On Saturday, after waking up in Thailand, I realised that half my face feel numb. I had experienced it before, a few times in fact. One side of my face would be slightly squashed after sleep. It would regain its senses quickly so I pottered about, planning the day's visits. During meals, rice and vegetable bits kept getting stuck at the right corner of my mouth and I had to gurgle or hook them out with my index finger.
The merit of solo-travel would be the peace. No one to talk to, thankfully, and time to reduce mind clutter, to tidy up threads of unfinished thoughts. Maybe there's energy enough for an essay on PSLE results and how we are simply reinforcing an already oppressive power structure with stories of I-didn't-do-well-for-PSLE-but-look!-I'm-an-engineer/lawyer/professor/teacher/someone with degree(s)/someone who fits nicely into societal-definitions-of-stability/success.
It was only after more than a day - some thirty hours - that I realised the right side of my face isn't just numb, but immobile as well. There was no mirror in the hostel room so I stood in the only toilet cubicle with a canvas curtain - no doors - and a mirror. I looked carefully - which I usually don't because ... ... ... of obvious reasons - and tried contorting my face. The left brow twitched, lovely. The right one, nope. A smile became a sneer with the left end being able to jerk up and the right end refusing to quiver.
I knew it is wrong but I did it anyway. According to Wikipedia, there are 12 main causes of facial paralysis, with the root cause being some kind of nerve damage. Okay... more to fret about, hence less energy to fret about how to resolve this in a foreign land where I communicate by pointing and saying I'm-not-Thai-I-don't-speak-Thai-can-I-get-this-please.
Even though the plan was to visit the Grand Palace and pay respect to the king, I spent my time trawling through the internet, turning and tossing on the bed like a jilted lover, before forcing myself to sketch, read and write at Starbucks. It was a complete waste of dwindling overseas holiday time.
Should I be composing my will? What about my obituary? Oops, no travel insurance. Does the typical insurance cover this? What does my insurance even cover? Perhaps 40 percent of my savings to my mum, 40 percent to my dad, 5 percent to the local publishing companies, 5 percent to animal charity. Does this make 100 percent? Good grace, my right eye is blurring, the muscle beneath it is twitching.
***When my youngest brother asked about my lopsided face, I felt embarrassed, as though I was caught doing something I shouldn't have been doing.
I didn't mention my fear of it being the residual effect of a stroke or heart attack. I didn't dare to say 'nerve damage' because it seemed so severe and permanent. Hence, I said that the right side was slightly numb and that I had no idea why and all the clinics were closed and I had already been like this for two days and asked if a lopsided face would merit a visit to the emergency department of a local hospital.
By then, the scientific curiosity about this condition had faded. Even the desire to observe for the sake of writing poetry became muted. Anxiety budded like an ugly alien and I told this to Rodrigo, the first person whom I spoke to on Facebook after suffering this condition. I semi-joked about how this experience can inform my writing project. He, a treasured friend-poetry critic from a writing workshop, said that the poem could be titled Self-Portrait in Bangkok with a Half-Frozen Face.
Only the left side of my face laughed.
I didn't tell my mother because she would just flutter about in distress, wanting to show concern. I told my father once he stepped into the living room.
You had a stroke. Did you sleep under the air-con?
Look at you, so young, had a stroke. Can't you learn to take care of yourself?
My father's brand of medicine - a buffet of multivitamins to be ingested or sprayed on - wasn't reassuring. I messaged Jolie because she is a super doctor and would know what to do. She replied for a while and went offline. Was it because I am a hopeless case?
The clinics were close for the night. I had to wait. While waiting, I fretted. Worry is like a rocking chair, a friend once messaged, it is something to do but it doesn't get you anywhere. But since I had time, I might as well worry.
***I felt old. My back was aching. My arms were aching. My neck as well. My body was falling apart.
Dr Chan, my prof for language teaching, commented that teachers' health would fall into pieces during holidays. It was almost an instinct - work hard for months, work, work, overwork, then fall apart when there's time to do so.
While waiting to see the doctor, I looked at the old uncle holding a walking stick, sitting right in front, now hobbling past to the washroom.
In the book How We Die, Sherwin Nuland suggests that it is only ecologically sound for deaths to occur so that life can continue. We must not hoard the earth and deplete its resources selfishly. I agree with him, really, but I want more time before re-entering the carbon cycle as ashes.
One chaperon shepherded two people into a room. They were wearing tattered clothes. Because I was trying to appear as if I weren't eavesdropping, I couldn't catch their words and accents, hence failed to deduce their provenance. There are a few stories of employers leaving their injured workers on deserted roads to die/ be saved by passers-by/whatever heaven decides.
At some point, I became tired of people-watching and my increasingly morbid thoughts. I flipped the cover off my phone and spun for pokeballs.
The polyclinic doctor - he was trying to be reassuring - said that 30 percent of all patients recover fully, 30 percent partially and 30 percent not at all. The other 10 percent, I still don't know what happened to them.
Since the odds didn't favour me - 60 percent chance of not recovering fully - I went online and searched for better odds. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke,
with or without treatment, most individuals begin to get better within 2 weeks after the initial onset of symptoms and most recover completely, returning to normal function within 3 to 6 months.3 to 6 months?! School would have started within 1 month. At this point, I typed out a string of expletives.
Okay, I just deleted those words because (1) I just reprimanded my Sec 2 nephew for using a procreation-related expression on Facebook, (2) one must conduct oneself with the grace befitting the profession and (3) there are more apt words in the dictionary.
More ominously, the website states,
For some, however, the symptoms may last longer. In a few cases, the symptoms may never completely disappear. In rare cases, the disorder may recur, either on the same or the opposite side of the face.
***Jolie replied. She confirmed that I'm most likely suffering from Bell's palsy.
If my face doesn't regain its sensation by end December, I may have to apply for a few months' leave. Take some time off and hope that my face would flow back into position, upwards, against the law of gravity.
In a classroom, what one says, how one behaves, one's clothes, even a change of spectacles will be observed. Students are experts in dissecting adults, mainly because they have to pay attention to them all the time and it can be tiring to do so. Most don't really care about what they have seen but some might try to use their observations to further their interests. For many reasons, a minority can be cruel. Don't be surprised - if there are adults one can't get along with, there will be children one can't get along with. These adults were once children.
My face has (had?) always been expressive. I remember how Prof Lim would call me out in class, saying that I appear to disagree with what she has just said. Not really. It's just that my face is scrunched whenever I am thinking. Which, now that I come to think of it, may give my superiors the impression that I am hyper-critical during meetings. Sometimes, some students will laugh because my eyebrows tend to move about especially when discussing important concepts. I cannot imagine what they will say, when the left brow wiggles while the right brow is as still as a dead caterpillar.
A few teachers once told me to relax, to slow down because they have seen people who leave late in the evening all the time and know that these would eventually leave the service. I used to be shocked - why would they say that to a novice - but now, I know better.
As I type this, my right eye is tearing. I need to blink my right eye manually - push the eyelid down - and it's easy to forget to do so.
I am no longer excited that I am suffering from Bell's Palsy. Perhaps poems about this experience would come, but not now. Who is this Bell anyway? Does he chime and tinkle? (Answer: Bell discovered that damage to the 7th facial nerve can cause partial facial droop. Yes, it's probably nerve damage caused by a virus attack and it's not contagious, so thank guan yin ma.)
Being an agnostic with no particular faith in any particular god, I can only blame the vague generic idea of gods. Which is silly, considering (A) how can someone push responsibility to an abstract concept of divine guardians and (B) why should deities be blamed when there is misfortune and not thanked when there is good fortune?
My upper lip is peeling. Perhaps too dry because the right side of my mouth tends to be open unless I consciously close it. That dry sheath of dead cells irritates me and I cut it away, slowly.
My third brother, ever encouraging, told me that I shouldn't go out and frighten people.
My elder brother kicked him.
It is the school holiday and I am supposed to be kicking back at a Bali beach with a coconut drink. But this.
I keep telling my parents that I'll recover fully within 2 months. 1 month, if I am lucky. I also tell them not to tell my relatives. My dad says this cocktail of miracle multivitamins will restore my facial dexterity within 1 week. Doubtful but hopeful.
Of course, I didn't tell them that some only regain partial use, a minority doesn't recover. The typical I-don't-want-them-to-worry filial piety (which Taiwanese 1000 episode long dramas seem to thrive on).
Probably not going for the upcoming JC class outing - felt foolish when messaging Tricia about this as in this-is-a-silly-affliction-and-I-used-to-behave-in-a-spastic-manner-now-I-even-look-(more)-spastic. May also avoid two Christmas events which I have already committed to go. There's this guilt, this shame, that I must have done something wrong to deserve this.
***Apparently, there are some 100 cases in Singapore every year. Most have recovered fully - hope! - and moved on.
Many suffer from worse traumas. Some lose their loved ones, some lose their sight, some lose limbs. A doctor climbed into a wrecked car to support a victim. She held the victim's head in her palm when that head fell off completely.
I suppose I should be thankful. Factually, I am not that old and would probably be classified as someone who has the capacity to contribute to the economy directly (expenses, work) or indirectly (work, procreation). If I were to apply for an extended leave - nope, not going to tussle with the future while I am down - would someone somewhere in an echelon of the Ministry be thinking, oh dear, this guy isn't paying his dues, what a waste of taxpayers' moolah.
Good/bad, light/night, right/wrong, life can't be reduced to binaries, some people claim. In the case of Bell's palsy, life can be reduced to binaries. Now I think of everything in terms of right/left.
Why the right side? Why not left? I imagine some kind of angels(?) deciding what to afflict me with in order to best occupy my holiday and enrich my life experiences.
I'm not greedy. If I can't recover fully, at least let me recover partially. If I were to recover partially, at least let me regain the use of the lower right section where the right side of my mouth is. I want to be able to smile and talk without sneering.
It seems that I prize control of my mouth over my eye. Unfair to my eye really. Also disconcerting, talking about my face as though it is a Picasso painting with distinct halves and quarters. The upper right section, where my right eye is... hmm, important as well so it is best if it could recover. There, I've said it. I'm greedy, I want all parts of my face back, I want full recovery.
It takes a health scare like this to stir up one's mind clutter. Which is what this piece is essentially, a formless cluttered mess. I can only that after the muck has settled, after the gritty sediment has come to a rest, what is important would become clear.