Losing Face, Finding Hands

Inspired by a shorter article originally published in Massage Magazine.


“Don’t look at me. I’m a freak.” I told my students to look down at their books instead of looking up at me.

“Don’t worry, teach, you still look pretty,” said Danny, winking at me. He was seventeen but bold. His comment was disconcerting, not only because my students never talk to me like that, but also because I felt utterly hideous.

I could tell right away that something was wrong when my alarm woke me the day before Danny’s class. I got up to brush my teeth, but when I tried to open my mouth, my lips just sagged, my chin seemed to droop, and I couldn’t feel my tongue. I shook my head to snap out of it, thinking I must be numb from too much sleep. I tried to take a drink of water, but it dribbled down my face. I studied myself in the mirror and noticed that only my left eye was blinking as usual. The right one seemed too lazy to be bothered. It just stared back at me, thick with tears and forced half-open by a phantom thumb pressing on the lower lid. I twisted my mouth around and tried on different expressions, searching for the reflection I was accustomed to seeing each morning, but half my face refused to respond. It was as if the musculature on the entire right side had mutinied overnight and was trying to pull away from the left. The more I tried to reunite the two sides, the heavier the right side felt, and the harder the left side had to work to hold on. I was exhausted, confused, and afraid.

“It’s either a brain tumor or Bell’s Palsy,” said the doctor jovially, but his humor, like my face, fell flat.

“Bell’s Palsy is a form of facial paralysis…it’s idiopathic.” He wrote something on his prescription pad and opened the door to leave. “Take these and make sure you finish the entire bottle as prescribed.”

“What are they?” I asked, “and what’s idiopathic? Can you stay for a minute—?”

He was already out in the hall. He could see that I was unglued and came back in to sit down with me.

“Basically, we don’t know what causes it and we don’t know how to cure it.”

“Then what are these pills for?”

“People want their doctors to have the right answers,” he said sheepishly. “Pills are answers. We always prescribe corticosteroids for Bell’s Palsy…though….” Now he did look into my eyes, “…there’s no evidence to prove they actually help. But you should wear this eye patch and keep your eye lubricated so the cornea doesn’t dry out. Your face will probably return to normal in around six months to a year.”

I found out later that many people with Bell’s Palsy start to see signs of recovery within a few weeks and many experience spontaneous recovery within a few months. But at the time, I believed my doctor. Six months to a year? Why did this happen to me?

My doctor was right about one thing: I wanted him to have a quick fix and a clear explanation. My students started asking questions. “What happened to your face?” they said. “Why are you wearing an eye patch?! What’s wrong with your mouth?”

Only Danny said I still looked ok, but he was curious too. I wanted to have something to blame it on—genetics, spoiled food, my neighbor’s pesticide spray—but I knew it was none of those things. “Bell’s Palsy is a constriction of the seventh cranial nerve,” I told everyone, relieved that at least there was a clinical description for my mysterious ailment. People would offer platitudes, as they always do when they don’t know what else to do, and I know they were trying their best to help, but “embrace your pain” and “everything happens for a reason” just contributed to my bewilderment. Whenever I claim that everything happens for a reason, it’s usually in retrospect after I’ve discovered the reason!Number05_300

One symptom of Bell’s Palsy is hyperacussis, or perceiving sounds as unduly loud. A car alarm outside my bedroom nearly made me vomit. My normally hypersensitive body exaggerated all incoming sensory information even more. I felt like I could hear the air, my own organs pulsing…even thoughts seemed to register a decibel level…each phenomenon a synaesthetic tangle. “Crocodile tears,” as my doctor called them, continued to gather in the corner of my right eye, but it remained dry and felt full of debris, like there were jagged brick-chips under my eyelid. My left eye overcompensated and remained wide open, exposing my fear and an increasing sense of wonder at the lack of control I had over my own human form. My whole body hurt, but not the way a fractured bone or a bruise or even a broken heart hurts. It was not a pain I could localize, identify, and treat. I wondered if it was the manifestation of years of stress. I had always felt a bit disfigured on the inside, and now that my face split in half, I was sure everyone could see through the fissure.

My neck muscles started to hurt from looking down all the time to avoid anyone’s gaze. I did not want to leave my bedroom, much less walk through campus to teach class, but my responsibility for my students had to outweigh vanity. Self-consciousness is not life-threatening, after all. The students could tell I was trying too hard to control my emotions, lest something might make me cry, or worse, make me laugh. If the left half of my mouth smiled, the involuntary frown on the right half wouldn’t budge, and I started to understand why The Joker always returned to Gotham City: despite the threat of Batman’s presence, the dark streets provide refuge for a Freak who can’t face himself or anyone else in the light of day.

“What’s up Ms. P?” said Danny when I walked into the room. A few other students joined in. “Hey Ms. P! Are you better yet?”

“Shut up you guys!” I held back a smile and covered my mouth with my hands, “Don’t make me laugh!” They had started calling me an abbreviated version of Ms. Pirate thanks to my black eye patch, which kept digging into my cheek. That thing was almost as irritating as my crazy drooping eyeball. It was made out of some kind of synthetic material that felt like the ring of a plastic cup around my eye.

“No, I’m not better yet. Everybody pick a partner and stop looking at me!” I asked them to work in pairs so they’d look at each other instead. I experimented with all kinds of teaching techniques and the students were so cooperative. I felt better with them than alone at home. The mirror was relentless, but my students were loving and supportive. Danny got them all to make crazy pirate noises, and once he came to class wearing one gold hoop earring.

“Hey Danny,” I said to him on his way out the door, “Thanks for making me laugh.” I half-smiled and didn’t cover my mouth to hide it.

I knew this would not be a tale of survival, but rather education. Bell’s Palsy taught me to receive support and to be gentle with myself. My sister, a gifted massage therapist, showed me how to gently stimulate my cheeks, forehead, jaw, and neck, the muscles around my eyes, ears, nose, and even the inside of my mouth. The muscles of the face are different than most skeletal muscles because many of them attach to each other, rather than to a bone, requiring a more delicate and deliberate approach than, say, massaging the legs. I softened my touch and by extension, my thoughts. The process of reacquainting myself with my own face, in a tender rather than critical manner, began to transform my self image. I thought of myself not so much as abnormal but vulnerable, and therefore just like everyone else. Not such a freak.

I tried all kinds of other treatments. First, I temporarily cut out all sugar and caffeine from my diet because it didn’t feel right to overstimulate my already-taxed system. Everything required mindfulness, particularly those activities I had always considered mindless: walking, eating, speaking, even breathing. Because I could not control my facial muscles, I had to speak slowly if I wanted anyone to understand me. I had to chew food slowly and swallow each bite completely, otherwise it would fall out of my mouth. I had to take slow, deep breaths and think about the relationship between my nose and mouth—and learn how to take air in without drying out my throat. I received acupuncture treatments and spent several days at the beach doing nothing but staring at the Pacific Ocean and taking deep breaths while digging my feet into the warm sand. I signed up to take Tai Chi Ch’uan classes and cried tears of relief after the first session. I had never known what it was like to move so slowly and gracefully. My body felt nurtured and my mind felt clear.

I finally learned from a second doctor that the chicken pox virus I contacted as an adult might have triggered the palsy, but by then, I was not looking for medical help so much as human help to accelerate self-healing. The most significant impact came from my massage therapists—the ones who actually touched me, and the ones who did not. It didn’t matter whether I was receiving a vigorous circulatory massage or Reiki work, in which case the therapist’s hands hovered close to my skin but never actually touched it. I could feel their warmth and intention either way. By following the contours of my body, other people’s hands accessed the caverns too. I absorbed their empathy and allowed it to circulate.

Number04Each time I got back on the massage table, a mantra ran through my mind: I know everything, and I know nothing. I know all I need to know to heal myself, but I also know nothing, in the Taoist sense, or as Zen master Shunryu Suzuki taught: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” Bell’s Palsy humbled me, emptied me of the illusion that I could control my world all the time, reminded me to maintain a “beginner’s mind” no matter how old I was or how much knowledge I accumulated.

In a sense, I did go back to the beginning. If you’ve ever watched an infant cry, you know that it sounds like pure vowel-song. Open, unobstructed howl; the sound of life itself before thought interrupts rhythm. Half my face melted and blurred as if trying to access that pre-linguistic mystery. The other half twitched and trembled, stuck. A claw clutching and closing in on itself. I couldn’t talk it out or make sense of it, so I found relief instead simply from the medicine of human touch. The regular massage work made me realize that the only touch I usually receive as an adult is sexual in nature, and that therapeutic touch could access something different, something pure and newborn.Number07

Because the palsy surprised me one random morning, I would wake up each day and head straight for the mirror to see if it would similarly disappear without warning. When that didn’t happen for a week, I became weary of the mirror and wanted to find some other way to see myself. I found my colored pencils and pastels in the closet, bought some blank paper, and headed for the beach. I only had a compact mirror with me, so I studied my face one inch at a time and drew what I saw. I didn’t look at the entire image until it was complete.

Number02She shocked me, the woman staring back from the page. I expected an ugly monster, but I saw something beautiful. She is wide-eyed and waking up. I still don’t understand the strange circus surrounding her, and don’t know whether the color originates from inside or outside her, but I see a blank book opening before her. The pages are also wings, even if she doesn’t yet know how to use them.

The day after I drew that self-portrait, the palsy released and the paralysis faded away. I don’t know if one thing has to do with the other. I’d like to imagine so, but I try to focus more on what I do know rather than what I can’t prove. I do know that my body sends me subtle messages all the time, and I can choose to listen or ignore them. When I am overwhelmed and anxious, my chest and forehead feel tight and my shoulders start to creep up toward my ears, but all my muscles relax when I take long, slow, deep breaths and watch my belly rise and fall. Every once in a while, my right eye flutters and twitches and makes me worry the palsy will recur. When that happens, I remember that although I lost my face for a little while, I also learned that what I see in the mirror just doesn’t matter all that much. I found that if I close my eyes, place my own hands over my face or press gently on my eyelids, and just wait…my pulse will slow down…and allow me to once again find myself on the inside.

Text and illustrations by Lauri Mattenson.
Copyright 2013: All Rights Reserved

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