Birthdays and Crooked Smiles

It’s the day after my 27th birthday and I think I’m finally getting used to the idea that a birthday doesn’t result in an instant level-up in the manner of a video game. If only we suddenly woke up on our birthday and were rewarded with a sizeable portion of wisdom, an increased level of charm or some assurance that we are on the right track and that we’re doing okay.

It’s inevitable then that birthdays provide a degree of reflection, a check-point on our progress whilst in a degree of disbelief that we somehow made it through another year.

Today, whilst applying my morning war paint, I found myself reflecting on my reflection. I have a complicated relationship with my reflection, with complicated being used here as an euphemism for ‘not good’. The Greek Myth about Narcissus is about how he was so in love with his own reflection that he spurned the love of others, in favour of admiring his own reflection which he was then tricked into falling in love with before then committing suicide in despair that his love could never materialise.

I could easily described as a reverse Narcissus, except my downfall would be brought on by my total avoidance of looking at my reflection. My efforts would be so focused on avoiding looking at it that I’d be so distracted that I’d end up being ensnared and killed by some nearby predator. And, if we want to go deeper on this analogy, I’d be rejecting the love of others out of disbelief that they found anything about me attractive – but that’s another day’s serving of psychoanalysis…

Today, however, I dared myself to actually look at my reflection, beyond quick glances to ensure that the application of the aforementioned make-up is as close to acceptable as possible. I was listening to a podcast, during a funny moment I smiled and found myself watching my smile. And, for the first time I can ever recall, I found myself marvelling at it.

I wish I could say I was marvelling at it on in a macro-level, about how incredible the human smile is, how many muscles it requires, how a smile is universal etc. I was actually marvelling at my smile in particular, how unique it is to me and what I have been through.

My smile very definitely starts forming on the left hand side of my face. Amusement starts with a smirk on that side, before spreading across to the right hand side, although the left hand side is definitely the stronger side. It’s a crooked smile and one I’ve historically been very self-conscious of. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told off or teased for looking serious in photos, favouring a tight even smile in favour of showing a genuine one.

Today was the first time I really thought about the origins of my smile (a la The Joker). The most traumatic event that impacted how I viewed my smile, and my ‘complicated’ relationship with my face overall, occurred in January 2013.

I woke up and very quickly realised something was different. I was struggling to drink my morning coffee without dribbling slightly and found that applying make-up to my right eye took far too much effort to be deemed normal.

It seems odd to say that 20 year-old me knew innately exactly what had happened courtesy of a reality tv show, but I actually did. A couple of years prior I had been watching the TV series of Pineapple Dance Studios with my family. One episode, the human hurricane that is Louis Spence told a story about how he’d spent the New Years Eve of the millennium with a ‘wonky face’ because of a thing called Bells Palsy. He had mostly recovered in the years since, although there were some signs of what had occurred if you really looked. He’d explained it just happened out of the blue and had gone away with time.

I went about that day as best as I could, even though many of my friends and my housemates seemed very wary and couldn’t conceal their concern. I even went to fencing training that night, and found myself joking about how it looked like I’d had a stroke. I hadn’t even told my parents anything was wrong – I didn’t want to worry them and I had it under control. At least I thought I did.

During the following night my arm went repeatedly numb and those ‘jokes’ about having a stroke seemed to haunt me. I called the university medical centre as soon as it opened, and they urged me to come in. What followed there was akin to a sketch in a sitcom, with my heavily pregnant doctor trying to talking to me calmly in the room whilst panicking and calling for an ambulance out in the corridor.

Hours in the hospital followed. The problem with diagnosing Bell’s Palsy is that its a diagnosis that comes from ruling out everything else. And the important thing for the next two days was ruling out the two big ones – that it wasn’t a stroke and that it wasn’t MS. The reason it took two days was a broken MRI and a huge waiting list.

Those two days were spent in a ward filled with women aged 70 and over, women who were visibly and audibly not well. My most vivid memory of this time was being taken to the ward, after my first sleepless night in hospital, with no-one explaining I was only there as there was nowhere else to put me. With my diagnosis still being undetermined, and the scary things still being on the table, I thought being put in this particular room was a reflection of my life chances (I’ve always been prone to hyperbole…) I remember quietly sneaking out of the room and trying to get off the ward, fearful of what staying there meant, until a kindly nurse led me back.

Once the MRI came back clear, I was able to be discharged. It hadn’t been a stroke and there were no signs of MS. Bells Palsy was likely, but only a Lumbar Puncture in two weeks time would help confirm this, which it did. It was also as excruciating as you might imagine and lead to 24 hours worth of the worst nausea and sickness I have ever known.

After leaving hospital, now equipped with an explanation if not a reason as to why it occurred*, I now had to go back to normal life. I had uni to get back to after all. And a part-time job on the deli counter at Sainsburys. The problem was, entire paralysis of the right-hand side of your face isn’t something you can really hide. My mouth drooped on that side, unable to close. The same was true of my right eye. And it’s the kind of thing people notice, react very visibly with and are prone to making inquires about.

There is no right thing to say in this situation, or to anyone going through this situation. But even now, six years on, I still feel the effect of some of those comments. And, trust me, there was a real array of them. And, no matter how well-meaning the intent, each comment took its toll. From a manager at work praising how ‘brave’ I was for trying to act ‘normal’ to inquisitive souls asking if they could ‘catch’ my ‘wonkiness’.┬áThe worst was a snide crack from one person to another, walking on the opposite direction from me, who said I looked like Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s what I thought about myself at the time, hearing it from others only reinforced it.

Recovery from Bell’s Palsy takes time. The face doesn’t automatically fix itself or bing back into place. A large proportion of people who experience Bell’s Palsy will continue to experience some signs or symptoms indefinitely – be that facial weakness, drooping of certain areas or loss of sensation. I left hospital with a few weeks worth of tablets and instructions to work on facial stretches. Only through time would I see how much my face would recover.

It took months, at least half a year, till I felt like I could say that I had fully recovered. Or as close to fully as I ever would be. I have lip syncing to thank for a lot of that. I had very little patience with the stretches I had been given, but lip syncing as expressively as possible did the job. I’m proud to declare that my lip sync to Nicki Minaj’s ‘Superbass’ is legitimately life-changing and empowering, as it quite literally let me change my life and give me some of my power back.

I’m beyond thankful that I regained normal facial function. The only thing that remains is my wonky smile. I carried on smiling during that half a year, even though the smile was only on one side of my face. I smiled – and laughed – at the fact my consultant had the theme tune from Super Mario as his ringtone on his work phone. I smiled at how he said that I clearly had very strong facial muscles (yes, I do claim this as a legitimate superpower). I smiled at how well versed I became in the straw availability in Canterbury’s eating and drinking establishments. This is not to say it wasn’t a dark time in my life or that I wasn’t scared – I really was. But I continued to live my life as much as a I could, and tried to carry on smiling until the right side finally caught up.

My wonky smile is a leftover from that time when I survived something massive, scary and way beyond my control. I refuse to let myself be embarrassed by it any longer. And it that’s as close to a level-up as I’m going to receive this birthday, I’ll take it.

*That’s another brilliant thing about Bell’s Palsy, no-one really knows how it occurs or why it occurs. It just sort of happens, with no pattern as to age, gender or state of a person’s health. There is, however, a tenuous link with STIs which lead to some hilariously excruciating conversations with medical practitioners and members of my family. I should point out, for the record, I did not have an STI!

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