You likely have no context for the kind of savage pain the shingles virus can cause. Yes, I’m even talking about you- mothers of babies and dudes who don’t drink enough cranberry juice. Childbirth and kidney stones are a walk in the park compared to shingles. I’ll prove it below with my horror story, which contains (WARNING) disturbing language and imagery.
How would you feel if suddenly you faced a future of not being able to earn a living doing what you love and have done for your entire career? That’s severe pain on another level. When this happened to me I found courage in a life lesson I first discovered at age fourteen.
Before I begin my story, it’s true: I’ve never given birth to a baby, or passed a kidney stone. I don’t need to in order to know that shingles still wins for pain. For starters, with childbirth and kidney stones at least there’s a small reward at the end, an adorable memento of your excruciatingly painful experience. And babies are cute too. When I’m finally done with shingles, in the best-case scenario I’ll be left with nothing but the knowledge that the virus lies dormant in my trigeminal ganglion at the petrous part of the temporal bone at the base of my skull. It will forever be poised for a second attack; like a feral cat eyeing feet from under a coffee table, or Russian bots at the 2020 DNC.
At least next time I’ll be Rambo-ready, and that’s not just the celery juice talking. Bring it on ganglion!
Oh, and let’s see a raise of hands from Moms who were in active labour and delivery for a week or more? “Bueller?” And I realize it can take weeks or even a month to pass a kidney stone through your urinary tract, but, Gents, was the acute pain persistent for 24/7 that entire time? Crickets. And I realize women get kidney stones too, but I’m just trying to make a quick point here, not present a scientific dissertation. There are no contractions to breathe through, or cycles of pain in between which to rest when shingles is at its peak, which typically lasts 3-5 weeks. Thereafter, the comparatively less gruelling pain and complications can last for months, or a year, or, you know, forever.
It all began just before New Year’s Eve when I got a biopsy back with positive findings for basal cell carcinoma in tissue taken from my forehead. (NOTE: I didn’t personally get the biopsy back from the lab. That would have been gross).
I was told that, as far as cancer goes, this is a good one to get. Does that mean I’m good at getting cancer, or bad at it? Either way, even though basal cells don’t typically metastasize and are usually curable, I was still worried- “typically” and “usually” are worrisome; are there other basal cells on my face and body; and what about the scar on my forehead after minor surgery? The surgeon said eventually it would look just like my other wrinkles. Thanks doc.
I’m sensitive to the fact that I wasn’t given a terminal diagnosis. I’m trying not to be over reactive here. In my own defense, I work in the entertainment industry. Ninety-nine percent of what I have done in my almost thirty-year professional career involves performing for an audience. I had good reason to expect a positive outcome, yet skin cancer is in my family’s genes. And as far as getting new roles on camera with a visible scar on my face for several months, I wasn’t sure I could pull off the “Nerdy Bad-Ass” look that is in such high demand from casting directors these days. (NOTE: I am unaware of any such high demand).
It was worry deep in my core; I was very anxious. At this point, I wasn’t even aware of what ultimately became the threat of professional disaster for me, and my ability to perform, (TEASER). To boost my immune system and accelerate healing after surgery, for the month prior to going under the knife, I gave up alcohol, (I called it “Ja-NO-ary”). Eleven days later, I got shingles.
Shingles can be activated by extreme stress and most often appears around either the left side, or the right side of your torso. For me, it was my left side, but not my torso. It appeared on my shoulder, neck, face, and scalp. By the way, “appears”? F*** you, it “appears”. Inclement weather “appears”; a magician “appears”; a blemish “appears”. Shingles rampage into your life bringing layers of relentless, ridiculous pain. (NOTE: I do concede that a really bad magician can be agonizing).
The first layer of pain for me was the shingles headache, which feels like having a brutal flu, with an unimaginable hangover, while an illegal Airbnb party raves in your head with a pulsing bass amp pumping dubstep through a string of speakers clamped to your brain, inner ear, and down C1 to C7 on your spinal cord.
There are billions of nerve endings in your body. How many exactly are connected to the cranial nerves in the head, I can’t say for sure. But, when layer two of the pain, the rash, “appears”, lightning bolts of fire radiate from what must be millions of nerve endings out through pussing, swollen sores that make you want to tear the skin off your body. It was kind of like that time I imprudently put Peppermint Cooling Foot Rescue from the Body Shop on my face just after shaving; but way worse and way less embarrassing.
The final layer of pain is what I’ve named “The Sheet”. Someone has taken a cookie sheet from their cabinet, or from under their stove, or from that narrow, vertical drawer that you can never find in someone else’s house, and they’ve two-hand smashed it as hard as they can against the side of your head. The flash of pain doesn’t fade after a minute or so, giving you a chance to block the velocity of their next swing, or say, “Hey, stop smashing my face with that f****** pan!” It hits and sticks, with sustained intensity waking you up every hour or so through the delirious nights of sleep you attempt for the next three+ weeks.
All three of these layers of pain combined were for me like giving birth through a million vaginas out of the side of my head, or passing a kidney stone through a million… well, you get the picture… all of them also on the side of my head. I did warn you about the imagery.
Facing the prospect of an incision scar on one side of my face and now potentially permanent herpes zoster scars on the other, I was starting to freak out, (more). Did I mention the herpes scars can be permanent and that shingles is herpes? Not that kind of herpes. I only conjured up the imagery of a million penises on the left side of my head for dramatic effect. Anywho, my body was rejecting my face! Fine! I always have radio to fall back on. And clearly this will be the last time I give up alcohol!
I don’t get sick days, or qualify for disability insurance. I don’t begrudge you if you do; I’m just stating fact. So, on Shingles Day Seven (SD7), the pain in full throttle, I hosted a huge event and went home exhausted. For a guy in agony, I cleaned up pretty well.
I had two more big events coming up on back-to-back days. Maybe with a couple of weeks rest I’d get a break from the pain by then. Maybe I’d finally be able to shave and get a hair cut, (sharp blades and sores don’t mix). I would have just let my beard grow if I didn’t still have the moustache of a seventeen-year-old. This is when things took a devastating turn for the worse.
On SD11, while innocently resting as the scabs healed, I started losing feeling on the left side of my face. Chewing food was a challenge, slurring words was not. The emergency room physician confirmed that I was in the early stages of Bell’s Palsy, (Ramsay Hunt Syndrome to be specific).
Guess what? Seventy-five percent of people with facial paralysis from Bell’s Palsy make a full recovery, in six to eight weeks, (or longer). I had two shows in ten days. And guess what? Twenty-five percent of people with Bell’s Palsy don’t ever make a full recovery from the facial paralysis. Did I mention I perform in front of audiences for a living? Did I mention you need a working mouth to be able to fall back on radio? Did I mention shingles is aggravated by stress?
Sitting in the ER, I asked the doctor if there was anything else I could do to slow, halt, shorten, or otherwise influence the Bell’s Palsy infection in my cranial nerves. She gave me another ten days on antiviral meds, five days on a steroid, recommended I get some eye drops (because my left eye didn’t blink), told me it could get worse before better, and that all I could do was ride it out.
That’s when I went into Beast Mode:
Eastern Medicine Acupuncture and massage, vitamin C intravenous drip, B-12 shots, B-12 and Vitamin D spray sublingually, 15-minute self-massage to the face twice daily, facial muscle exercises three times daily, daily meditation, castor oil warm compresses twice daily, L-lysine and curcumin supplements, reading out loud daily, chiropractic treatments, Chinese remedy tea twice daily, naturopath consultation, diet research and restrictions, natural antiviral remedies, fresh celery juice daily, heavy metal detox smoothies daily, no alcohol, no coffee, no red meat, no chicken, no pork, no fruit, no sweets, no wheat, no oats, no soy, no dairy. There are forty-three muscles in the face, and 21.5 of mine weren’t working. There was no “riding it out”.
On SD18/Bell’s Palsy Day Seven (BPD7) I came down to the kitchen in my pyjama pants and hoodie, still unshaven in over two-weeks and long over due for a hair cut. I was only getting two to three hours of sleep at a time. I still couldn’t chew or drink properly, my smile was crooked, I had to tape my left eye shut every night when I tried to sleep so that I didn’t get an ulcer on my cornea, and I was still struggling to get my mouth around my words properly; (FYI: “P”, “F”, and “V” words were the toughest, like after you’ve been frozen at the dentist).
I looked at my wife, Julie, with my one dry eye and said, “I’m not doing well”. I meant this on all levels of “well”. The shows were in two days and my face wasn’t getting better. Julie has seen me down before. She witnessed the entirety of the physical, emotional, and psychological anguish bestowed upon me by this ruthless virus. Even though she still let me cook dinner every night, she knew this was me at one of my lowest points.
Just because I perform professionally and really love it doesn’t mean there’s isn’t a lot of work, intensity, and fear that go into every show. That’s on a normal day. When I have tough shows, nervous moments, or high-pressure performances, I draw on my experience to navigate to a pathway of success. For the first time ever, I was overcome with doubt about my ability to perform and my future.
Julie believes in me:
“If you can pull off these two shows, you can do anything. And you can do this.”
Preparing to entertain hundreds of people when my left eye and mouth weren’t working properly was unknown territory. It required an enormous amount of emotional and physical energy. It was the most scared I have ever been before performing.
Taking the stage at each show, I addressed the white elephant early. I explained that I had a temporary neurological disorder, (that’s what I was hoping), weaving in a joke about wanting to look like Milo Ventimiglia (Jack on “This Is Us”), but settling for Stallone, or Chrétien, or Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars, (“It’s a trap”). I assured the audience I wasn’t having a stroke, but in the event that I randomly did by coincidence, we’d have to come up with a “safe word”; one that didn’t have any “P’s”, “V’s”, or “F’s” in it.
At the first event, a woman from the audience, Jennifer Murphy, the Renfrew County warden, came up to me in between my hosting duties. We chatted about Cash Cab and she casually acknowledged my Bell’s Palsy and shingles. She had the exact same thing years ago. “It was horrible. I feel for you. It WILL get better.” Her compassion and optimism made my night.
I was able to navigate to a pathway of success at both shows. A key to pulling them off was Julie’s advice to wear my glasses as a distraction from what my eye looked like. This is the only photo evidence I have.
It wasn’t until BPD12 that I got a sliver of hope: a slight amount of movement on my left eyebrow and the left side of my upper lip. My career viability is reliant on the essential commodities that I trade for income: my face and my voice. That makes a non-recovery rate of 25% a really big number. So, during the twelve days that I was experiencing full facial paralysis, if you think there was anything else I wanted to do other than crawl into bed, put the pillow over my head and weep, you’d be mistaken.
The surgery to remove the basal cell carcinoma from my forehead was on SD27, BPD16. The freezing made it impossible for me to move the right side my face above my nose. Combined with the still lingering paralysis on the left, I was a living Picasso painting. This didn’t bother me, nor did the weird sound in my skull as the cancer tissue was scraped from the incision, or the smell of my flesh being cauterized before sutures. The surgery had become the least of my concerns.
It’s SD39 today and the shingles pain is now only mildly annoying, (but definitely still reactive to eating spicy food; ridiculous). On BPD28, I’m almost back to 100% movement in my face. Many say I’m lucky to have had a speedy, full recovery. The traditional medicine treatment was crucial, but, in my mind, was not enough. One of the medical doctors went as far as to suggest that my outcome could have been the same even if all I had done was take the antiviral drug and steroids. I chose a different approach.
At age fourteen, I decided to switch high schools. I wasn’t in a crisis situation. I just instinctively knew I needed a new pathway. It was a very challenging decision that required determination and ambition. Consider the picture at the top of this article as evidence of the challenge I faced. Nonetheless, the lesson has served me well at other times; in my studies, as a young radio broadcaster, (my first exploit in the entertainment business), reinventing myself professionally, and as a parent. Even if I’m proven to be wrong, or don’t get the result I was hoping for, I don’t want there to be any chance that a failure, or challenge can be blamed on my lack of effort, or passion.
I threw everything I (safely) could at conquering the impending career catastrophe caused by shingles complications. I’ll never know if it was celery juice, acupuncture, or L-lysine supplements that made a difference. But, just like if someone could prove that my kids would have turned out exactly the same (fantastic) even if I hadn’t put a lot of effort and passion into raising them, I wouldn’t change a thing. Since I was fourteen, I’ve made it a habit not to “ride things out”.
At the peak of the paralysis, when I had to protect my always-open left eye from dust and dryness, I wore the doomsday goggles from my apocalypse go-bag. At the time, I felt my professional world was possibly coming to an end. Post surgery, I feel now that with the goggles and the temporary scar on my forehead, perhaps I can actually pull off the “Nerdy Bad-Ass” look for my next big role.