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Rachel Hollis Headshot

Bells Palsy And Stress Almost Cost Me My Face

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Courtesy of Rachel Hollis
Courtesy of Rachel Hollis

I don't know about you, but as we make our way into the holiday season, I find that my stress level is increasing. Trying to get all of my work done at the office leaves little time for making holiday plans and making sure my Christmas decorations are perfect. This means I'm constantly making list after list of to-dos and obsessing over little details that no one will ever notice but me. When I start to really overwhelm myself, I am reminded to take a breath and slow down. The last thing I want is to get sick again.

Even though it was eight years ago, I can remember exactly what it felt like when I looked in the mirror and realized how disfigured my face actually was. How I tried (in vain) to put on eyeliner or mascara, as if adding makeup would somehow make the paralysis go away. Or how, each time I got the makeup on I would inevitably cry it right back off weighed down by the doctor's prognosis that this could last a few days or months on end, there was no way to be sure.

A week earlier I noticed that my left eye was blinking a half second slower than my right, I thought maybe I was tired from work... after all, as an assistant at a production company working 12 hour days was the norm. Soon after I noticed my eye, my tongue started to tingle and then lost feeling completely. I went to see my doctor and got the news, I had Bell's Palsy. I had never even heard of it before but Google quickly informed me that it was a temporary paralysis that causes damage to the nerves that control movement to the muscles of the face. Within days I couldn't close my left eye, move my mouth or feel anything on the left side of my face. This meant that I had to wear an eye patch, which by the way, is SUPER sexy when you're 20 and single. Because I couldn't move my lips, my speech was slurred, and I had to hold my mouth closed to chew for fear that food would fly out, and kamikaze to the floor.

In retrospect, never thought of myself as conceited, I never even wore makeup or styled my hair until I was an adult, but having Bell's Palsy made me hyper-aware of the way I looked. I became completely depressed, never wanting to get out of bed or even answer the phone. On the rare occasion that a friend talked me into leaving my apartment, I was mortified at the way people stared or pitied me when I tried to speak. When the palsy finally subsided a month later I was beyond thankful, relieved that the worst was behind me. I chalked the experience up to a one-time bout of terrible luck.

A few years later, my new husband Dave and I decided to take our first trip to Europe. Florence was everything I dreamed Italy would be. We ate loads of pasta, we walked the cobblestone streets and dreamed about our future, it was so romantic. By the time we got to Venice though, my tongue started to go numb and I knew the Palsy had come back. Our beautiful vacation was now being marred by the stress of trying to get medical help in another country. Using my English to Italian guidebook to explain to a pharmacist that I needed an eye patch is still one of the most comical experiences of my life!

racel hollis bells palsy

Ever the comedians, Dave and I made jokes about the assets of such an illness (I did an AMAZING Sammy Davis Jr impersonation, and the pity from TSA attendants always helped us sail through customs) We refused to let this situation destroy our vacation. It wasn't until we arrived in Paris, a life long dream of mine, that even jokes couldn't lift my spirits. As we walked through the Champs de Mars, I realized the photo I had always dreamed of taking, myself in front of the Eiffel Tower, would always be reminder of this illness. As much as I hate to admit it, I've never felt sorrier for myself than in that moment.

rachel hollis

When we got back home I was put on steroids and sent to see a neurologist to make sure that the palsy wasn't a symptom of something greater. After the doctors didn't find the brain tumor I was SURE was there, they gave me an interesting prognosis. Both times I'd gotten this I'd been under extreme stress. Like most women I work too hard, spend too many hours hunched over a computer and not enough time taking care of myself. I argued that couldn't be the case, after all, I'd gotten it while on a romantic vacation. That's when Dave pointed out that it was the first vacation we'd taken in three years. Three years of 60-hour weeks, followed by one two week break does not a decompressed girl make. And I knew I had to start taking better care of myself.

Years after the last illness, there are still reminders. If you look closely you'll notice I tend to speak out of the side of my mouth, which is a product of the residual nerve damage. And sometimes, when I get tired, my left eye will droop a little, a reminder to slow down. But I count myself as blessed, after all, my problem went away and there are so many people who aren't so lucky. I have immense respect for anyone with a physical deformity, and the courage and confidence it takes just to go out in the world.

rachel hollis

So now with a company to run, a popular blog, and two little boys, I have to remind myself almost daily not to push too hard, to take deep breaths, and that I can't take care of anything if I'm not healthy. This was a hard fought lesson to learn, and one that I hope other woman can glean from without having to go through the same ordeal. The truth is, if we abuse ourselves with too much work and too little play, our body is eventually going to fight back and the results can be terrible. So, if like me, you find yourself stressed more often than not, I encourage you to take a walk, call a friend, have a glass of wine, a bubble bath, or a long lunch. All of that work is going to be there when you get back, and a little time away is going to recharge your batteries and give you the energy to battle that ever-growing to-do list.