May is mental health awareness month, so I wanted to share my Bell’s Palsy journey and recovery.
What is Bell’s Palsy, how do you get it, and can you recover from it? Those are the top three questions I’m asked whenever I mention that I’ve suffered from Bell’s Palsy. I don’t bring it up often, and if I’m being super honest, it’s probably because I’ve felt some shame and vulnerability around it. But I’ve also grown and transformed because of it, and for that, I’m grateful.
I woke up one day in 2004 and knew right away that something was wrong with my face; the right side felt stiff and weak. As the day went on, my face got progressively worse and droopy until half of my face felt numb. To say I panicked is an understatement. I full-on freaked out.
So, what is Bell’s Palsy?
I had never heard of Bell’s Palsy until my doctor diagnosed me with it. It’s a type of sudden onset of facial paralysis.
My symptoms included:
- Rapidly weakening of facial muscles (on one side of the face) which eventually led to paralysis on the right side. This happened within a couple of days.
- My face appeared to droop and it was hard to blink or smile properly.
- A bit of drooling and difficulty chewing. I also couldn’t use a straw.
- My eye would tear up and then dry out. I had to manually close my eyelid shut (and wear an eye patch at times).
The doctor prescribed a corticosteroid (an anti-inflammatory) and set up an appointment with a neurologist at the local hospital. Since my right eye couldn’t close properly, I had to use eye drops to keep it from drying out and wear an eye patch during sleep.
The frustrating thing about Bell’s Palsy is that it’s a very ambiguous diagnosis in terms of cause, treatment, and potential recovery. After hours of googling, I was left with mostly stories about people who have suffered from it (solidarity, my friends), and a vague idea of what to expect moving forward.
“Bell’s palsy, also known as acute peripheral facial palsy of unknown cause, can occur at any age. The exact cause is unknown. It’s believed to be the result of swelling and inflammation of the nerve that controls the muscles on one side of your face. Or it might be a reaction that occurs after a viral infection.”https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bells-palsy/symptoms-causes/syc-20370028?citems=10&page=0
I’m pretty sure my Bell’s Palsy was caused by an ear infection (I had felt pain in my ear before the onset). But without a clear cause, it’s tough to say with 100% certainty.
What’s the treatment for Bell’s Palsy?
There are medicinal and alternative options, but it depends on your doctor’s advice and at what stage you’re diagnosed. The Mayo Clinic outlines potential treatment, which you can read about here: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bells-palsy/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20370034
Long term at-home therapy for me included massaging my face to stimulate the nerves and practicing moving the different facial muscles. It felt like I was re-learning how to smile, to wink, to scrunch up my face, and relax it. It’s important to practice facial exercises in the road to Bell’s Palsy recovery.
Recovery from Bell’s Palsy varies case by case.
Some people fully recover and others (like me) half-recover. I can feel my facial muscles moving, but I’m also aware that they don’t move the way they used to. In the winter especially, my facial muscles feel stiff and it’s harder to relax them.
While Google prepared me for the physical effects of Bell’s Palsy, I was so not prepared for the mental health effects.
Depression set in as soon as I realized that my face may never be the same again. I was just starting college, and the thought of being judged for the way I looked, made me curl up in the fetal position. It turned out though that I found a lot of kind people who reminded me that beauty is not on the outside.
In hindsight, I should have gone to therapy or tried alternative treatments as well (such as acupuncture and essential oils). Instead, I suffered in silence for months before opening up to friends and family about my emotions. And when I finally did talk about it, the love and encouragement I got was positively overwhelming and lifted me up in ways I wish I had felt before.
Living with Bell’s Palsy
It’s been 16 years since I got Bell’s Palsy, and now I don’t even register it unless I smile in the mirror or look at a photo of myself. Then I see the half-smile and I remember why I instinctively turn my face to hide my right side or smile without showing my teeth.
It’s taken years of positive self-talk to lessen the damage to my self-esteem and overall mental health. I’m still a work in progress. There are days when I feel uncomfortable taking a selfie and I have to sit with those feelings. But I’ve gone through tough times since and will continue to go through tough times in the future – with a crooked smile on my face.
Looking back on my experience with Bell’s Palsy, I would say that more than anything, it humbled me. Losing such an outward ability – the ability to fully smile, made me sensitive to others’ struggles (physical and emotional). It’s what eventually set me on a mission to bring some positivity and motivation to others through my hand lettering. Because we can all do hard things, but we don’t have to do it alone. This is why I’m sharing my full story during mental health awareness month.
I hope that this encourages you and helps you get through your own challenges with physical and/or mental health. We all have our journeys and stories of hardship – and this was mine. If you have a story to share, I encourage you to do it during mental health awareness month and keep these conversations happening.
And friend, if you are dealing with Bell’s Palsy and want to chat with someone who knows what it’s like to have gone through it, there is a lot of help and support out there. You can always reach out to me – via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or connect with me on Instagram and Facebook. You’re not alone!
Also, if you want to read more about who I am (Bell’s Palsy aside), check out my ABOUT ME page. Bell’s Palsy is just one side of who I am; it doesn’t define me.
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