A personal essay by Elizabeth Gosney
Some people say they can't see it. I know they're lying. How can they not see it when it is plastered all over my face? Quite literally, actually, because it is my face. Crooked, limp, lopsided and, since the day it happened seven years ago, forever altered.
Before I go any further, let me clarify something. This story, this narrative, is not a dramatic account of a tragic accident that drastically changed the course of my life comparable to a made-for-TV movie. My life was changed, yes, and at the time it seemed like a tragic thing, but the paralysis of half my face turned out to be a grand adventure — one of self-discovery, of adaptation, and of realizing my face reflects who I am more now than it ever did before my smile went limp and my eye refused to blink.
I was in the ninth grade — a self-conscious girl who walked quickly, dressed like a boy, and spoke hesitantly in public. I was a wallflower, a corner-dweller, and I preferred to soak in life through observation more often than through participation. True confidence was only exuded by my awkward frame when I was on the softball field. I could play any position, from catcher to left field, and I was respected for it. My teammates didn’t make me captain or look to me as their leader, but they knew they could count on me, and that was good enough.
Click here to read the rest
Click here to read the rest
This paralysis of my face, the epicenter of this essay, happened just as softball season was starting. It’s hard to know where to begin with the chain of events that lead up to it because there is no chain — one night I went to sleep with full muscular function of my head and the next morning I couldn’t move half my face. In an attempt to restart my face as if it were a computer, I locked myself in the bathroom and began scrubbing my cheeks with a washcloth. In a frenzy of soap and tears, I scrubbed and I splashed and I recounted what I had done the night before that would explain my current facial state. “I watched the movie, ‘The Count of Monte Cristo,’” I thought to myself. “And we are all old enough to watch it. God wouldn’t be punishing me for that.” I went through the list of activities, from playing a pick-up basketball game and drinking Mug rootbeer, to my best friend Stevie accidentally pushing me down the stairs. But I wasn’t hurt from that, unless you count not being able to breathe because we were laughing so hard at the bottom of the short flight. I didn’t remember having a stroke — I’d heard a friend talking the week before about facial paralysis being an after effect of a stroke. Even though none of these seemed like a plausible culprit, I still vowed then and there, through the tears and the panic, that I would never drink Mug root beer again, that basketball was evil, that I whole-heartedly disliked “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and if Stevie ever became a famous actress, she would relieve my emotional pain through monetary means.
After five hours in the E.R. waiting room, three drug prescription slips, a cold hamburger and a 45-minute drive home through the rain, all I knew was that the doctor’s called my lack of muscular function, “Bell’s Palsy.” This palsy, this thing that was now sloppily plastered all over the right side of my face, was caused by the swelling of a nerve traveling through a tiny hole in the skull. What caused the swelling? “A virus,” the doc said. I later found out that in reality the cause was virtually anybody’s guess. But, be it a virus, head trauma from falling down stairs, or an alien abduction, it all came down to the fact that Bell’s Palsy has no antidote except time. They had theories and they had pills, but the theories were all but proven false and the pills may as well have been placebos. All I could do was wait. And wait I surely did — for 5 months.
I remember the odd looks, the strange comments, and, most of all, the questions. "How did it happen?" was common and ultimately unanswerable. "When will it go away?" was another, asked once by the boy I had a crush on. He whispered it to me while sitting in a church pew, his tightly knit eyebrows and worry-filled eyes made my 15-year-old stomach leap into my throat. And then there was my favorite question, "What happened to your face?" I was taken back by their honesty, and yet relieved by it at the same time. It was asked with sincere curiosity and an anxiousness to discover, and so I revealed to them the mystery. I found it slightly humorous that after my explanation of nerves, muscles, swelling and skulls, the questioner seemed almost disheartened — looking for Sherlock Holmes epic adventure, they received an Encyclopedia Brown backyard report.
Like the evening news’ 2-week coverage of a hurricane’s aftermath, the story of my Bell’s Palsy gradually faded from the headlines, replaced by the latest break-up and movie review. The world spun on as it did before, and at times it seemed I stood frozen as everything spun around me. If time was the cure, then it was logical to wait until I could wiggle my ear and flare my nostrils before carrying on. But the longer I waited, the faster the world spun around me until the centrifugal force ripped me out of my body and threw me into bleachers to observe the girl I called “me.” I saw her blush red with embarrassment upon seeing her school photo. I saw the hurt that flooded her body when well-meaning acquaintances teased her. I saw her cry to her mom. I saw her cry to sister. Most often I saw her cry alone. And I saw her countenance darken when she looked in the mirror to find that the girl she’d seen everyday for 15 years wasn’t there any more.
Yet despite all this, something was changing within her. I saw her try to force her mouth into a smile and, after the hundredth try, I saw how she laughed in spite of herself. I saw her jokingly sport a pirate eye-patch and receive the nickname, “Limp Face Liz.” I saw her lopsided face brighten with a new found confidence as she was pulled from the corner, plucked from the wall, and shoved into participating in life more than just observing it. The dominating thought running through her mind was this: If she wasn’t shunned for looking like the Batman villain Two-Face, there was little else she could do to look like a real fool.
Winter turned to spring as it always does, and spring was chased off by summer. It was in July that the dead nerve at the base of my skull showed signs of resurrection. Sitting on a kitchen stool, the ten eager eyes of my family members stared at my right ear. “Wait, just a second,” I said, “I can do this.” And then, with concentration to rival that of a dominoes champion and to the accompaniment of the Vienna Boys Choir singing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” my right ear twitched and then moved distinguishably up and down. My family shared in my excitement as we all realized the end of the journey was in sight. But no one realized the journey of healing would stop short of the intended destination and the real journey I was taking, the one of self-discovery, would chug right along for years. Indeed, it is still chugging right along to this day.
It took 5 months to be able to wiggle my ear. It was 8 months until my smile began to reappear, but by the one-year anniversary of contracting the palsy, all progress in my facial muscular function had ceased. I was left with a stiff cheek, half of a wrinkle free forehead, a heavy eyelid and most importantly, a crooked smile.
I’m a pretty optimistic person, I try to see the positive in a flat tire, a batch of burned cookies, and losing 20 dollars, but it took me many years to truly see the positive in my mutated face. Nearly everyday when I looked in the mirror, I’d silently wish my mouth would turn upward on both corners. When I developed photographs I would put my finger over the right side of my face and gaze at what I was “supposed to look like.” I’d be lying if I said I don’t still do those things every once in a while, but now instead of saying, “That’s what I’m supposed to look like,” it comes out as, “I’m supposed to want to look like that.” But the truth is, that symmetrical face isn’t who I am. I’m an asymmetrical person with a conflicted mind that reflects itself on the outside. One side of my face shows normalcy, the other shows oddity, and taken as a whole, my face shows reality. One side depicts what a 22-year-old girl is supposed to look like, the other side depicts what I often feel like — a child, without control. A boy, with low cheekbones. A crotchety old maid, without a reason to smile.
The beauty of all this, though, is that all those alternate personalities have to share the space, where as the 22-year-old girl gets a whole half of a face to herself. If I were in the military and the commander shouted, “Right, FACE!” he would see the remnant of the 15-year-old girl on the junior high softball team. “About, FACE!” and he’d see a culmination of strange and indistinguishable characteristics crowded into a woman’s cheeks. And if he called out, “Right, FACE!” one last time, he would see all these personalities crammed into one lopsided face, reflecting a woman I’ve come to know over the past seven years as the woman I really am, not a mask of a person I’m supposed to be.
I may have a crooked smile and my eye may not blink as quickly as it should, but I can do just about anything I’m called upon to do, and I’m respected for that. I’m still not captain and I’m still not a looked upon as a leader, but people seem to know they can count on me, and that’s good enough.
There’s a song that goes, “When I was a child, everybody smiled, nobody knows me at all … I’ve got lots of friends, yes, but then again, nobody knows me at all.” That’s what I think of when people say they can’t see it — they say they can’t see my crooked smile. I said at the beginning that I knew they were lying, but maybe they’re telling the truth. They can’t see the woman, the child, the boy and the old maid splashed all over the canvas of my face because they don’t know me at all.