Rulebreaking again today. The actual prompt for the day is: “Sweets! Do you allow indulgences during the holidays with all the tempting food about, or do you have a plan to keep it in check?” But I am really trying hard not to eat sweets this year. Not for vanity or to really exercise my muscles of willpower, but because I am sick. Not like, really sick, but not like a passing cold, either. Somewhere in that middle-ground of “probably not going to die, but also maybe not getting better for a long time. Or ever?”
So I again went back to the archives to look for a prompt more suiting to me interests in reflection on the year, and I found this one. And I like it. So I’m going to write about it.
Brave. What was the bravest thing you did this year?
On a Wednesday morning in May, I showed up to work like this.
As you can see, even though I showed up to work, half my face did not. The entire right side of my face (on the left in the picture, in case that wasn’t obvious) just stopped working.
It sort of started that Monday with what I thought was a pinched nerve in my neck from a long, miserable gravel ride we had done the Saturday before. I had neck pain, ringing in my ear (which I thought could have been caused by 70 miles of crosswinds), and an unexplained loss of taste on exactly one half of my tongue.
I was facilitating a meeting on Tuesday, when I realized I was having a hard time forming certain letter sounds as I spoke– p, b, f, m– all sounds that rely heavily on your lips. No one else seemed to notice, but I could feel the right side of my face getting softer and slower. Immediately after my meeting, I called my clinic, hoping to get an appointment “this week.” They instantly got a nurse on the line and she said, “What you are experiencing is not a clinic appointment. You need to go to urgent care or the ER and you need to go there right now.”
As I called Aaron to ask him if he would come pick me up and take me to an urgent care, I was really commending my excellent clinic for their diligence over a pinched nerve.
I was so naive.
I waited in urgent care for 40 minutes. Alone. As I waited, I started snapping selfies. Each one mirrored to me a progressively worsening condition. When a doctor finally was able to see me, I think she was actually shocked at my condition. She started asking me some normal questions:
“Have you been dizzy? Did you blackout?”
“Have you had any trauma to your head and neck?”
And then she asked me:
“Do you know where you are?”
“Who is the President of the United States?” [To this I practically yelled ‘BARACK OBAMA!’ because already the election rhetoric was thick]
Slowly, I realized she thought I was having a stroke. At 29 years old. She furiously scribbled her observations and concerns on a sheet of paper that she handed to me, and said sternly, “Go directly to the emergency room. Right now.”
So I did. And in the 2 minutes it took to drive across the street, they were waiting for me. I checked in, and expected to have to sit in the waiting room for a space to open up and the intake nurse said, “Oh no, you are absolutely not going to wait.” The initial 20 minutes of the ER was a flurry of vitals and questions. I was again asked who the president was, and I was pretty miffed that the doctor from urgent care had not expressly notified the ER staff of my excellent recall of basic current events. All the while, the droop in my face worsened.
The next part, I can’t remember exactly. As 2 or 3 nurses stood around me, doing various work, or just listening in, the doctor said, “It’s possible you’re having a stroke, which I know is scary. It’s also possible that you’re not, and that this is something called ‘Bell’s Palsy.’ Unfortunately, we can’t know until we rule out stroke, tumors, or multiple sclerosis, which we can do with an MRI. But I don’t want to send you to MRI just yet, in case you are truly experiencing a stroke.” I do remember the doctor being kind and gentle, which matters. I don’t remember if Aaron was there.
At the time, this didn’t seem so absurd, but in the months after I realized what he was saying: “I am afraid to put you in an MRI machine because you could stroke out.”
I did not feel brave. I felt terrified. I did finally get to have the MRI and while I was in the giant whirring machine, I quietly wept as the gravity of what I might be facing slowly settled in.
We waited only about thirty minutes for my test results. I unraveled every single second of that wait over and over again in my mind. In hindsight, Aaron and I both admit to being frightened, but said nothing of it at the time.
It was nothing. Well, not nothing. My face was still drooped, my speech slightly slurred, my hearing on my right side gone. But it was just Bell’s Palsy (later further diagnosed as Bell’s caused by a recurrent chicken pox infection, if you can believe that!). Just your ‘run of the mill facial paralysis.’
So the next day I went to work. With an eye that didn’t close on its own and with a mouth that sometimes drooled a little (nothing says “take me seriously as a young professional” like some completely unintentional side eye and some casual drool). And the day after I sat for 5 hours to get the first part of my first tattoo done. And the day after that Aaron and I went to a cocktail evening at the Minnesota Zoo. And we went to Rock the Garden and we went canoeing and we went to Duluth. For 67 days, I refused to let a very public illness and a very crooked face take the joy out of my days. Mostly because, each day after the 18th of May that I am not having a stroke (or tumor or MS, for that matter) is a day for joy and for living bravely.
Those shaaaaaades, amirite? The doctor told me I need to protect my eye, so I bought myself these sunglasses at the pharmacy and I have never looked better.
You have gotten all the way here and are like, “What the fuck does this have to do with holiday sweets?” And I hear you, and I am sorry. So as to not make a long story longer, what I will say is: Bell’s Palsy is caused by inflammation around one of your cranial nerves. I thought I was having a recurrence this fall, and no underlying cause was detected (read: second round of MRIs to look for tumors. fun. or something). So, in an effort to hopefully just reduce any and all inflammation I might be experiencing, I am supposed to stay away from the sugary treats of the season. At least as best as I can. It probably sounds hard, and sometimes it is. But it’s actually quite a bit easier when your FACE is at stake.