All in My Head– A Story of Adult Onset Epilepsy

It’s been some time since I’ve written in my blog. It seems time to start again, but it’s a challenge to decide where to start to pick up the speed and reengage followers. So, I’m pulling out a few old pieces that I’ve written, but maybe never posted. Here’s where we begin, with a story from three years ago……..

The bed was surrounded when I awoke.  They looked kind and seemed concerned, not angry.  Still, it’s a bit disturbing to wake up and find one’s bed surrounded by people in uniform.  The good looking fellow standing by my head began asking me questions.  What was my name?  Who was president? What day was it?  Even in my confused state I saw this fellow was quite attractive and I felt I should make a good impression.  I tried my best for witty answers, but the words wouldn’t quite form.  All I could manage was a garble.  It was as if my brain and mouth weren’t fully connected.  Nothing was quite making sense.  Where was I?  Who were these people and why were they here? Why did everything feel so unreal?

My new roommate, Jane, had just moved in a few days before.  We’d been acquaintances for a while, traveled in similar circles, but it was only now that we were starting to get to know each other in any real way.  We’d just spent a nice evening visiting, swapping stories, and talking about what was important to each of us when sharing a house.  At the end of a pleasant visit, I went to bed just like any other night.  A few minutes later Jane began to hear noises from my room.  It seemed strange, so Jane called out to ask if everything was okay.  When I didn’t respond she came to my room to find me groaning and twitching, foaming at the mouth.  I was having a seizure.  

The EMTs continued to ask questions and slowly my brain and body began to reconnect.  Eventually, they asked if I would be able to walk, with support, to the ambulance.  We lived on the second floor and carrying me down the narrow staircase was a challenge they wanted to avoid if possible.  I was sure that I could.  I got up leaning on my new helpers and wandered through the apartment I’d lived in for over a year and didn’t recognize.  Seeing Jane I thought to myself, “I wonder who that is? She looks nice.” 

I’d begun having headaches in my 20’s, some two decades earlier.  I’d wake up barely able to function.  The nausea and squeezing pain would simply be too much.  I couldn’t eat.  Looking at a computer screen or television would be out of the question.  My mind couldn’t focus to allow me to read or do much else.  So, on those days all I could do was to call in sick, go back to bed, and sleep the day away.  The headaches would take all my energy.  I’d sometimes sleep the whole day only to sleep all night too.  It would take a few days before my energy would return.  My head and stomach would ache for sometimes a full week without reprieve. 

Since I was incapable of doing much of anything on days with headaches and just wanted to hide away from all humanity, it was impossible to see a doctor during an event.  The headache events didn’t happen often, usually only every few months, but as the years went by they became more frequent probably as much as monthly.  I needed an answer.  I read. I watched videos and documentaries.  I studied everything that I could find.  I went to doctors, but could only visit when I felt well and this did me no good.  They listened to my stories, ran tests, and found no answers.  I took to calling my headaches migraines and just hoping they’d stop some day.  

That first observed seizure took me to the ER and started my long and varied relationship with neurologists.  It didn’t give me a confirmed diagnosis of epilepsy at least not on its own.  It did, however, give me a good idea of what my headaches over the past twenty years really were. It also concerned the neurologist who saw me enough to encourage me to start taking medication.  

Dry mouth, heartburn, nausea, bone loss, weight gain, weight loss, memory loss, trouble with words, difficulty walking, irregular heartbeat, loss of consciousness, aggression, seizures, depression, and on and on.  This is just a partial list of the side effects to most anticonvulsants.  Typically, once a person begins taking anticonvulsants they are on a lifetime journey of taking them.  Seizures are an invisible disability that can be controlled, but has no promise of being cured.  

One seizure, that couldn’t mean that I needed to embark on a lifetime of these side effects could it? It seemed that the treatment could be far worse than the disability itself.  How could all these horrible things be considered getting well?  I wasn’t ready to go down that path.  I had to find another answer.  There had to be another choice.  

Diet changes, meditation, essential oils, supplements, massage, exercise, acupuncture.  I kept reading. I kept researching. I dabbled in everything I could find.  A lot of things helped, nothing was the answer.  I still shook and not only did I shake, I stepped out of myself.  Seizures aren’t just the ones that we see in the movies where people fall to the floor and thrash about.  There are at least six different types of seizures.  It would be rare for me to have a tonic-clonic seizure that the media has made so popular.   

Instead one day when I was walking the dog, suddenly everything went dark.  I couldn’t see where I was. I heard something in my head. Was it voices?  Was it just sounds?  I don’t know, but I was in another world for just that moment.  I knew where I was in this world.  I knew where to put my feet as I walked.  I didn’t stumble.  I didn’t fall.  But, I was in another world too. I had seized.  This was to become a part of my new normal.  

Months passed.  I was unemployed. My job of nearly a decade had ended when the organization closed.  My options for healthcare were limited with state health insurance that covered very little and left me with medical bills that I couldn’t pay.  Still, I kept doing whatever I could, getting acupuncture or seeing a chiropractor when I could afford it, trying to eat well, take supplements, meditate, exercise, and whatever else I could.  Things didn’t seem to be getting any worse, but there didn’t seem to be any improvement either.  

Then came Christmas. I was visiting family when the seizure came.  It was the first, and as far as I know, only time I ever had a full fledged tonic-clonic seizure during my waking hours.  I didn’t know it, but apparently my body knew something was coming.  Moments before the seizure started I slipped out of the chair where I had been sitting and moved to the floor to sit.  I woke up in the ER again.  This time I woke to find my older brother with a look on his face that I hadn’t seen in more than twenty years.  The last time I had seen that look of sorrow and fear was the day our mother died.  When my consciousness returned he told me how my seizure scared him, how he thought that I was about to die.  He pleaded with me to promise that I would work with my neurologist and take medication.  I couldn’t break his heart.  I made the promise.  

Two-thirds of the people with epilepsy can be successfully treated with anticonvulsants.  The likelihood of success falls with each drug tried.  By the time the patient reaches their fourth medication the likelihood of success is two to three percent.  I’m on medication number four right now.  

I’d never had an allergic reaction to a medication in my life.  That was until my neurologists and I started trying to treat my epilepsy.  The first three medications gave me rashes, made me quiver, just generally made life awful.  Medication number four wasn’t much better, but didn’t actually cause anything that fit within the realm of an allergic reaction.  Still for years I lost words, found myself unable to count on my memory, grew frustrated and depressed with my inability to write anymore, my inability to remember names, my loss of my former self.  Perhaps the saddest was the day I had to give up acting.  I’d found so much joy in community theatre, but I could no longer remember my lines.  I had to set it down.  

It’s been about seven years now since Jane saw that seizure.  Epilepsy is still a huge part of my life.  It impacts my every day in challenging ways and in good ways too.  

There have been several times that I’ve had to give up driving.  The laws around driving with epilepsy are different in every state.  Some people choose not to ever drive again.  Some of us return to driving when we are able.  For myself, giving up my car opened the door to friendships as I depend on people to help me to get where I need to go.  It encouraged me to take time for myself, enjoying being outdoors and celebrating my neighborhood as I walk most everywhere that I need to go in my small town.  

Four years ago I started to make truly healthy food choices.  I began with giving up caffeine on the advice of my neurologist.  Before then I had been a big fan of coke products, drinking at least one or two every day. Cutting caffeine cleared my head in a way that I’ve never looked back on. But three years ago was the really big leap. I’d reconnected with an old friend who works in holistic medicine and opted to have my food allergies tested. The test revealed nine foods that cause mild allergic reactions for me.  On the top of that list was cane sugar.  For three years now, I’ve done my best to eliminate my allergens.  Sometimes I fail, but most of the time I succeed.  I’ve lost over forty pounds and gained a new energy.  I’ve learned to limit the processed foods in my diet and to cook real food.  

I don’t like taking medication.  I wish sometimes that I didn’t need to, but until a cure for epilepsy is found I have a disability and I need to use the tools available to me to control it and live my best life possible.  Exercise, meditation, keeping a balance of life and work, finding joy in each day, eating well, celebrating my circle of support, and just treating myself with all the kindness and care that I deserve.  

I’ve learned a lot from these seven years now that I have been able to count myself among those with a disability, but perhaps most importantly I have learned  to study, read, watch documentaries, ask questions. Do everything that you can to learn about the health challenges and disabilities you face, but at the core the most important thing, the thing that will keep you alive, that will keep you going is to just simply recognize yourself as someone who is still worth your own respect, still worth your own caring, still worth your own love.  Our disabilities impact our lives.  They can have an impact daily.  But, they do not define who we are or our level of worthiness.  That’s what moves me forward, to know what is in my brain isn’t in my heart and soul. 

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