mark elzey/@markelzey Preston Brust
When Preston Brust, one half of the country duo LOCASH, looked in the mirror this past December to find the right side of his paralyzed face, he knew right away that the moment he’d been dreading for more than a decade had arrived: Bell’s palsy, the facial weakness with which he was first diagnosed in 2009, was back.
Though it’s been eight months since his Bell’s returned, the “I Love This Life” singer is still on the road to recovery, and is opening up about the condition for the very first time in this week’s issue of PEOPLE.
“I count my blessings. I’m getting stronger every day, and I don’t worry about it quite as much—especially the second time around,” says Brust. “It’s like, ‘OK, we got through this once, we can do it again. We know this is going to be a long journey, so pack your bags — and let’s roll, let’s do this.'”
For more on Preston Brust, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
The country star was first diagnosed with Bell’s palsy — a viral inflammation of the facial nerve that causes one-sided paralysis or weakness with no known cure — in December 2009, making him one of about 40,000 Americans with the condition.
“I was brushing my teeth, and all of a sudden I looked in the mirror and there was toothpaste just coming out of the right side of my mouth — all down my beard and onto my shirt,” he recalls, noting that he hit to to the hospital for fear he was having a stroke.
Tests confirmed that he actually had Bell’s palsy, something he’d never heard of before his own diagnosis.
The timing was difficult, as Brust and his bandmate Chris Lucas were just starting to see success with LOCASH, and the “I Know Somebody” singer feared his illness might negatively impact their rising star.
“My initial reaction was like, ‘I can’t let anybody see me like this,'” he recalls. “But Chris had my back from him, and I did n’t want to stop working. I was like, ‘I’m letting LOCASH down if I do n’t go out and work and tour.'”
mark elzey/@markelzey Chris Lucas and Preston Brust
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Though doctors told Brust his paralysis should resolve itself in anywhere from six weeks to three months, he says he only regained about 70 percent of all of the strength in the right side of his face during his first go-round, and that that healing process took six to seven months.
When the Bell’s returned this past December, the star felt defeated, as if all of the progress he’d made over the last decade had gone “down the drain.”
“Everything I had worked to gain back, the strength, was gone,” he says. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I remember waking up my wife [Kristen] and her Bell’s had hit telling me again. We just hugged for a few minutes and I didn’t want to let go because I knew when I did, my next journey was going to begin, and the only way [out] is through.”
Just as he did before, Brust found ways to hide the condition — which is not painful and does not affect his vocal cords — on stage through strategically placed microphones and sunglasses. Still, the psychological effect of his illness from him lingered.
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“I was able to hide the Bell’s the first time really well and stay out of the spotlight just enough. But this time we had a hit song on our hands, and we had to go support it and promote it,” he says, referring to LOCASH’s sun-kissed single “Beach Boys.” “You can find yourself in a dark place. I try to tell myself, ‘Don’t look in the mirror so much. Don’t stand there so long and worry about it. Just walk away and blow it off and don’t let it win that day.'”
It was only when Justin Bieber publicly shared his bout with Ramsay Hunt syndrome, a more severe form of Bell’s palsy, in June that Brust finally felt moved to share his own battle.
“When [Bieber] put out his video, I was like, ‘Man, I need to be someone people can look to and say, ‘Hey, he’s getting through it.’ That’s what this is all about for me now,” he says. “It feels good to share it with everybody.”
mark elzey/@markelzey Chris Lucas and Preston Brust
Recurrences of Bell’s are rare; only about 10 percent of people are diagnosed for a second time, says Dr. Scott Stephan of the Facial Nerve Disorders Program at Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center. Although its cause still remains unclear to doctors, Bell’s can be triggered by factors such as pregnancy and stress.
Though there’s no known cure, some patients help manage muscle control through facial exercises and Botox therapy; Brust favors what he calls his daily “eyebrow pushups.”
“You’ve got to be so patient with it because they say that stress could be the big reason for this,” says Brust. “And how do you not stress about this when it’s happening? I think about that every day. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
Fortunately for the star, he has a solid support system in Lucas and in his family, including wife Kristen, daughter, 6, and son Legend, 4.
“I’m surrounded by so many great people,” he says. “My wife reminds me that she thinks I’m handsome even on the days when my face ain’t working at all. And when we’re onstage and there are thousands of people’s hands up and everybody’s jumping up and down and they’re singing… somehow I forget about it while I’m out there.”