It was the 1st of September, 2013, when I lost myself, or thought I did.
Glancing into the foggy bathroom mirror that morning, I didn’t immediately sense that anything was wrong.
It was the cusp of Fashion Week and I was anxiously styling my friend Ann Yee’s show while simultaneously covering others as a writer for various fashion outlets. And I was excitedly waiting for my younger cousin Lisa to finally trek from Maryland to step her size-eight stilettos out of her provincial suburban life and into my world.
I’d never felt more alive than I did that year, hustling for multiple assignments, jetting cross-country to report them and writing remotely, everywhere from a coastal city in Italy to the mountaintops of Austria. In addition to writing, I was styling for Capitol and Virgin records, developing looks for young artists, and also lending my eye in putting looks together for fashion shows. Simultaneously, I was an on-camera personality for three shows: one on a Korean network, another Google-sponsored channel on style, and a cooking show on Fashionista, while booking gigs here and there off-camera as well. I was traveling on a near-biweekly basis, and just days before that September morning had returned from a day trip to Dallas on a scintillating G4 – the first time I’d ever been on a private plane — to attend an event with an up-and-coming designer.
I was living life in the fab lane. Cue the reality show cameras.
That morning, as I gazed a little closer at my reflection, scrutinizing the blur, wiping away the drops of condensation, I noticed a curious man standing before me: his right eye blinked lethargically, his cheek drooped as if gravity was pulling some cruel prank, and the side of his mouth curved downward like a comma.
An arctic chill ran up my spine and shock completely paralyzed me.
It had returned.
Bell’s Palsy had surreptitiously sneaked its way back into my helpless body and there was nothing I could do but stand there, toothbrush in hand, and stare.
It wasn’t my first encounter with this nefarious malady.
I thought I defeated the nasty disorder for good exactly four years earlier, when I was young, hungry and broke, but still making it work. That first time was 2009, the absolute worst time for a journalism student to graduate, when the economy had bulldozed dozens of publications. I naïvely clung to the faint hope that I’d somehow land somewhere with eight internships under my belt. After completing a paid internship that summer, I graduated into two unpaid ones, simultaneously juggling three days a week at a monthly and two at a weekly. The stress of making ends meet must have taken a toll on me, because that November was when I first came into contact with the force that attacked my nervous system.
Immediately, I assumed it was a stroke. After a panic-stricken trip to the ER, a doctor explained that it was something called Bell’s Palsy, which occurs without warning and has no known cause. The disorder strikes when the seventh cranial nerve becomes inflamed, completely impairing all functions in one half of the face, scalp to neck. Though no research is conclusive, it is believed that the immune system is weakened from a lack of sleep, sickness, and/or stress.
Two weeks of taking steroids, a mortifying job interview at GQ and one anti-viral later, I was completely recovered. I was one of the lucky ones who walked away unscathed, unlike the fifteen percent of the 65,000 others affected each year who never fully recover. Some take as little as two weeks to fully heal, others up to two years. Only one in ten have a chance of being attacked again by the disorder.
And as luck would have it, that wound up being me.
I refused to panic that late summer morning in 2013, instead opting to walk outside my apartment in Williamsburg and enjoy a cup of cold brew at my favorite local café. The sun was shining, the air was breezing, and I was strutting with a side step; not because I had any semblance of swagger, but so I didn’t lose my balance while wiping away the dust from my right eye.
Here I was with half a face, just when I was supposed to face the most vain, judgmental and bitchy of industries for an entire week. I smirked in amusement (a half smile was the best I could muster), remembering that fashion really does embrace the biggest of freaks.
By the time my cousin Lisa came rolling into New York on a two-story Megabus the next day, I was already wincing in intense pain. My scalp was tender and there was an unbearable stabbing sensation, almost as if someone was going at me mercilessly with a blunt butcher knife. The pain led to an excruciating, throbbing migraine that I equated to a steel drill boring through my head. The combination of medications I took didn’t help, instead causing me to become extremely foggy-headed, weak, and at times, as Lisa can recall, moody. Basically, symptoms of an average fashion editor on a Friday morning.
But Lisa was here and it was Fashion Week. The last thing I wanted was to ruin her first experience traipsing across Lincoln Center to Milk Studios in her favorite outfits she had spent hours putting together, in which she would stop, pose and strut across the pavement in hopes of showing her goods off to the fashion world —her debut, of sorts.
It was time to suck it up.
We met at a cafe across from FIT on Seventh Avenue and I was genuinely elated to embrace a familiar face at a time like this.
“I’m so sorry I can’t smile!” I immediately said to her, while chuckling beneath my breath, my right eye tearing as if I’d seen Beyoncé in the flesh.
“You look fine,” Lisa reassured me, her innocent hazel eyes gleaming under the cafe’s harsh fluorescent lights. I knew she wasn’t being completely honest by the way she averted glancing in my direction. “Plus, it’ll go away soon. You’ve had it once before and it’s not like it’ll stick around forever. Cheer up, it’s Fashion Week!”
The next few days were probably the worst — but also the most amusing — of my entire life. I resorted to wearing an eye patch to cover my eye from any scratches, since I was unable to blink. I asked my friend Jess to bling it out: If I was going down with an eye patch all week, it would have to be in the most outrageous manner. Kim Kardashian would have approved.
Some of my friends chortled, commenting how clever an idea it was. Street style photographers guffawed at how ridiculous it all seemed, snapping photos of me. Bill Cunningham — the original street style snapper for The New York Times — asked for my photo outside of the DKNY show. I gave him my best side smile and my signature pose.
Others weren’t so forgiving. An editor commented off-hand how ridiculous people were becoming, attempting to gain attention by sporting such outlandish accessories. When I tried to explain my condition, some of my peers flinched in disgust, asking if it was contagious. A commenter on Instagram told me how “vapid” I was and foolish I looked, and how offended he was because of my insensitive poke at those who really do need eye patches.
“Why? Fashion, really?” he remarked.
“Yes, fashion, duh,” I replied.
Vanity aside, it was a little troublesome performing my reporting duties.
What was once thrilling — the chase of interviewing designers and celebrities in the front row — became a mortifying task. Because I could barely move my lips, my speech was extremely impaired. Pronouncing “B’s,” “P’s” and “F’s” was impossible. I began speaking with a lazy drawl, and having to quickly think of alternative words to avoid these letters before I spoke was as draining as it was a nuisance. By the time my questions were finally verbalized, my subjects were already answering the next reporter’s.
When I could, I opted to stay in bed attempting to heal rather than work. It was far better to rest than to party. Besides, I could use some catching-up time with one of my favorite cousins.
“I’m so sorry that I ruined your first Fashion Week, but I swear, this won’t be the last,” I said to my cousin. In all reality, I was relieved that she was here and that I wasn’t alone. And her reassurance was a constant reminder that this wasn’t a permanent condition. It was just for the time being.
“It’ll make you stronger,” she said.
For the first week with Bell’s Palsy the second time around, I decided that it was best to find a solution to speed up the recovery process. I had to remedy this pain and I couldn’t bear thinking this was my new reality. I mean, I was (and still am) a vain human who takes selfies as seriously as my sister, a nurse, takes tending to her patients.
Eating became a difficult task; I would find myself biting my lips when attempting to make my way into a sandwich. Drinking water was impossible, as liquid would leak every which way. Since my right eye was obstinate, closing it by itself became futile. I slept with my eye taped shut.
But it was my inability to smile that ultimately took the biggest toll.
In the fashion industry, which often takes itself as seriously as the medical profession, the supposed sartorial surgeons forget to smile.
I was guilty of that myself, having forgotten over the years just how important that small physical movement is in maintaining not only one’s positivity, but sanity. Happiness comes in those invisible moments that we’ve been conditioned to ignore: grinning after a hopeful phone call; smirking at an offhand conversation accidentally eavesdropped inside the L train; beaming at that ever-growing cherub of a niece; giggling in delight at an inside joke shared with a sister.
Only when we are given adversity do we appreciate the little things. But by then, it’s often too late.
Still, all would have been fine, I thought, if my very profession and income — my entire livelihood — did not depend on my physical appearance and condition. For the past year I’d made a living as an on-camera personality. Within weeks, I witnessed these jobs being put on the back shelf, and some permanently placed on hiatus.
In my desperation, I scoured the web for any and all information as if it was a religion. Bell’s Palsy forums became my bible, YouTube uploads of those affected my weekly sermons, Instagram and Twitter my place to seek refuge and fellowship.
Some of those affected document how they’d recovered in mere days thanks to aggressive approaches to acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, or taking six vitamin B12 pills a day. Others were so desperate they completely soaked their skin in harsh oils and massaged their faces for hours on end. Still others were coping with the disorder years and years later, none of the remedies having worked for them. Would that be me, too, I wondered?
The next few weeks were a serpentine journey to find someone who could heal me.
There was Dr. Benkowski, a massive Polish physician with a feathery toupee, a gap-toothed smile and cold, childlike hands who prescribed me the antiviral Valtrex, a generic anti-inflammatory drug; a strong dose of steroids; and eye drops for the frequent eye infections caused by the inability to blink. The doctor explained that the whole thing started with an ear infection, which then impaired the surrounding nerves. The good doctor assured me that in less than two weeks my condition would heal itself.
After the daily dose of pills, all that was left was an awful stomachache, intense drowsiness and a very moody disposition.
Yelp reviews led me to spend two weeks with Dr. Kim, a local Korean-American acupuncturist off the Bedford Avenue subway stop in Williamsburg who told me over the phone that he had healed multiple patients with Bell’s Palsy.
“It’s something that’s easily treatable but you have to come now,” he said.
Sometimes Dr. Kim would light a piece of dried Chinese herbs and wave the smoke and flames over my face like a shaman exorcising a demon. Other sessions had me sitting underneath a heat lamp that would lightly singe my face and dry out my right eye. Though I was amused by his effort, my condition remained the same.
I was introduced to Dr. Benja-Athon by my landlord, whose own daughter’s Bell’s Palsy was cured by the doctor’s non-traditional procedures, like the electric stimulation he swore by.
Every day for four weeks I made the trip to his Midtown office. Encouraged by his confidence and claim of completely healing 197 of his previous patients, I held onto hope that I too would come back to normal. Every afternoon I would lie on his plushy table while he inserted three needles in specific points in my upper cheek, earlobe and scalp. He’d then connect a wire to each of them that plugged into an electric box.
After a month passed without results, he surmised that I must have a more severe condition: either an ongoing ear infection or Lyme Disease.
I turned up negative for both and never saw him again.
In Atlanta, I reunited with my restless parents for Halloween at my aunt and uncle’s. At their urging, we met with “renowned” specialist, Dr. Seok. He pricked his needles everywhere on my body, from the top of my head to my temples and palms to my shins and feet. The condition, he explained, occurred because my immune system was weakened and my body had gone through traumatic and frigid conditions. He prescribed me with two months’ worth of Chinese herbal medicine to “get the engine in your body up and running again.”
At my mother’s request, I promptly made an appointment with a medicine man in Flushing, Queens, who had recently gone into retirement but came out of it when his many followers urged him to continue his practice.
I met the unconventional healer who, after a quick look at me – without touching me, taking my pulse or checking my tongue like many of the other doctors – deduced that I had liver disease. Bravo! Get this man a show! I thought. He was like a mix between the Long Island Medium and Dr. Oz.
I sat back, trying to relax as much as I could as he began poking me with his needles. At this point, I was accustomed to the pricks and pinches, and my body had become immune to the pain.
Then, without warning or invitation, the man proceeded to take a needle and poke me in my eye. I winced in pain.
“Stay still!” he commanded as I quivered on that cold bed.
I was disgusted, angry and mortified.
As I sat back up and collected my belongings after this torturous session, I was emotionally drained. After three months of various healers using their extreme methods on me – none of which benefitted my condition – I couldn’t believe that it’d end with such a traumatic experience.
I began to sob as I walked out the door and back to the 7 train.
That afternoon, as the first snowflakes fell into my wet hands, I sat on the train in silence, my head held in my hands in what felt like defeat.
Leaves sprinkled the city with chic rich burgundies, warm oranges and neon yellows, and were quickly replaced by bare branches accessorized with plushy, winter white scarves. I was still taping my eye shut every night. The pain was subsiding, though my smile was still very visibly absent.
I was still booked for a couple of hosting gigs and couldn’t back out on the contractual agreements so close to their dates, and, two-faced or not, my employers expected me to perform. In the next few weeks I proceeded to host a large-scale talent showcase in New York called Kollaboration. My fellow emcee and I poked fun at my physical state before anyone in the audience could. A multi-city gig with McDonald’s had me jetting cross-country to multiple cities where I moderated Q&A conversations with celebrities onstage.
“You look fine,” an actor named Harry Shum, Jr., who was once on “Glee,” reassured me before we walked onstage in Los Angeles. I nodded back with confidence. In reality, I felt vulnerable as I slurred meekly into that reverberating microphone, gawked at by hundreds of strangers in that claustrophobic auditorium.
It was at that very moment, though, that I began to remember who I was.
I finally had a lucid epiphany while taking the stage: My Bell’s Palsy didn’t define me and my condition was far too powerless to stop me from doing what I wanted to do. If anything, it seemed as if life provided me with a huge service by carving out all of my unattractive features in the past four months: insecurity, pity and strife, revealing a more gleaming, chiseled, beautiful self. My exterior may have drastically changed, my circumstances different, but I was still me.
As I carefully studied the audience, their eyes darting back at me, as if piercing into my once-broken soul, the blazing spotlight shining down leaving nothing left to hide, I smiled – crookedly, but proudly.
After four months of desperately seeking a healer, using various creams, ointments and oils researched on the Internet, I finally came to the realization that none of these “remedies” seemed to help at all.
It was only after I learned to let go and breathe — to accept my fate and begin to love myself completely, wholly — that my body was able to heal itself.
It’s now another September Fashion Week. I’m still not fully 100%, but I am able to blink again, and, more importantly, appreciate the little things in life, like being able to sleep without taping my eye shut, and realizing that trivialities – like poring over what outfits to wear – don’t matter. They never did.