Laura contracted facial palsy when she was 17. Over the next 10 years, Bell’s palsy struck her twice more. Used to being ‘the pretty one’, she became ‘the girl with the dodgy face’.
I was a pretty 17-year-old and I felt on top of the world: I was popular and confident, and I enjoyed my brand new job in promotions and merchandising. I even did the odd bit of modelling. One afternoon, my boss called me. I looked up from my desk and saw him staring at me, aghast: ‘What’s happened to your face?’ he asked. The left side of my face had drooped, and my colleagues thought I was having a stroke.
I was rushed to the out-of-hours doctors where I was told that I had Bell’s palsy. ‘Bell’s what?!’ I’d never even heard of it. I was prescribed steroids, antivirals, eye drops and lots of rest. The doctor reassured me that my face should be back to normal in a few weeks.
Well, it didn’t go back to normal. I now looked like I’d had a stroke. The modelling went out of the window, and I decided to quit my job in a totally image-centric industry. I felt robbed of my identity. Even before Bell’s palsy, I was desperate to fit in, experiencing the usual insecurities that come with being 17 – despite the fact that I had always been the pretty one. So where did that leave me now? All of a sudden I was the one with the dodgy face, and I really didn’t want to be her.
I went back to college to do my A-levels. My self-esteem and confidence had hit rock bottom; I didn’t know anyone, and 16 and 17-year-olds can be cruel. Some students were talking about me behind my back; others openly made fun of my face. After a while it did get better, as word spread that I was actually a pretty cool person to hang out with, and not some sort of monster or freak. I left college having made some good friends. Facial palsy acts like a filter: is that person who dismisses you because of your looks someone you actually want to know – or an ignorant imbecile?
At 21, I had not completely recovered from my first episode of Bell’s palsy, but I had learnt to live with it. I was working in a bar. One day I felt my face drop. It wasn’t as scary this time, as I could guess what was happening. I went straight to the doctor’s, got my steroids, antivirals and eye drops, and again was told to rest and that it’d disappear in weeks. ‘Wait a minute,’ I thought, ‘I was told that last time, and it’s been four years, and it’s not gone!’ I took a couple of days off and then just carried on as normal. I was used to living with my dodgy face but still, I didn’t expect the looks of pity I got from pretty much every customer in the bar.
I had developed a strong, confident appearance similar to the person I was pre-facial palsy, which was what I projected to the world. Working behind a bar, I had to. It was a way of protecting myself by not showing my vulnerability. Inside, it was a different story: I no longer felt attractive, or confident, or ‘normal’.
‘This time there was no reassuring comment that it’d be gone in a few weeks’
I didn’t notice much improvement in movement after my second episode, but at rest it wasn’t too bad unless you looked closely. Then, when I was 27, my face started to feel weird again. I had been sitting watching TV; I looked in the mirror to find that my face had dropped again. Once more I was given steroids and antivirals, but this time there was no reassuring comment that it’d be gone in a few weeks. The verdict was that that was it – the new drooping might go, but after all this time and yet another episode, there was no hope of any further recovery. I was again sent for tests to rule out any underlying cause, and then I was basically told, ‘We just don’t know’.
However, in the last 18 months, I have seen real improvements thanks to the botulinum toxin injections and the physiotherapy I’ve been having. I look better, and as a result I feel more confident, with an improved ability to express myself and communicate. I am also able to close my eye and go out in the cold without the pain and discomfort I’d previously experienced.
As far as relationships went, I was extremely insecure. Having spent most of my teenage years using my looks to my advantage, I was now convinced that no one would want me with my weird face. I refused to believe people who told me that I was beautiful and that I had a really cute smile, because my smile just wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do. Some people also said hurtful things, such as, ‘Why would anyone want you with your face?’ They wanted to wound me and knew that would do the job. I still have a lot of insecurities about letting people close.
Most of the time I don’t even think about my palsy, but it only takes someone’s stare to remind me that half my face doesn’t work. On my birthday this year, a drunken guy in a bar quite innocently asked, ‘Is there something wrong with your face that you only smile on one side?’ I worry when meeting new people that they’ll think I’m miserable: I’ve got used to not smiling too much or laughing too hard because it contorts my face.
I know that when people tell me I’m beautiful, or when they say they’d never have noticed there is something wrong with my face, most of them genuinely mean it. Only my own insecurities stop me from believing them.
Last reviewed: 22-10-2016 || Next review due: 22-10-2018