Here Be Dragons

This past January a dragon roared right into my face. Today I climbed onto its tooth.

Usually I write about hiking and travel, but this time it’s an inward journey. Almost six months ago I was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, and it’s been a rough go. Although I didn’t plan to write about it, I’ve benefited so much from reading others’ stories online I felt I owed the internet mine as well. If you’re here because you love hiking, don’t go! It was a beautiful weekend in the Blue Ridge and I’ll share a few photos to prove it. If you’re here because you or someone you love is facing Bell’s palsy, perhaps my story will be another piece of the puzzle as you chart your own way forward.

I went to an urgent care clinic on a Sunday morning after a night of intense earache, and upon noticing that my mouth drooped downward on one side. Bell’s palsy was immediately diagnosed, and I was cheerfully told that if I kept my eye lubricated I’d be fine in a couple of weeks. I bought an eye patch on the way home and was ready to go with the flow, but then I got home and started reading.

Many people do recover spontaneously in a couple weeks, but there’s a broad continuum. In my case, the paralysis continued to worsen, and I ended up at the doctor again. Then I was referred to a neurologist, and found out I had a lot of factors associated with poorer prognosis: older age at onset (a couple weeks before my 49th birthday); gradual rather than sudden onset; disruption of taste sensation; and total paralysis. The neurologist went so far as to imply he thought I might not recover at all, and that was hard to hear. I couldn’t eat or drink without dribbling or dropping bits of food, I couldn’t smile, I had a speech impediment, and the right side of my tongue felt abraded and painful. The worst part, though, was my eye.

I’ve always had an aversion to anything involving eyeballs, my own or anyone else’s. They’re useful and important things, but I prefer to pretend they don’t exist. When Bell’s palsy hit, my world began revolving around my right eyeball. I struggled to keep it lubricated, and after several corneal abrasions (fun!) an opthalmologist ended up gluing it down. The ungluing process was off-the-charts painful, and for several weeks all I could do was sit immobile, holding a compress over my eye, waiting. Afterward, I still had to set an alarm every two hours to lubricate my eye, which involved pulling down the lower lid to squirt ointment at the base of my eyeball. For someone with an eye phobia, this was sheer torture.

For several months I wore an eye patch 24/7, to avoid any further corneal abrasions.  During this time, I struggled with significant depression. None of the doctors I saw prepared me for this, but I read others’ accounts online. Total paralysis, accompanied with a poor prognosis, is a very difficult pill to swallow. I forced myself through all the motions of healthy living, but inside there was a dark well of sadness and out of it flowed all kinds of self-pitying thoughts.

Reader, it got better. The weather warmed, and one day I simply couldn’t bear to put the eye patch on. I haven’t worn it since, and nothing bad has happened. Then finally, about four months in, I noticed that a tiny muscle just beside my nose could be moved, with great effort. It was so subtle no one else could see it, but I knew it was happening. Then I was gradually able to move the right side of my mouth a bit. The lower lid of my right eye stopped sagging quite so much, and I could no longer see the white of my eyeball below the cornea.

I’m close to the six-month mark now, and my smile is about 50% back. The wrinkles around my eye have returned (so happy to see them!), and I can close my eyelid with great effort (it still can’t do involuntary blinks). I am an absolute whiz at putting ointment in my eye, and the exposure therapy of the last five months has largely cured my eye phobia. My speech impediment persists, but is slightly better. One of the little things no one told me about that I still live with: there are tons of tiny muscles in your nose that control the egress of its contents, and when they stop working you should definitely start carrying tissues everywhere.

The depression and self-pity are not totally gone, but I’ve beaten them back pretty well. On the full spectrum of health conditions an almost-fifty-year-old woman might need to face, this could have been far worse. When I look in the mirror, the person there is not quite me, but perhaps a wiser and stronger version for having battled a dragon she didn’t even know existed. This October she will put on a wedding dress, and dance, and scarf down vegan cupcakes, and, for the first time in her life, what she looks like seems pretty darn inconsequential. There may be further healing, which will be welcome. There may be none, and that will be ok.

I am officially back in the hiking saddle. The first month I didn’t hike at all, terrified a twig would snap into my frozen-open eye and blind me forever. I gradually set out on longer day hikes wearing safety goggles, and this weekend was my first overnight on the trail since the onset of Bell’s palsy. No safety goggles and no fear! I ate dinner on a rock in the middle of a creek. I rose before sunrise to beat the heat and savor the misty Blue Ridge mountains:


I scrambled up some baby dragon’s teeth on the Appalachian Trail:

rock steps

And then I climbed right up onto the Dragon’s Tooth itself:

dragon's tooth

Bell’s palsy roars out of nowhere, there is limited treatment, and you may temporarily feel completely at its mercy. However, the best treasures are found in the lairs of the fiercest dragons. Even if your prognosis is poor, as mine was, keep the faith. There’s healing to be had, in body and soul. The dragon can be taught to take a few steps back, even if it never goes away. Eventually you may walk right up to it, laugh in amazement, and crawl right up onto its tooth. What more can it do to you? Your world is yours alone, and that fact is the treasure the dragon guards.


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