In February 2010, playwright Sarah Ruhl had an acclaimed new show on Broadway and had just delivered newborn twins after a difficult pregnancy. The day after she gave birth, a hospital worker came to her room and examined Ruhl curiously.
“Your eye looks droopy,” she said.
Ruhl went to the bathroom to look in the mirror: The whole left side of her face, it seemed, had fallen.
“I hadn’t noticed any difference” in my face before then, the 47-year-old told The Post. But the change “was pretty extreme. I felt totally frozen on the left side. I couldn’t blink. I couldn’t smile.”
Doctors diagnosed Ruhl with Bell’s palsy — a mysterious, unexplained form of facial paralysis caused by nerve damage. They assured her that 90 percent of Bell’s patients saw spontaneous improvement and experienced full recovery. Eighty-five percent were cured within three months — like Angelina Jolie, who suffered from Bell’s palsy in 2016, or Ruhl’s own mother, who had Bell’s too.
Nearly a decade later, however, Ruhl still couldn’t really smile. She tried all kinds of “cures” — from acupuncture to lathering her face in sesame oil. “A lot of people say if you don’t get better after six months from Bell’s palsy, that’s kind of it,” said Ruhl, whose new book, “Smile: The Story of a Face” (Simon & Schuster), is out Tuesday.
“My first neurologist was very clear with me. He said, ‘Nothing you do will make it better. Not acupuncture, not physical therapy. Don’t even bother, you need experimental neurosurgery.’ ”
There is no real cure for Bell’s. Doctors don’t know what causes it or why pregnancy seems to increase one’s chance of getting it. Patients are told to take some steroids and just wait.
On one hand, Ruhl knew she was lucky — she didn’t have a life-threatening illness and her twins, after various complications, were healthy. Yet she couldn’t drink a cup of water without drooling. She had a constant headache from the ringing in her ears (due to damage in the cranial nerve that controls hearing). Reading aloud to her older 3-year-old daughter exhausted her. Since she couldn’t blink, she had to manually close her left eye before going to sleep, and for the first few months slept wearing an eye patch, so she wouldn’t accidentally scratch her cornea in her sleep.
But she mourned her face the most. When she tried to smile in the mirror, it looked like a grimace. She dreaded going out. When her play, “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play),” was nominated for a Tony Award in 2010, she agonized as she posed for photos on the red carpet with her immobile face.
“Every social interaction felt hard,” she said. But, most of all, “I hated not being able to smile fully at my babies.”
Three months turned to six months turned to a year. Two years out, the professionals she saw largely deemed her case hopeless. Ruhl continued writing plays and essays, teaching and raising her three children, but her husband, a doctor himself, suggested that she try to write about her illness.
Ruhl agreed and the more she wrote, the more she wondered if her case really was hopeless. “It was almost a journalistic investigation — ‘OK, I’ll try this, I’ll try that.’ Or I’ll have lunch with another person who had Bell’s palsy. It allowed me to come out of my tortoise shell.”
In 2019, she decided to see a physical therapist, who encouraged her to think of her face not as a marker of beauty but as a muscle, giving her exercises to build strength. “I started to really pride function over form . . . The face is about communicating messages of empathy and joy, and that’s actually a muscular [as well as] a spiritual ability. Practicing them was really a way back into the world.”
Then, the miraculous happened: She started healing.
One day, the facial recognition technology on her phone didn’t recognize her — and that was a good thing.
“That’s when I knew objectively that I was getting better.”
Now, Ruhl says she’s about 70 percent recovered. Her left eye still closes a little when she smiles with her teeth, and her whistle isn’t the strongest. “But I feel accepting of where my face is at,” she said.
And she smiles freely at strangers without shame.
“I hope to bring some comfort to people dealing with some kind of chronic illness, whether it’s visible or invisible,” she says of her book. “And I hope to also broaden acceptance for people with any kind of asymmetry in a world that expects us all to be symmetrical.”
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