Bell’s Palsy

With the clarity of hindsight, I realize that the symptoms began Saturday night.

I was reading before bed. My left eyelid started twitching. I attributed it to fatigue. I keep reading, anyway. (It was Lisa Unger’s latest: Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six. Go ahead and try to put down any of Unger’s books; I dare you.) I finished the book, went to sleep, and in the morning, my eyelid still felt a little irritated. Fatigue, I thought. I shouldn’t have stayed up so late.

Toward evening on Sunday, I noticed that my left nostril was pinched. My left eye was watering a lot. I had a little post-nasal drip, and my tongue felt coated. Things didn’t taste quite right. A-ha! A sinus infection. The inflamed sinus was pressing on the muscles in my face, giving me a mild headache and minor eye irritation.

I’d had a sinus infection earlier in the year that recurred after seeming to get better. I figured I had another one. I decided to wait it out. If I didn’t get better in a few days, I’d go see a doctor then. If I went too soon, I’d most likely be told to wait, anyway.

On Monday morning, I tried to wolf-whistle at my wife and failed. I couldn’t purse my lips right. Instead of a whistle, what came out was a sputter. This was a little distressing. I whistle at Sweetie every day. It’s tradition! Also, I’ve been able to whistle since I was about, oh, ten years old.

But I still thought it was a sinus infection. I still had pressure inside my nose, my eye still felt twitchy, and I thought it was just inflamed sinuses pressing against the muscles in my face. I’d have to tough it out.

At my first meeting of the morning, the video preview showed that one eyebrow was raised, Spock-like. I could only bring it down with great difficulty. And I couldn’t raise the other eyebrow at all. Weird, I thought and pushed on. Later in the day, I noticed that I was pronouncing “p” or “b” sounds with a little bit of a sputter. Absurd, but I was committed to my self-diagnosis of sinus infection. It will pass.

Around four o’clock, I went out to talk to a neighbor. When I explained that the one raised eyebrow didn’t mean I was sneering at her, she said, “Are you sure it isn’t Bell’s?”

I thought, Nah. Couldn’t be. I couldn’t imagine anything so out of the ordinary happening to me. But after we finished talking, I looked up the symptoms. Son of a gun. Almost all of them seemed to apply. When my wife came home, she told me to go see a doctor right away. At the walk-in clinic, they told me to go to an Emergency Room. I could be having a stroke.

I was reasonably sure I wasn’t having a stroke. Other than half of my face being non-responsive, I didn’t have the other symptoms. No cognitive impairment, no weakness, no slurring of speech. (I’d already forgotten the plosive sputter because I’d taught myself to avoid it.) However, my self-diagnosis so far didn’t have a spectacular track record. I went to the ER.

The guy at the reception desk took one look at my face and made me sit down. A swarm of medical personnel appeared and whisked me away. They performed a bunch of diagnostic tests on my vision, my strength, my knowledge of who I was, where I was, and what day it was. (I almost failed the last one because I never pay attention to the date.)

It was at this point that I began to realize I should’ve been more concerned. I sort of view myself as a kind of Superman. Although I was sick a lot as a child, I learned not to complain about my health. Unless I’m in a lot of pain, I prefer to stick it out and wait for things to get better.

More tests. I had to tell the story of my symptoms so many times I got bored and began making jokes. I started referring to my facial paralysis as “resting Spock face.” Hilarious, right? But only one nurse got it. I had a video consultation with a neurologist. Could I raise my arms and keep them steady, with my eyes closed? Yes. Could I squeeze the nurse’s fingers with both hands evenly? Yes. (I felt bad about it because she was the one who laughed at my Spock joke.) Could I feel her touching my face on both sides? Yes. Etc. I passed every test. He said it looked like textbook Bell’s. But he recommended an MRI to be sure that “nothing crazy is going on in your brain.”

My dude, there is always something crazy going on in my brain. I sensed he wouldn’t appreciate the self-deprecating humor, so I kept that one to myself. Although I texted it to my friends.

I found myself spending the night in the hospital. The next morning, the MRI was noisy and uncomfortable. I used meditation and Cognitive Behavior techniques to keep myself from panicking from being constrained in a big tube.

I am breathing in; I am breathing out. I do not have to respond to the thoughts telling me I’m trapped.

It worked so well that I started to view the experience as absurd. I even had to suppress a fit of giggles at one point. The rhythm of the MRI machine changed from one obnoxious squawking to another and I thought, “This nightclub sucks. Every song is worse than the last.

The MRI came back negative. “No brain?” I asked. No brain damage, the solemn doctor said. No sign of a stroke. Bell’s palsy. I’m to take a course of prednisone and anti-viral medication, and it should pass. Most people make a full recovery in three to four weeks. A nurse told me it had happened to her earlier this year. You couldn’t see any sign of it on her face. I’m confident the same will likely be true for me. Soon, this will be just a funny story I can tell.

But if there is a next, I’ll take the symptoms seriously and get my ass into an emergency room posthaste. Bell’s can look like a stroke, and you have precious little time to get treated for a stroke before the damage is permanent.

Now I await the blizzard of bills that are sure to come. I’m fortunate that I have the means to pay them. Not everybody does. I have good enough insurance to handle the rest beyond my deductible. Not everybody does. It’s a shame that in a society with so much abundance, we have decided to ration life-saving, life-changing medicine to a fraction of people. Many people defer care not because they’re convinced of their own invulnerability, but because our society only values you if you have money.

Counting Down…

Today, on the twelfth day of isolation,* I tested negative. I was almost afraid to take it. I squinted real hard at the test after the timer went off, not sure I trusted my eyes. I took a picture and sent it to Sweetie. No line. Huzzah! Now, to be on the safe side, I’ll continue isolation for another 48 hours. But at least I see an end to this crappy experience.

If I were a social media influencer, I suppose I would have some sun-shiny take on it that ends with a cliche life lesson presented as if it were a profound discovery never thought of in human history. But I’m not, so I don’t. I already wore my mask in public and I’ll keep doing it. I can only withdraw from being out in the world so much, and I’m not going to become a hermit for the rest of my life.

If I learned anything, it was what’s comfortable & what’s not about my bedroom. Until this month, I haven’t spent much waking time there. It’s fine for sleeping. For hanging out by myself, it actually isn’t all that bad, either. I have a comfortable arm chair that normally holds a pile of stuffed animals. ** I suppose I could have used a little table to pull in front of it to rest my laptop on. Maybe I’ll make one when I finish the other wood shop projects I have in progress and planned.

That’s it. Some life lesson, yeah? Getting sick sucks. Avoid it if you can. Have a comfy chair in your isolation room. How profound.

* Worst Christmas carol parody ever.

** A big part of me is still ten years old. And yes, they all have names and biographies.

COVID, after all

A rendering of a COVID-19 virus.
Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

After almost three years of diligence and caution, I contracted COVID-19 this week. The last time I was sick was the week after the State of Colorado shut down over the disease while I was on a business trip there. I caught an ordinary cold from another traveler on the flight home. (“Ordinary” doesn’t do it justice. It was a doozy. But it wasn’t COVID-19; the symptoms weren’t the same.) I haven’t had so much as a sniffle since then, because I kept up masking discipline even as the world began to forge forward with a “What, me worry?” approach to a disease that was still killing tens of thousands of people a month in this country alone. And when people said, “Everyone’s going to get it eventually,” I would think, “Not if I can help it, bucko.”

I got every vaccination I was eligible for. I was super cautious during recent business travel. All was well. Carolyn and I had a trip to Saint Augustine planned last weekend. I tested before and during the trip to be on the safe side, since we were seeing a lot of people. But by Monday morning, I was feeling really low and when we got home, I tested again. Bam. Positive.

I used to joke that after three years of not even having a cold, I would be a giant baby the first time I got sick. But it wasn’t so. I immediately went into quarantine in my bedroom so that I wouldn’t infect Carolyn if I hadn’t already, and I simple… endured. I had a fever that first night that felt no more severe than the side-effect from my recent shingles vaccine. Possibly less, tbh. Since then, I’ve had mild symptoms, mostly congestion, and fatigue. The vaccines succeeded at blocking the disease from truly wreaking havoc on me. I only missed one day of work. I could have taken more time off but I was bored silly and, happily, there’s nothing wrong with my cognitive functioning. Since I am a remote worker, there’s nothing keeping me from keeping occupied.

So far, I don’t appear to have infected anyone else. I contacted my friends to let them know and four days later, they’re all symptom free and testing negative. Carolyn’s fate is still uncertain. Negative so far, but come on. We were in a car for several hours together, in a hotel room overnight, and we live in the same house. Quarantine precautions can only do so much.

COVID Capers

Carolyn and I needed groceries and a few things to effect some necessary household repairs, so donned our masks and out we went. Groceries would include frozen items, so we stopped at Lowe’s first.

It was a nightmare. They had marked most of their doors “Exit Only,” with a single point of ingress—but people still wandered in an out of any door they pleased. There was no attempt to limit the number of people in the store. Perhaps ten to fifteen percent of the people were masked. I saw only one employee with a mask. No customers observed any kind of social distancing. We got what we needed and got out, hoping we don’t need to go back soon.

The grocery store was better, but not by much. All of the staff were wearing masks—although one cashier had hers pulled down so that her nose was not covered. But still, many customers were bare-faced. Naturally, people too inconsiderate to wear a mask also thought nothing of crowding you in tight aisles. And this was a health food store, where I expect shoppers would be more healthy-conscious than the general public.

We’re not going to stamp this thing out with half-assed measures half-heartedly observed and enforced.


I had insomnia last night. It wasn’t the kind of insomnia where I’m alert, so I might as well do something. I don’t mind insomnia on those nights. It’s a little extra time to read or write. Often, I don’t even drag the day after those kinds of insomniac nights.

No, last night was the kind of insomnia where I can’t sleep but every cell in my body is weary. Forget getting up to read or write; I couldn’t focus enough to enjoy watching a TV show—not even one I’d seen before. I dragged all day. Coworkers on videoconferences noticed my energy was low. I had to assure them that I wasn’t depressed, but weary.

This is a long way of saying that I don’t have to brainpower to engage with a journal prompt tonight. Two of the three cards I drew from my deck of prompts don’t apply to me. Both are in the genre of wishing you were someone else. The third, though, is juicy. I want to dig into it, but I can’t focus. Tonight, I’m cheating. I’ll save that card for another evening.

Too few to mention

Today’s journal prompt asks, “What decision should you have made yesterday?”

I should have decided to eat more vegetables.

Last year, I started working with a nutritionist to improve the quality of my diet. One of the rules she suggested was to eat a fist-sized serving of vegetables with lunch and dinner. I do that more often than not now, but yesterday, I didn’t eat any vegetables.

It’s a stressful time, and I felt the stress more yesterday than I had in days prior, so I ate a lot of cheese and bread. And crackers. I did have some fruit, but no vegetables.

That’s the literal answer for the journal prompt. I expect whoever crafted it intended a more introspective answer. A lot of the prompts in this deck of questions revolve around past regrets. Those are hard for me to answer. I’ve come to be comfortable with who I am. The mistakes and missteps I’ve made along the way all contributed to me becoming who I am. I don’t dwell on regrets.

Even the vegetables, to be honest. Sometimes, a man needs to eat cheese.


Photo by Fabian Møller on Unsplash
Last Thursday, I had a very stress-filled morning. I had more than twice as much work as I could do in the two hours I had before I left for the airport to fly home. I knew I couldn’t get it all done, but the size of my task list still overwhelmed me.
I have become pretty good at recognizing that paralyzing feeling and I know how to cope with it. I closed my eyes and did a couple of rounds of 4-7-8 breathing. Calmer, I took up the most important task on my list. After finishing it, I used the breathing technique again to maintain my balance. I repeated the cycle until it was time to go. On the way to the airport, I tweeted about it:

The technique is very simple. In case the embedded tweet isn’t visible, here are the steps:

  • Inhale deeply for four seconds
  • Hold your breath for seven seconds
  • Exhale for eight seconds.

Repeat as necessary.

On Friday, I had another stress-filled morning, and I even put a note at the top of my to-do list: “Breathe” is all it says. Every time I finished a task and looked for the next thing I need to do, I saw the reminder to take nineteen seconds for my mental health.
I don’t know why this technique works, but it does. It lowers blood pressure and helps manage stress. Try it when you feel stress. It makes a big difference.



Air Cruelty

I am writing this on my flight home from a business trip. The man who boarded ahead of me has a thick, hacking cough. He insisted, “I don’t have what everyone thinks I have. It’s just a cold.” I didn’t ask how he could be certain.

I sat in an exit row seat—the one with extra legroom. He sat a row ahead of me on the other side of the aisle. No one sat in his row, nor did anyone else sit in mine. No one needed to—it’s a Southwest flight, and it is only 2/3 full, so there is plenty of space.

As people filed by, many gave him dirty looks. Others mocked him, some criticized him. One man complained to the flight attendant, “Now my exit row seat is ruined.” I heard someone mutter, “Irresponsible.”

Maybe it is. I know I’ve flown while sick before. “I have to get home,” I thought, and considered it a necessity. I never really thought about whether that was a responsible thing to do. If I were sick right now, would I have declined to fly, or would I have decided that my need to be home outweighed the risk to others? I have to admit that I likely would have done the latter.

I do think it was irresponsible of him to take an exit row seat, no matter how willing he may be to assist in an emergency. But his choice doesn’t justify the way people treated him. Fear is understandable. Cruelty is indefensible.

On working sick

All the COVID-19 news has made me think about an incident from when I was a clerk at Waldenbooks in the early 1990s.

One morning, I woke up with a scratchy throat, severely congested sinuses, and a fever. I was scheduled to work an eight hour closing shift that day, but recognized that I needed to stay home and stay in bed. I called my manager and told her I was sick and wanted to use a sick day.

“If you don’t want the hours, find someone else to work them for you,” she said.

I tried to explain that it wasn’t a function of not wanting the hours. I was sick. The only time I stopped coughing was to sneeze. It was better for everyone if I didn’t come in. But she insisted that if I didn’t want my shift, I’d have to call around to our store’s part timers to see if any of them could fill in. Otherwise, she expected me to show up at one o’clock. And if she couldn’t rely on me, next week she would cut my hours and let someone else have them.

I couldn’t find anyone to take my shift, and I damned sure couldn’t afford to have my hours cut the next week. I was barely making ends meet in those days. So I went in. I worked a full shift and closed the store. The next day, still sick, I worked my scheduled opening shift. The next week, three of my coworkers were sick. And I can only imagine how many customers I infected.

So all the advice from people saying that if you feel even the littlest bit sick, stay home? That’s great in theory. But for too many low-wage workers, it isn’t an option. If you’re barely making ends meet, you work sick. You need the money. You need the job.


The 30 Day Optimism Challenge

My peculiar brain chemistry makes me prone to depression, and toward the end of last year a variety of triggers, internal and external, damaged my equilibrium. Setbacks weighed on me more than they should. Every day felt like a chain of uniformly unpleasant events. When I realized last month what was going on, I knew I needed to change my thinking. The trouble with depression is that it drains your ability to take action, so I chose two simple tasks that I could do each day to change my outlook. I called it the “Thirty Day Optimism Challenge.”

In the morning, I would name one thing to look forward to. It didn’t have to be anything major. Some days, it was as simple as, “I look forward to coming home tonight.” And it didn’t have to be something that would happen that day. One day, I named a weekend trip to Saint Augustine that my wife and I were planning. The idea was to remind myself that no matter what was going on right then, something positive was on the way.

At night, I identified one good thing about that day. It was usually something simple: watching pelicans dive for fish during my morning commute, reading a good essay, or meeting a friend for coffee. It wasn’t about ignoring bad things, but about not focusing on those things exclusively.

I recorded the answers in my pocket diary. Writing them down made them concrete, and my mood began to improve by the second week. I began to make a game of finding something good—how early could I spot something I could use that night? Eventually, I started noticing so many good things each day that I had trouble selecting just one! And in the morning, if I couldn’t think of something to look forward to, I’d make a plan: tonight I will call my best friend. This weekend, I will visit the bookstore. I always had something to look forward to on any given day—whether it was something that night, the next week, or in a few months.

Yesterday was Day 30. The challenge worked. I feel more optimistic, and I’ve decided to keep up both exercises indefinitely. Depression will still surface from time to time, but I hope those incidents will be fewer, rarer, and weaker if I remember to keep my eyes open for the positive things in life.