Emma Samms: Face value
- Credit: Archant
Lessons learned from a bout with Bell’s Palsy
For the past two weeks I’ve been wearing a patch over one eye and half of my face hasn’t been working properly. This is due to something called Bell’s Palsy which involves an inflamed cranial nerve, leaving half of one’s face paralysed to varying degrees.
For me, it meant that I had an extremely wonky smile, was in danger of dribbling a cup of tea and my right eyelid wouldn’t close properly. Obviously this wouldn’t be fun for anyone and I don’t want to claim special circumstances because of being an actress, but it would be unrealistic of me to think that my career wouldn’t be severely compromised if I had a permanently wonky face. Whilst most people make a full recovery from Bell’s Palsy, not everyone does, so I’ve had to confront that as a possibility.
Luckily, the more predictable issue of aging had already somewhat prepared me. My plan has always been that by the time I lose my looks, not to need them anymore and 30 years ago I started diversifying from acting by working on parallel careers as both a photographer and a writer. Thus actively not putting all my eggs into the one basket of acting. Technically, I’d be prepared if Bell’s Palsy were going to bring my acting career to a screeching halt.
It all started on a Monday morning. I was driving my car to London and I began to sense that funny numbness one feels after a few anaesthetic injections at the dentist’s. There’s only so many times you can check out your face in the rear view mirror as you’re driving, but by the time I reached Reading, I knew something was up. By Hammersmith I’d managed to have a chat with to my wonderful GP and by Blackfriars a prescription of steroids and anti-viral medications was waiting for me at the local chemist.
Fortunately, I was working very hard as a photographer over the next couple of days so I really didn’t have too much time to stop and worry about my face, plus I was able to hide behind my camera most of the time so it wasn’t until I headed home that it all began to sink in.
On a practical level, the eyelid not closing was an issue. Who knew that blinking was so important? At night I had to tape my eye closed to stop it drying out and by day, constant applications of eye drops and the patch were the answer.
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There were many pirate jokes. Many, many pirate jokes. I opted out of wearing my favourite hooped earrings and any striped tops as I imagined this would only increase the number of “Ahoy there Mateys” I’d be hearing.
I found one mug in my kitchen with just the right curve to it that stopped me dribbling my tea and I realised I had to eat slowly and carefully to avoid making a mess or biting my cheek.
So those were the practical accommodations I made to my face going wrong. Nothing too onerous in truth, but it was the accommodations that my vanity was being required to make that were more of a challenge.
The temptation was to hide away at home, not let anyone see my distorted face and wait it out in the hope that it would eventually resolve, but I decided against that. Whether this was temporary or permanent I was determined not to be weighed down by something that was essentially superficial when so many people have considerably more significant medical issues to contend with. So I went out, I took business meetings and I even tweeted a photograph of myself on Twitter.
People were very kind, but I could see them wince at my appearance. Small children looked slightly scared and a dog barked at me. It was probably easier for me because I couldn’t see myself. From the start I’ve only allowed myself to check the progress of the paralysis in a mirror once a day. When I could only lift one side of my upper lip I’d judge the degree of the resulting sneer using an “Elvis Quotient”.
On the plus side, eating so slowly has made me drop a couple of pounds, getting ready to go out is faster when you only have to put makeup on one eye, and right off the bat I said “Well at least I’ll get a column out of this!”
But by far the best thing I’ve got out of this is the valuable lesson I’ve learned from the people around me. In a profession like mine, where one feels constantly judged on one’s appearance, for me to go out into the world and to have been met with nothing but kindness and respect has been heart-warming, in the most wonderful and unexpected way.