“Are you okay?”
I’ve just completed my weeklong “shift” of hostess duties: drafting and emailing a wedding announcement for the local newspaper, ironing crisp white tablecloths and chair covers, and decorating a spacious venue, to be exact. This is in addition to pulling frequent all-nighters for a daily entertainment writer gig and defaulting to a 24-hour nanny role that I never signed up for. So after the nuptials, I sit quietly, observant near the dance floor in figurative retirement.
If I danced, I would’ve sashayed to the dance floor. But that’s not my thing. I don’t like to be watched and scrutinized, and as the tallest person on the dance floor, I’m almost guaranteed to attract more attention that I can ignore. However, being a wallflower was more noticeable, eliciting a countless “Come on!” with each motion of a curved finger elevating my blood pressure five millimeters of mercury at a time. I remain at the front table with the purses, fuming, while everyone else shimmies, shakes, shuffles, slides, and steps across the dance floor. It sways my response.
“If one more person asks me…” I say before I exhale. “Yes!”
No one else inquires about my well-being, not even the next day during brunch when my physical features literally relax.
I happen to glance at my reflection in a car window the next morning as I carry my plate of breakfast. Since the inside of the house is still full of wedding guests and it’s an unusually warm fall morning, some of us walk outside to roam the back yard and socialize while we eat. I spot an image that doesn’t quite appear to be symmetrical, but I attribute it to normal distortion because, after all, doesn’t everyone’s face resemble that of a funhouse mirror whenever they look upon the side of a car? An hour later I receive the answer to that question.
My cousin decides to prepare made-to-order omelets for the guests. This time I sit in the family room to enjoy my food. The wilted spinach and sautéed onion are tender, the sausage savory and robust. Instinctively I lick my lips. My tongue touches the left corner of my mouth and slowly circles to cleft before it gets stuck; it can’t quite reach the right side, let alone the right corner. I furrow my brow, puzzled that my tongue feels as if it’s somehow locked.
I attempt to complete another circle, this time starting on the right, but my tongue and lips still refuse to connect. I feel alarm warm the rest of my face, quickly burning to straight panic as I rush to the bathroom mirror.
I turn my head left, then right, carefully searching for some abnormality. I see nothing out of the ordinary; I look like my usual self.
Smile, a small voice says.
I watch my lips spread and curve upward – but only on the left side. The right side of my mouth doesn’t move at all. I’m simultaneously displaying two emotions.
I rest my face and repeat.
I try to pucker my lips, but they only twist leftward, lopsided in a pinwheel fashion. The little cleft moves off-center.
I try to wiggle my nose.
It’s just as rebellious as the right side of my mouth.
I tell myself that this attack on my body is reversible despite what a particular little magnet on my cousin’s refrigerator says. I convince myself I can stop this thing before there’s any pain or weakness in my arm, dizziness and headache, or slur in my speech. And if I don’t verbalize what I think is happening, then it won’t completely manifest. I suppose that was my application of the power-of-the-tongue sermon my cousin always preaches whenever any of us starts a sentence with “I can’t” or utters something negative.
I return to my seat to finish my omelet because, at that moment, I don’t know what else to do. I chew in a way that no one else can detect a problem. I need to think. I remind myself that I’m only 40.
Girl, just drink some water, my mind suggests.
I fetch a bottle and take a few swigs. I chastise myself for indulging in pork sausage as if I didn’t already consume bacon the prior hour, sipping one too many dark sodas, and depriving my body of water frequently. I finish the 16.9 ounces in a matter of gulps.
But what if my face still never returns to its normal state?
I look up and clearly see that refrigerator magnet from where I sit: In case of a stroke, act FAST.
Face. Arm. Speech. Time.
My mind wanders to the possible permanent effects if I don’t seek immediate help. I admit I should do something, but I decide to not dial 9-1-1 because I don’t want to alarm the 40 or 50 guests who are presently in and out the house. They’d definitely panic and further fuel my anxiety, so I tiptoe through the crowd to locate the calmest relative.
“I think I need to go to the emergency room,” I say to her.
I smile for emphasis.
She stares at my mouth for a few seconds.
“Lemme find my keys,” she says.
I’ve scared the shit out of her, too.
We drive the 20 miles in practical silence, interjected with a few words of small talk within the final seven minutes of the ride. We don’t discuss my face. We continue the idle chatter in the waiting area.
It’s fairly quiet in my triage room, too, except when the first, second and third members of the medical staff enter and ask me to repeat my symptoms.
“Has anyone talked to you about possibly having a stroke?” the last one asks.
I pause before I answer.
My face warms for the second time that day, only this time it’s from what I perceive to be nonchalance on her part, especially since she isn’t a doctor. Besides I wasn’t fully prepared for that kind of validation; I still wanted to hear something different. I hadn’t seen a doctor or taken a single test, yet here this woman comes to speak a stroke into my existence.
“No,” I say instead, “but the thought did cross my mind.”
She leaves me to my racing thoughts, which linger on my elevated blood pressure reading. I beat myself up again. I disconnect myself from monitors at least four times because all of that water I drank earlier had nowhere else to flow. I grow antsy between bathroom breaks so I practice facial expressions. It’s during this time that I realize I can’t blink my right eye independent of my left; I have to close them in tandem. I wonder when someone is going to actually treat me if I’m indeed having this stroke.
A young, petite woman sporting a long ponytail finally enters the room. She introduces herself as the doctor and asks me to repeat my symptoms for the fourth time and to perform specific exercises.
“Raise your arm,” she says. “Now make a fist.”
I lift it with a swiftness and clench my fingers with a tightness. I need to prove there’s no weakness or paralysis in these limbs. I can also raise my right leg and circle my foot.
My doctor informs me that she doesn’t think I’m having a stroke because my entire right side isn’t affected – it’s only my face that’s uncooperative – and my speech isn’t slurred. Unlike the previous staff member who utters a premature diagnosis, my doctor prefers to hold her guess until after my CT scan.
I don’t like tight spaces. I’ve entered the tunnels twice before this time: One was opened with “windows” but the other one was completely closed. The latter makes me extremely uncomfortable with the blurs of buzzes and clicks and the closeness of the machine’s ceiling to my nose. I automatically feel like I can’t breathe. I want to blurt, “Forget it!”
I mention this to the man who administers my scan so he asks me about my weekend as he wheels me down the hall. He tells me to close my eyes before the base that I’m lying on glides into place. It’s not as bad as I’d remembered, maybe because my mind is focused on the stroke.
The doctor and I reconvene in my triage room.
“Just as I suspected,” she says. “It’s Bell’s Palsy.”
I’ve never heard of the disorder, although I later learn I know several people who’ve been afflicted by it at some point: a friend’s mother, some cousins, at least two classmates.
“I knew it!” says one of my cousins when I return home. She had it in college and thought she detected it in me during the reception. But we had such a quick conversation and my words were deliberate while the lazy motion of my mouth was subtle. Mostly everyone else could only say I seemed to be “talking funny.” Like me, they weren’t familiar with Bell’s palsy, either.
Bell’s palsy occurs when the nerve that controls the muscles on one side of the face becomes inflamed and paralyzed, ultimately causing the facial features to droop. The underlying causes can be a common cold, the herpes virus that causes cold sores or shingles, or even stress. It is not related to a stroke.
The doctor tells me to await the nurse for my prescriptions – an antiviral in case I picked up a bug and a corticosteroid to suppress the inflammation and simultaneously stimulate my facial nerves.
The nurse tells me she’s been diagnosed with Bell’s palsy three times, although I read it’s rare a person relapses. She correctly assumes it’s highly unlikely I got this from a virus. “Whatever stress you’re under,” she says, “I suggest you let it go.”
Press a stress-be-gone button.
Except I can’t because it surrounds me. It haunts me. I live in the midst of it.
“I know,” is all I can say.
She explains the purpose of the antiviral and steroid along with its potential side effects. “You have to take this on time, exactly as prescribed” because you have to wean yourself off of it in 10 days and not abruptly stop after 10 days.
She also recommends that I buy an eye patch for my protection since I can’t blink or make tears. I later find that the elastic hurts the back of my ear and the patch itself protrudes a little and blocks the line of sight in my left eye. I suffer from an occasional headache, and my vision blurs as my right eye attempts to focus whenever I remove the patch. Consequently, I eventually give up electronics for a few months.
I go home to find a little bit more information on Bell’s palsy such as a clue or two that indicates the illness is about to strike. In retrospect, the dull throb behind my right ear a day or so before the wedding rehearsal was one of the first signs.
I was at another cousin’s house for the rehearsal dinner. As I stood in her kitchen complimenting her on the spaghetti, I caught myself still massaging the area behind my lobe.
“There’s this weird pain behind my ear,” I mentioned to her. But I brushed it off as an everyday ache and pain.
Earlier that day, a third cousin and I stood in a Walmart line discussing a quick run to our favorite bakery. I happened to be chewing gum while thinking about an airy chocolate éclair and a poofy cream puff with a light filling. Those thoughts vanished when I bit down on the inside of my lip. Hard. For the third or fourth time that morning. By the time I got my donuts, I had given myself two blisters on the inside of my lip. The lip-biting was yet another sign.
After reading up on the illness, I perform a more scrupulous daily inspection of my face. I stand in the mirror practicing my smile, looking for any sign of improvement, willing my mouth to expand the way Uma Thurman’s character willed her big toe to wiggle in Kill Bill. I puff out my cheeks with air but my lips make the sound of a deflating balloon because they don’t seal. I dribble when I drink because my bottom lip doesn’t fully grip the rim of a glass. I sip through a straw for several months.
Around the same time every evening, I get extremely hot. For about one long minute, raging heat radiates my face from the inside. I need an industrial-sized fan; I need some sweat to escape my pores. It’s as if my face is straining with all its might to perform some bodily action, but for the most part it can only remain immobile. The right side of my face – particularly my lip and cheek area – involuntarily twitches like that of a dog when he’s exercising his keen sense of smell. But that was an indication of my nerves reawakening.
My eye is the first facial feature to start functioning again. I’m ecstatic to finally ditch the pirate patch, but it’s winter before my full smile returns. Oddly I forgot my minor affliction because worrying about my appearance wouldn’t help me heal any faster. Besides, I adopted the attitude y’all know what emotion I’m really trying to convey, anyway.
Sometimes I do worry about a reoccurrence, though, because I constantly exhibit the characteristics of a superwoman. I fall back into the trap of trying to balance my wants and needs and accommodate everyone else’s. I show no stress only because I hide it well, but acting like it’s not present doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and not all stress is displayed as wild-eyed hair-pulling or nail-biting. Stress can manifest itself in many ways.
Whenever I feel as much as a twinge behind my ear, I often flash back to the lip-biting, drooping and drooling. I immediately start to contort my face to be sure all its parts move and return to their proper resting places: Can I wiggle my nose? Can I curl my bottom lip? Can I chew without biting my bottom lip? Can I wink? Only then do I remember to breathe and regard it as a gentle reminder that I’m once again doing too much and neglecting to take care of me.