Tuesday 24 April 2018

'I avoided mirrors and had to tape my eye shut to sleep' - Irish woman (28) who was diagnosed with Bell's palsy

Angelina Jolie's revelation that she had been diagnosed with a facial paralysis condition struck a very personal chord with retail manager Laura Walsh (28) from Cork

Paralysis: Laura Walsh, who was diagnosed with Bell's palsy aged 19. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Paralysis: Laura Walsh, who was diagnosed with Bell's palsy aged 19. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Angelina Jolie, who recently revealed she had recovered from the condition

Chrissie Russell

I remember being out with a friend and seeing people whispering and looking over at me. 'Oh my God, what happened to her face?' 'What's wrong with her?' It was the usual stuff, nothing terrible and probably not even anything meant with malice, but when you're self-conscious already…

Suddenly my friend jumped in and gave them an earful. She said: "Do you really want to know or are you just discussing it amongst yourselves? It's called Bell's palsy."

I was 19, and enjoying the summer break between my first and second year at a London dance college, when I woke up one morning with my face paralysed and unable to move my left arm.

Maybe it's something to do with the feeling of invincibility you have when you're that age, but I honestly thought I'd just slept a bit awkwardly and that it would pass! It was only as the day went on and it didn't go away that I started to get a bit nervous.

I went to a pharmacist who told me to go to an emergency doctor and the tests began. At first they were concerned it might be MS, but it wasn't until a week and a half later, when I saw a neurologist back home in Ireland, that I got the diagnosis of Bell's palsy.

The condition causes weakness or partial paralysis of muscles in the face. My left arm was pretty useless, I couldn't articulate my fingers and the whole left side of my face had drooped, making eating quite difficult.

Frustratingly, no one was able to tell me how long it would last. In fact I was told there was a 50pc chance I'd never dance again and advised not to go back to college because of my muscle strength and co-ordination issues.

I made the decision to go back anyway. It had always been my dream to be a dancer and I couldn't bear the thought of giving up. But I had no idea how hard it would be. Physically, everything felt 10 times harder and I could feel myself falling behind the rest of the class right away. My tutors were very understanding but they didn't mollycoddle me, which was a good thing. I already felt different, I didn't want to be treated differently as well.

Angelina Jolie, who recently revealed she had recovered from the condition
Angelina Jolie, who recently revealed she had recovered from the condition

I found myself avoiding mirrors - not easy to do when you spend a lot of time in mirrored dance studios - but I just focused on my body, not my face. I was very self-conscious about smiling and developed a habit of putting my hand up to cover the left side of my face - something I still find myself doing.

At nights I had to tape my eye closed to sleep and force it to blink during the day because there was the danger that the eye could dry and get infected. Emotionally there were times when I felt quite isolated. My dad had had Bell's palsy (they don't know definitely if there's a hereditary link but I know many people have family members with the condition) and he was great to talk to but there was no support group or people in my peer group who knew what it felt like. I was very aware that people were talking about me, rather than to me, about what was happening. I was used to attention being on me as a performer but it's one thing acting and pretending to be a different person. When the focus is on you, and what you perceive as your weakness, it's a little bit different.

I didn't go out much and dating took a back seat. There wasn't any prognosis or treatment for me. I was diagnosed and left to my own devices. I had great support from friends and family but ultimately the only thing I could do was hope that eventually everything would be okay.

Getting movement back was much more gradual than losing it. I started to feel a tingling in my left side and my muscles began to ache. After feeling nothing in my face for nearly three months, I took it as a good sign, but I didn't tell anyone other than my parents because I didn't want to get ahead of myself. Bit by bit everything got back to normal.

It's not always clear what causes Bell's palsy. Sometimes it's viral, but if there's no infection site - like in my case - it can be attributed to stress. There's really not much conclusive research around the condition, I think maybe because it's not a life-threatening illness, but having people not know about it makes it feel like quite an isolating condition.

It's why having people like Angelina Jolie speak out about it is great news, because it raises awareness. (Jolie revealed in a recent interview that she had Bell's palsy and credited acupuncture with her recovery.)

It was my own desire to raise awareness that prompted me to enter Pantene Ireland's Strong is Beautiful competition this year. I loved the campaign's message that strength is about more than what you see on the outside. I never expected to win, but I think maybe my message that you don't have to give up on your dreams appealed to people. After Bell's palsy I went on to graduate from college, win an award for most improved and dance in Paris for five years which felt like a real accomplishment.

It's not a condition that just goes away and everything's fine. My dad had it twice and it's always in the back of my head that it could come back with me. When I'm really tired I can feel my eyes aren't blinking at the same time and it takes more effort to smile. I try not to get over-tired so I'm usually the person heading home early on nights out.

I was never given any information on how to prevent it coming back - I don't think they know - but my dad told me he was told to chew gum on one side of the mouth to strengthen the muscles, so I do that unusual bit of physiotherapy!

The whole experience made me appreciate my body in a way that I hadn't before and that awareness gave me a different kind of strength. I'm a great believer in everything happening for a reason and I think having Bell's palsy made me stronger as a person. Even if I could go back and change it, I probably wouldn't because I don't think I'd be the person today without it.

Irish Independent

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