“I can drink with a straw today! Hooray:)”
This was the text I sent to my mom and my sister this morning. My mom called me immediately, and my sister replied, “Super awesome!!!” (A love of exclamation points runs in our family).
When the baby was ten days old, I discovered I had Bell’s Palsy. It was the first day since I gave birth that I felt inclined to wear something other than pajamas. I even traded my glasses for contacts and put on makeup, I was feeling so zippy. After applying mascara, (my new non-waterproof kind which I do NOT recommend for use during a water birth), I put on some lip gloss. It wasn’t Aquaphor, either. It was the scented pink kind that comes in a tin decorated with roses, the I’m-ten-days-postpartum-I-have-dark-circles-under-my-eyes-and-I-still-look-pregnant-but-hell-if-my-lips-aren’t-shiny-and-rose-scented kind. When I went to press my lips together after smearing on a fingerful of the pink stuff, I couldn’t do it. I tried again, but I just couldn’t get the right side of my face to move. I heard Sweet Pea make a funny comment from the other room and when I looked up in the bathroom mirror, I realized I wasn’t smiling. Instead, my face was contorted with the left half of my mouth turned up, while the right side slanted down, my lips pressed together in a line slanting down toward my rightearlobe.
Conveniently, I was already dressed and ready to go, since I would end up having to go to the doctor, and then straight from his office to the hospital for a stat MRI. The MRI had the potential to be relaxing, given the fact that it required me to be alone and lying down for 25 minutes, despite the requisite clattering and banging. The nice lady even gave me a warm blanket and ear plugs before sliding me into the coffin-like tunnel. I couldn’t relax, however. Not because I was being evaluated for a stroke or because I was in the kind of space that would make an airplane bathroom feel luxuriously large and airy, but because my mom was waiting in the car with little Lady Bug while my boobs- her only food source- were with me in the MRI machine.
When the MRI came back negative, I was relieved to find it was Bell’s Palsy and not something more serious. I was also relieved (perhaps moreso) by the fact that my mom reported the baby hadn’t let out so much as a whimper while my boobs and I were trapped in the MRI machine.
Bell’s Palsy is an inflammation of the seventh cranial nerve, also known as the facial nerve. It causes paralysis or weakness of the muscles in the affected side of the face. Sometimes it’s due to a virus, but no one is quite sure why people get it. My doctor said I would get better with or without a prescription steroid, which is “probably” safe for breastfeeding, so I decided not to go that route. Meanwhile, according to him and everything I read online (which was far, far too much), my case, which was moderate, would take anywhere from a few weeks to a year to resolve.
As each day passed and my face remained the same, the feeling of relief quickly wore off and I started feeling sorry for myself. I was sorry that I looked like a freak. My sister said (in the most loving way possible) that I looked like a scary cartoon character. Since I don’t read comic books or watch cartoons, I am not sure who she was talking about. Regardless, I know I looked like I either had a stroke or some major dental work.
I was frustrated that it was a great effort to drink from a cup and to chew my food. I was annoyed that my right eye intermittently watered like crazy. I was crabby because my neck was sore and it felt like someone had punched me in the the jaw, despite my taking much more than the recommended dose of Advil. I was annoyed that I was supposed to continue to rest, in order to promote my recovery from Bell’s Palsy… I was nearly done with the two week rest my midwife told me to take following childbirth, and now I was supposed to rest more!? I was going stir crazy.
Meanwhile, I was self-conscious of my face, I had about two outfits that fit my new post-pregnancy body, and my breasts were like two leaky faucets, which made the idea of going out considerably less attractive, despite my cabin fever.
And then I felt guilty for feeling so miserable. After all, the MRI was negative! It wasn’t a stroke. It wasn’t MS. I was fine. I had a healthy baby who was sleeping 3-5 hours in a row at night (For anyone reading who has never had a baby or who blocked out the memory of having a newborn: This is a good thing). Sweet Pea was crazy about her little sister, begging to hold her, and kissing her every chance she got.
I should have been overcome with joy. Instead I was sitting in my bed, nursing the baby, watching the trees sway in the breeze out my bedroom window, obsessively googling “Bell’s Palsy,” on my phone, promising myself this would be my last search, scrolling through my Facebook feed, then googling “Bell’s Palsy” for (seriously) the last time. I was anxious that my recovery would take months, or even a year, sad that I was missing out on summer, and even sadder that I couldn’t just be happy.
And then, just about a week after the onset of my symptoms, things started to get better. I could have a conversation or eat a meal without my face feeling fatigued afterward. It wasn’t such a huge effort to drink from a cup. I could raise my right eyebrow a little bit. I could swish my toothpaste in my mouth without it dribbling down my chin.
Every day my face gets a tiny bit better, and I am happy for that. And I don’t just mean not crying in the shower, I mean I feel like doing the happy dance.
I still look strange when I smile, and I find myself explaining my situation to neighbors and friends. Dan is adamant that he still finds me beautiful and Sweet Pea hasn’t said a word about my face. Her only comment so far has been, “You go to acupuncture because you don’t feel good?”
I wish I were more like Sweet Pea, able to see through the surface to the important parts of a person. But I’m really obsessed with my face right now. And even though I know no one else is obsessed with my face (except maybe my mom, who calls to check on me about it every single day. Thanks, Mom!), I can’t help but assume everyone is wondering what the hell happened to my face.
So if I run into you, here are some things you should know: I might be happy to see you, even if I don’t smile. (To the 19 year old girl with homemade earrings who knocked on our door to get me to sign a petition: I was not actually happy to see you). If you are so funny and engaging that I absolutely can’t help but crack a smile or (god forbid) break into a laugh, I will look probably look down at the ground when I do. I’m not winking at you, I just can’t close my right eye as easily as I can close my left eye. Also, I might appear unusually self- satisfied if I gulp down a drink using a straw.