As I drove through the winding canyon, getting higher with every turn, I felt the atmosphere change. The air was thinner, the blue Colorado sky brighter and clearer. I felt brighter and clearer, too. I was headed to an ashram, 8500 feet above sea level for an overnight yoga and meditation retreat. I wasn’t sure I deserved such an indulgence but my husband insisted I did.
When I finally got around to booking my stay, the stars aligned such that there was an available heated cabin on a night when both my husband and a last minute sitter could watch our kids. As I entered it in my calendar, I noticed it fell on the one-year anniversary of my Bell’s Palsy diagnosis.
* * *
I was ten days postpartum when I discovered something was wrong with my face. That morning, I stepped out of pajamas and into regular clothes for the first time since giving birth. I was brushing my teeth when I heard my two year-old say something amusing from across the hall. I glanced up in the mirror, but the smile I had always taken for granted was eerily absent. In its place was something out of a horror movie. The left side of my mouth turned up, while the right side drooped downward. I looked like I’d had a stroke. I swished my toothpaste, and found it dribbling down my chin. I applied lip gloss and attempted to press my lips together, but that, too, was impossible.
A visit to the doctor and an MRI ruled out serious neurological problems. I should have been overjoyed that it was only Bell’s Palsy. Instead, I was mildly relieved and extremely sad. My face looked freakish. For the first time since I arrived at my sixth grade classroom with a mouth stuffed full of fresh new braces, and a retainer that gave me the look of a monkey with an underbite, I was ashamed of my appearance.
I hated my face.
I hated not knowing when and if it would heal. I hated the way I obsessively checked myself in the mirror for any sign of recovery. I hated avoiding pictures with my newborn. I hated looking out my bedroom window, my days a constant loop of nursing, burping and diaper changes, desperate to leave the house, but feeling excruciatingly self-conscious when I did go out. I hated being forced to confront the depth of my vanity.
I felt like a sullen teenager, when I was in fact a grown woman with so much to be happy for: a perfectly formed, healthy baby, a rambunctious toddler who was enamored of her little sister, and a husband who willingly took weeks of unpaid paternity leave. The more I thought about how much joy I should have been experiencing, the guiltier I felt for being miserable.
Many nights, hot tears soaked my face and pillow, my shoulders quietly shaking, while my husband rubbed my back in the dark, telegraphing the message he’d already told me countless times aloud: You’re still beautiful. Our life is still beautiful.
I couldn’t see the beauty. I could not accept my new face, despite friends’ assurances that I looked normal, several months later. I could not accept my doctor’s advice to get plenty of rest and give it time. With a fussy baby nursing around the clock, sleep was scarce, and waiting felt like giving up. For twelve months, I hurled myself into every treatment available: acupuncture, physical therapy, chiropractic, and more acupuncture. Though I was loath to admit it, I couldn’t necessarily credit the treatments for my slow, subtle recovery. I clung to the idea that the next visit would be the one that finally made the difference.
I tried not to think about all of the hours, dollars, and babysitters that fueled my quest to get my face back. When I did, I told myself it was impossible to put a price on my smile. After every appointment, I studied my reflection in the mirror. Did I look better? I compulsively asked myself this question dozens of times a day. I celebrated a few milestones; the first time I was able to successfully drink through a straw, the day I whistled, the first selfie that didn’t make me cringe. Most of the time though, I focused on the imperfections in my smile; the way my right upper lip drooped, the exaggerated squint in my eye, and the annoying facial twitch I experienced when I was tired or stressed.
* * *
There was a light rain when I checked in at the ashram. As I approached my cabin, the mountain sky had opened, and rain was pouring. I opened the door, set my bags and my breast pump down, and marveled at the shining hardwood floor, bare of toys, overflowing laundry baskets, crushed Puffs, and rogue alphabet magnets. A California king sized bed, covered in fresh sheets and soft blankets, invited me to relax. I checked my watch. Yoga started in 20 minutes. I decided not to go, instead taking the opportunity to sit in my silent cabin.
I removed my shoes by the door, hung my soaking jacket, and settled on the bed with my journal. Before I opened it, I paused. How long had it been since I sat down, without the distraction of another person, my phone, or my To Do list rattling my brain? I wasn’t sure I’d ever in my life purposely sat down and done nothing. I definitely had not sat still since I had kids. I felt like I’d shucked a 30-pound vest I hadn’t even known I was wearing.
After a few minutes, I opened my journal to a fresh page, and started to write as I always do, with the date. From my excessive Google searching, I knew that a year after my initial diagnosis, most, if not all, of my healing was behind me. I felt free, now, to finally accept my face.
In the stillness of the cabin, with the rain beating down, my heart drained of anxiety and shame. It opened to the beauty that was all around me; the serenity of this mountain retreat, the delicious softness of my baby’s chubby thighs, the unbridled joy of my toddler’s laugh, and the brightness in my husband’s eyes when our girls delight in tasting the berries and tomatoes from his garden. And I saw the beauty that had been in an imperfect smile all along.