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Day 6

I really wish that I could tell you that I’m getting used to this new face of mine, that this situation is getting easier to live with, that I’m doing okay. But the truth is that it’s getting harder, not easier. I’m getting more discouraged, more frustrated, more depressed, not less. Every morning I wake up and I hope I’ll see some kind of improvement, and I don’t. It hasn’t been a week yet, everyone reminds me. It’s too soon, they say. But they aren’t the ones with the half-frozen face.

It really surprises me how much of my identity was wrapped up in my face. I thought I’d grown past that. But I don’t recognize myself anymore. I look in the mirror and there is a stranger looking back at me. A sad, lonely stranger. I am grieving for my lost smile, the ease with which I once sipped soup from a spoon or bit into an apple. I can’t wear my contacts anymore because my left eye doesn’t close all the way and dries out too quickly. I feel lost and terribly alone.

A week ago I felt great, everything was great, I was happy, I was so excited to meet my baby girl that I was actually hoping she’d be born before her due date. I couldn’t wait to experience labor, birth, then hold her in my arms. Now, when I have a particularly intense Braxton Hicks contraction, I weep and beg her not to come because I can’t bear the thought of bringing her into this world when my head is so fucked up and my heart aches so much.

Then I hate myself because really, I’m so terribly vain. And selfish. Things could be so much worse. I am so lucky. I am healthy. Everyone I love is healthy. I’m surrounded by people who love and support me. My little girl is developing beautifully. Nothing is wrong with her. I look weird, that is all. Get over it already.

I wish I was a better person. I wish I didn’t care so much. I wish I had enough self-confidence that I could hold my head up high and grin my lop-sided sneer of a grin and not give a fuck what anyone thought and not think anything bad about myself. But it just hurts. I don’t even know how my husband can stand to look at me. He didn’t sign up for this, I tell myself. And yet here he is, stuck with a disfigured wife.

He keeps telling me I’m beautiful but I just feel like he’s lying.

And I feel like I’m failing my baby. My feelings, my emotions, every sob and gasp filters through me and into her. I’ve destroyed her peaceful nest in my womb, poisoned her with all my self-hatred and fear. She hasn’t been born yet and I’m already letting her down.

I made a video. So you can see what I look like now. So I can look back later, perhaps with a little more self-love, and remember what this felt like, what I really looked like. Maybe I’ll think it wasn’t that bad. Maybe it will improve. Maybe it will be permanent. Maybe I’ll heal completely. Maybe I won’t. There’s no way to know. But somehow I have to figure out how to love myself like this, how to be okay like this, I have to get my head on straight and remember what’s important and count my blessings and get ready for this little girl to be born because she could be here tomorrow and she needs a mama who isn’t a complete fucking wreck. She deserves that at least.

My New Face

I woke up Tuesday morning and lounged in bed for a bit, relaxing. I’d slept well. I felt good. Except for my left eye, which felt a little weird, like it wouldn’t close all the way when I blinked, but whatever. Mike was grinding coffee in the kitchen, the whirr of the blades drew me from bed. My small cup of morning coffee always a treat, something to look forward to. I brushed my teeth, filled my mouth with water to rinse, and water sprayed from the left side of my mouth, down my swollen belly.

What. the. fuck.

I smiled at myself in the mirror, a strange grin, because only half my face smiled back at me.

I thought I was having a stroke. Mike tested me (thank heavens for EMT-trained husbands) and assured me that wasn’t what was happening. “But call the doctor,” he said, “let’s get you checked out.” While I was on the phone, he was googling, and bless his heart he didn’t tell me what he read. Later on he mentioned that I should NEVER google medical symptoms, but darling, I told him, I already knew that.

We checked into Labor & Delivery around 10:30 a.m. It’s where Kaiser sends any pregnant woman with any medical concerns. They had me undress, put me in bed, hooked me up to a million machines, wanted to keep an eye on the baby. She’s doing fine, they promised. She’s perfect.

Thank God.

My OB came and checked me out. Said it’s probably Bells Palsy, but he wanted the house MD to see me too. He left. We waited. They brought us lunch – sandwiches and fruit salad. The house MD came in, made me run through a million stroke tests, just to rule everything out. Was perplexed by the pain in my neck and the numbness in my tongue. Left. We waited.

My OB came back and said he’d spoken to someone in neurology. It’s probably just Bells Palsy, he assured us, but they’ve ordered an MRI to rule out stroke, blood clots, brain tumors. He left. We waited. I cried. Mike held me.

“Everything has been perfect so far, so easy, why is this happening?”

“Because things can’t be perfect all the time. Life would get too boring.”

The nursing staff was lovely. Brought us snacks, water, cranberry juice. I tried to nap. Got up and walked around. Did some yoga stretches on the bed. Practiced my deep, slow, labor breathing.

At 4:25 they brought a wheel chair in, guided us through hallways and corridors, me in my hospital gown, a blanket around my shoulders, my bare feet on the cold metal foot pads. I thought, “I’m so glad I’ve kept my pedicures up.” And then, “If its a stroke, or a blood clot, they’ll probably have to do emergency surgery. And they’ll start with a c-section. And I might never get to hold my baby.” And then I practiced my slow, deep breathing some more.

The MRI wasn’t so bad. I can see how easy it would be to panic inside one of those machines. I kept my eyes closed the whole time, except my left eye which leaked in bright lights, white, clinical plastic. I took slow, deep breaths. A single tear slid down my right temple, pooled in my hair. I started counting my inhales and exhales in time with the unbelievable cacophony of the MRI. Inhale – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Exhale – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 , 10, 11, 12. When thoughts crept in I reminded myself, Inhale – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Exhale – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 , 10, 11, 12.¬†Twenty-five minutes passed like five and we were done.

I waited for the nurse to collect me, Mike from the waiting room, and take us back to L&D. I cried quietly into my hands, so people wouldn’t see. A woman in scrubs congratulated us on our new baby, assuming that’s why we were being wheeled into L&D. A stupid assumption from a medical professional, especially when the mother is weeping silently, face buried in shaking hands.

I got back into bed. Mike rubbed my back and whispered sweet things in my ear. We waited. They brought us dinner. At 6:30 we got the results. All clear. It’s Bells Palsy for sure. No big deal. A strict regimen of Prednisone (completely safe to take while pregnant, they insisted) should show improvement in a week. I should have full use of my face again in about two weeks. It could have been so much worse.

They released us at 7:30. It was 8:45 before we left the hospital, long lines in the pharmacy. Sick people coughing all over us.

I’ve been “the pretty girl” most of my life. An awkward child with glasses and gap teeth, I bloomed in junior high and never looked back. I haven’t always felt pretty, or thought I was pretty enough, but it wasn’t until I was a grown, married woman that I began to learn that my pretty face isn’t the most important part of who I am. Still, I’m vain enough that this, this paralysis of the left side of my face, the lopsided smile and gecko-blinking eyes, hurts my ego in a very deep, hard way.

“I deserve this,” I told Mike.

“You do not deserve this.”

“I do. There’s a lesson to learn here.”

It’s okay if you think I sound shallow and silly. I feel shallow and silly. I am so, so, so unbelievably lucky, I know. For all the things it could have been, it’s likely only temporary. And most importantly of all, no matter what happened to me, the baby girl in my belly is 100% unaffected and totally, absolutely healthy. I couldn’t ask for more than that.

I consulted with four doctors, my midwife, my doula (who is more than my doula, she’s been my friend for seventeen years), and my family before I agreed to take the Prednisone. I haven’t even felt comfortable taking Tylenol since I’ve been pregnant, and Prednisone is a serious steroid. But everyone told me the risks of not taking the Prednisone far outweighed the risk of taking it, so I’m taking it. I started acupuncture yesterday, too, because Mike read that it yields the best results for Bells Palsy.

Talking is difficult. Eating is difficult. I drool a little. When I drink, whatever I’m drinking leaks out the side of my mouth. Using a straw is worse because I can’t wrap my lips around it properly. ¬†The muscles in my jaw and the right side of my face ache from over-compensating. I’m terribly self-conscious. I’m working on my attitude. There’s a lesson to learn here, I know it. But I’m still trying to figure out what it is.