day?

I heard an interview with George Clooney on NPR the other day, and he mentioned he had had Bell’s Palsy as a teenager. What are the odds? Just on more thing he and I have in common. The interviewer asked if he thought the experience had helped him in any way. “It made me be funny,” he said. “When you are starting high school and you can’t blink, you have to be able to laugh at yourself.”

Was it Sister Hinckley who said something to the affect of, “When trouble comes you either laugh or cry, and crying gives me a headache”? As my two-year Palsy anniversary approaches, I’m working on a new New Year’s Resolution. I want to laugh more – at myself and along with others. I mean, what’s not to laugh at? I think that eye twitch is pretty funny looking myself.

About Allyson Smith


10 thoughts on “If you Happen to Catch the Palsy”

  1. One thing I have learned is that people are so busy worrying about themselves (how they look, are perceived, or their own problems) to really notice anything else. Regardless, nobody is perfect (physically or otherwise) and more laughter is always a good thing.

  2. Allyson, your luck lies in the fact that you are a beautiful person with or without the palsy. This well-written post is evidence of that.

    You and George Clooney indeed!

  3. I am speechless. How can you be so resilient? I would feel cursed and hopeless if something like that happened to my face. My FACE. Amazing, inspiring. Next time I feel like whining (five minutes from now probably) I am going to read this.

  4. I am going to laugh more too. I just got back in touch with a high school buddy who said, "When are you coming into town again? It's been too long since I laughed until I felt like I would puke." It made me think that perhaps motherhood and pregnancy and being a grown-up has made me a little too serious. It's been a while since I laughed that hard too.

  5. My little sister had the Palsy when we both were children. I don't remember anyone making fun of her. (I hope I didn't make fun of her.) But I remember being worried over her. Now I wonder what she remembers.

    Beautiful post. Thank you!

  6. I love this, Allyson! You write beautifully. I'm sure I could laugh at myself more and be a little less self-conscious. I used to be painfully insecure when I was younger. It took me a long time to figure out that not only had I been losing out on friendships, I had cheated others from the support and warmth I could have offered had I been a little less worried about myself.

  7. I want to laugh til I feel like puking again, too. But we're all far too grown up and serious for that, right? Allyson, I've seen your beautiful face, and you are blessed with a smile that shines.

    And btw, I feel that way about drivers. When I'm in a bad mood, EVERYONE tries to cut me off.

  8. I don't think I'm so much resilient as resigned. I'm just looking to move from there to something . . . funner. More pleasant.

    The palsy didn't really bother me for the first 6 months or so because let's face it — at 8 months pregnant with my fifth kid, to 5 months post-birth, I wasn't feeling all that stellar-looking anyway. Also I assumed it would disappear completely. A good friend of ours had had it a year or two earlier, and recovered fully within six months, and 90% odds seemed more than ample to include me. So I treated it more as an amusing interlude. By a year, I was no longer amused. I did mourn my face (especially since the realization that recovery had stalled coincided with a return to my non-nursing AA bra size and hair that was no longer blond-by-nature — brutal combination on the ego.) I mourn it sporadically still. But I've also got friends losing kids and dying from cancer, lots of them this year for some reason, which has put a tweaked face into perspective. Makes it seem downright laughable, really.

  9. Brilliant, Ally.

    One of my husband's drop-dead-gorgeous former-roommates got Bell's a few years ago. It was weird to see him in an altered state–I realized just how much, uh, *weight* I had put on his looks, and how silly that was.

    He hasn't fully recovered either.

    (and i heart GC.)


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