“Don’t cross your eyes, they will get stuck like that,” my mother told me as she caught me dizzily looking at the top of my nose and sticking out my tongue at my pesky older sister Maddi. At five years old, being naive and hearing daunting threats from my sister that I would never look normal again, I believed that tale. From that day on, I made an effort to never once allow my green eyes to cross again.
Thinking back on that time I honestly can’t say why I was so afraid. At that age I was a certified daddy’s girl, a tomboy that refused to wear stockings to church or play on the girl’s softball team because I wanted to play with the boys. Did I really care about my appearance? My guess is that I just simply didn’t want to lose my sight. Like many, my tough girl attitude and indifference towards all things girly met head on with that unavoidable stage where I wanted to be pretty.
“Beauty is only skin deep” and “what really counts is what’s on the inside” are a few other things my mother told me growing up. These were things I believed for the majority of my adolescence, but once high school happened they began to hold as much credibility as the crossed-eyes wives tale. As a freshman at West Caldwell High in Lenior, NC, I quickly found out that it didn’t matter that I made straight A’s, volunteered at the local Hospice, or had a quirky sense of humor. Guys liked you and girls were your friends solely based on your appearance. Looking back, I would like to knock some sense into my teenage self, but the lessons I learned were definitely necessary to get to where I am now. Some of those lessons proved to be greater than the others.
June 7, 2007: It wasn’t a typical Thursday. It was an exam day, and that meant as soon as I got out of that last exam of my sophomore year I was off to meet my friends for lunch followed by swimming to celebrate completing another year and officially becoming upperclassmen. The latter really didn’t mean much to me. Thanks to having a senior sister, I started going to parties and hanging out with the older crowd, where the guys definitely noticed my “older” looks and were probably more intrigued by my innocence. I liked the attention and thought I was the ish.
With my newfound popularity, I spent at least one and a half hours getting ready each morning, and that day was no different. One difference in my daily routine of applying make-up (which basically consisted of too much glittery bronzer and eyeliner that probably made me resemble a mud-faced raccoon) and picking out clothes (which would have never got past my mother if she still drove me to school) occurred when I brushed my teeth. I noticed that my tongue didn’t really have feeling on one side, and I couldn’t really taste the toothpaste on that side either. Barely having enough time to grab a Special K Bar as I scurried out the door, I took little time to worry about the odd occurrence.
I woke up that day caring little about anything but superficial things. I was more concerned about what I was going to look like in my bathing suit than how I was going to do on my English 102 final. While writing my final essay about Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” I started to notice a similar feeling to what had happened this morning, but throughout that whole side of my face. I noticed my left eyelid not following the right when I blinked, and the dryness was beginning to get distracting. By the time the period was done, I rushed outside to my car, briskly walking to avoid anyone that may see my face before I could.
Once I reached my car, I was panicking. I could feel the difference between the sides of my face when I tried to make any facial expression. When I finally got into my Saturn, I pulled the rearview mirror and focused in on what I instantly thought was a stranger. “Someone had numbed me in my sleep?” or “I am having an allergic reaction, right?” were the questions I needed answered! I whipped out of the parking lot to go to the drugstore where my mother worked. The store was literally a stone’s throw away from my school, but I called her on the way because I couldn’t get there soon enough. “Should I go to the emergency room?” is what I asked her. She quickly became just as alarmed as I was but for a totally different reason.
My mother lost her father at the age of 18. He died from complications of massive stroke and was paralyzed on one side. My mother began to ask me a series of questions that I annoyingly answered “no” and “what does that have to do with my face?” She grabbed my hand and walked me to the back door of the adjoining family practice. The next 20 minutes encompassed what I thought would be the end of my life as I knew it.
My doctor ran tests, took my blood pressure, and had me do multiple sense and cognitive exams. Finally she said, “There is good and bad news.”
“What?!” I thought, “This isn’t Grey’s Anatomy; how are there two sides?”
She proceeded to tell me that I had not had a stroke, but “Hillary, from my understanding you have what is called Bell’s Palsy. Half of your face is paralyzed, and unfortunately, at this time, there is no way to know if it will be permanent or not”. The tears came, and they didn’t stop until I somehow stopped my brain and fell asleep that night. I heard very little of what she said after those words because to me it really didn’t matter; I was going to look like this, and there was nothing I could do about it. Yet, I did understand another piece of devastating news: often Bell’s can be a result of brain damage or tumor. While she explained that she doubted that was the situation, because my case was so rapid, she tried to comfort me by saying she could put in a rush appointment for a CT scan to clear any worry. From this, I stepped away from my vanity and realized what was actually at risk: my life, not just my social life.
The next week was probably the longest and worst week of my life. I could spend hours discussing the feelings of depression I was experiencing or how my mother and father tried to comfort me, but it was hard to ignore the worry and tears on my mother’s face. Ultimately, I had the CAT scan and things appeared to be normal. My neurologist explained that Bell’s Palsy can be nerve damage caused by continued inflammation, so in my case a sinus infection that I didn’t treat. While this was the best news I had ever heard, I was still concerned about my face!
“About 25% don’t recover after one year,” he explained. My joy was shattered. Yes, I was thrilled that I wasn’t dying, but at 16 it felt that way with a distorted face. I remember thinking, “I want to have boyfriends and get married, but what guy wants to look at a paralyzed face and only imagine what it could look like?” I didn’t even want to look at my own face that morning.
Throughout the next three months I changed, both inside and out. If you know me there is no spoiler here: I do not have a paralyzed face today. But that summer I learned that even if it was permanent, my life wasn’t going to end. I was still Hillary, and I was alive, tumor-free. After three weeks of ignoring my friends’ calls or trying to convince them I had an atypical summer flu, I finally let them see what had kept me indoors. After the initial questions and comforting words, we were back to our normal conversations, and while I knew it was lopsided, it felt good to laugh.
Today I still spend too much time getting ready; I love make-up and definitely catch myself imagining what if I looked like that girl. This experience in my life did not make me any less human, but it did change the way I see beauty and life. I find beauty in imperfections and uniqueness. I am less quick to judge others based on their face, and more importantly I value the people that try to do the same. I don’t want someone to fall in love with me from first sight but from the way I make them feel. Appearance and material things can be taken from you overnight but so can your life. I try to remember each day that my love, personality, and character will far outlive my unwrinkled face.