Amelia Jones relives her frightening experience of facial paralysis, and reminds us that a smile goes a long way in ‘My Frozen Face’
I welcomed in the New Year excited to graduate and enthusiastic to enter the real world, but I faced an overwhelming sense of anxiety as looming deadlines and the mammoth task of my third year dissertation weighed heavy on my mind. The events that followed were eye watering in the most physical sense.
As I entered the Accident and Emergency room on a rainy January morning, stumbling over my words as I frantically tried to articulate my address to the receptionist, I burst into a flood of tears, and was enveloped by a sense of extreme desperation. I had woken up that morning with half of my face frozen in a motionless stare. No movement or sensation, my smile an awkward and painful tear across the right side of my face. My left eye was lifeless as tears streamed down my cheek and the bitter winter air slowly dried the surface of my eye.
Facial Paralysis, otherwise known as Bells Palsy, affects around 1 in 5000 people in the UK according to Facial Palsy UK, the only existing charity for facial paralysis. There is currently no cure for the condition and due to a lack of awareness and interest, research into treatment is very limited. In most cases it is believed that facial movement will return to a completely normal function, however recovery time can range from anywhere between 3 weeks to 9 months, depending on how severely damaged the facial nerve is. Fortunately mine lasted only around 5 weeks, although that’s not to say recovery was easy.
Facial paralysis is not an issue that I ever thought that I would be faced with, especially not as a twenty year old, third year student, at the beginning of my career and the most important moment of my degree. The doctor believed that the paralysis was caused by a combination of university-induced stress and a virus that had inflamed the facial nerves in my neck. As she reassured me that my face would eventually return to its normal function, but there was no way of telling how or when, I stared hopelessly at my emotionless reflection. The next few days passed and my reflection greeted me daily with the same empty stare. I worked relentlessly at my university assignment which was due in a mere five days time, and powered through on a concoction of twenty one pills a day, in attempt to reduce inflammation and relieve the excruciating pain that had consumed what once was my neck.
In these days I came to realise how important a person’s face is. It is the source of identity and emotion. It is the site of happiness, sadness, love and hate. The face has the power to convey things that words cannot. In many ways the worst part about Facial Paralysis is not the pain or the paralysis itself, but the fact that it removes your identity and sense of self literally overnight.
I receded into the confinement of my room for the next week because the walls could not judge or stare. The university stress which had caused my paralysis seemed nothing compared to the feelings of extreme self consciousness that awaited me in public places. On one occasion whilst shopping with my mother in Cardiff, a teenage girl glared at me on an escalator as she thought that I was winking at her boyfriend, due to my inability to blink. In another situation whilst at a local pub, a young man began to make small talk at the bar with me – he made a swift and awkward exit when I laughed and revealed my paralysed face in all its wonky glory.
It was these things that hurt me the most. I was not one to really care what people generally thought of me. I have always been confident in myself, my style and my beliefs, and yet as soon as people began judging me on something that was physically out of my control, I felt branded in a negative and nasty way. It left me quite disheartened that society could judge someone in such a ‘face value’ manner.
If facial paralysis has taught me anything it is that despite the fact many people say that it is what’s on the inside that counts, the outside is still important. As students we all let stress take over our lives occasionally and wonder how we will every make it through the mountain of work that faces us. But we should never take for granted the little things in life, especially something as simple and beautiful as a smile, which can brighten even the most melancholy person’s day. The small things in life sometimes can have the most value.