Editor’s Note: Portraits of Resilience is a photography and interview series by Prof. Daniel Jackson. Each installment consists of a portrait and a story, told in the subject’s own words, of how they found resilience and meaning in their life.
Anxiety and stress are things that I have dealt with for a while. Starting business school was a particularly stressful time for me because I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I also had some doubts about whether business school had even been the right decision for me.
I thought I was dealing with it relatively well. Then, in the last week of November, I went out to dinner with my boyfriend. We got in a huge fight, and I woke up the next morning and couldn’t move half my face.
I knew as soon as I woke up what was going on, but I tried to convince myself that I just pulled a muscle. But I couldn’t even drink coffee or eat without leaking out of the side of my mouth. Eventually I went to urgent care, and they told me I had Bell’s palsy. They said it should go away in between two to six weeks.
I was pretty shell-shocked, utterly overwhelmed, didn’t really understand the implications, and felt scared and helpless. As a relatively young and healthy person, there have been very few times I’ve felt like my body betrayed me. This was a real sign that my body had done something that was not under my control, and I didn’t know what to do about it.
It turned out to be four months of no motion on that side of my face at all. My theory is that it was caused by a shingles virus, which is actually one of the worst kinds of Bell’s palsy. In the first week that I had it, it got worse and worse and worse. I started feeling a lot of pain, and my face froze up more. I was getting a lot of stiffness in my neck and a rash on my ear.
The really hard thing was feeling like I couldn’t communicate with the people around me. I’m pretty quiet, but I tend to smile a lot. My smile would be like a grimace, and it wasn’t really recognizable as a smile. It made me hugely self-conscious, so I generally didn’t make any expression, because if my face was resting, you couldn’t tell that anything was going on.
So I basically stopped smiling at people. I came to realize it’s a really fundamental way that humans communicate with each other. Also, there’s a lot of research showing that the more you smile, the more you actually are happier and feel joy. Not only was I struggling with this stressful thing, which was caused by stress, but the way that it was manifesting was causing me even more stress. It was really difficult. I think I just went inwards a little bit. I stopped going to social events, and I ended up spending a lot more time alone, and then a lot more time with close friends.
It got even harder when I started hitting the timelines when people had told me I should be getting better. There are far worse things than not being able to smile, but I had to just accept that I might not ever get better. It’s an interesting disease, because it’s only cosmetic, and when you start to compare it to things that other people are dealing with, it’s so clearly just not even on the same scale as a disease that actually harms your health. But, at the same time, it was a real thing, and it was challenging how I saw myself both figuratively and literally.
Around then, I signed up for “The Yarn,” a Sloan School storytelling event. This finally made me engage with my disease and recognize what it had done to me. I realized that Bell’s palsy was not under my control, but my reaction to it was under my control. I could decide whether I wanted to see it as this horrible thing that I should feel sorry for myself for, or as this opportunity to better understand myself, and to derive meaning and purpose.
Once you start to see it in that way, it changes a lot. I started to realize there had been really good things about me having to step back from all the craziness at school. It had been a way for me to gain more clarity about what I actually cared about and what I wanted to be spending my time doing. I realized that I hadn’t been living in line with my values. In business school, there’s a lot of pressure to follow the herd. I’d been pulled away from the things that I really wanted to be doing, such as art and writing.
So it was a wake-up call. It’s easy to just think you can deal with stress. You take on more and more and more things, and think it will all work out somehow, sleeping five hours a night, running from activity to activity, saying yes to everything because you don’t want to miss out on an opportunity. And then you just realize that you’re not a person. You’re just a to-do list, and you’ve lost touch with who you are and what you want.
I started meditating more regularly. I had been doing it intermittently previously. I kind of got my emotional house in order, and lo and behold, the movement started coming back in my face. I sent my boyfriend a video right away. I could just move the corner of my cheek, my lip at first, and then over the course of about three weeks, I regained a lot of movement and sensation.
There are a lot of paradoxes in what happened to me. In many areas of my life, I have this tendency to try so hard, and when I see a problem, I say, “I’m not going to give up. I’m going to keep going. I’m going to keep pushing. I can make it through this. I can figure out the solution.” But sometimes you have to just step back and breathe, and say: a) maybe this problem can't be solved, or b) maybe I just need to take a break from it and come back to it, or c) maybe I'm so fixated on this specific problem that I’m not even realizing it's irrelevant to the overall bigger picture. That’s happened to me at work and in my personal life many times.
This is maybe a little bit of the Buddhist in me, but I’m realizing there’s a difference between the emotion you feel and the story you tell yourself about it. I can say I am feeling overwhelmed, and I can focus on that feeling of overwhelmed-ness, without launching into the story about, "Oh, I’m overwhelmed because I’m never going to get better, and this is going to be this thing that I have to deal with for the rest of my life.” I started instead to just say, “Hey, I feel overwhelmed right now. Let me do something to relax.”
Before business school, I thought a lot about what I wanted to do afterwards, and I think now I'm actually coming around to many of the same things, but I have this degree of certainty and security and confidence that I never had before.
I’m at six months now. I probably won’t regain full capacity. If I try to raise my eyebrows, I can only raise them on one side, and my smile isn’t symmetrical anymore.
But it’s funny how when I look back on this year, Bell’s palsy was probably the best thing that happened to me. It was just this really powerful clarifying force. Before, I would get so caught up in my emotions. Something would happen, and then I would have this huge emotional response to it, and that would be my reality and I couldn’t get out of it. Now I have some distance from my emotions. I can make choices.
Eva Breitenbach is a student in the MBA program at the Sloan School of Management.
This project is supported by the Undergraduate Association’s Committee on Student Support and Wellness, chaired by Tamar Weseley ’17 and Alice Zielinski ’16. To participate in the project, or to learn more, contact ResilienceProject@mit.edu.
There are many ways to find help. Members of the MIT community can access support resources at resources.mit.edu/support. To access support through MIT Medical’s Mental Health & Counseling Service, please call (617) 253-2916 or visit medical.mit.edu.
Image and text copyright Daniel Jackson, 2016.