A Mind with a Mind of Its Own

The worst time to get stuck behind the Waterfall was right before a newscast. There I’d be, ready to go on the radio, and I’d be unable to do anything besides stammer as I’d reached for words. My program director would come in after one of those disasters and ask what the hell my problem was, and I couldn’t tell him.

The cornerstone of my life is writing. I’ve kept a journal since I was a girl. I write short stories and essays. I crank out buckets of copy every shift I work, breathing life into the clay that is radio, making people see, feel, taste, and experience a story they can’t see or touch. However, I couldn’t explain an epileptic seizure to my doctors. Those epilepsy junkies at New York Presbyterian told me, as I sat before them with electrodes glued to my head, that no one describes a seizure the same way. Fyodor Dostoevsky—one of Western literature’s finest scribes—was an epileptic, and wrote:

“For several instants I experience a happiness that is impossible in an ordinary state, and of which other people have no conception. I feel full harmony in myself and in the whole world, and the feeling is so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss one could give up ten years of life, perhaps all of life.

“I felt that heaven descended to earth and swallowed me. I really attained god and was imbued with him. All of you healthy people don’t even suspect what happiness is , that happiness that we epileptics experience for a second before an attack.”

Well, close.

Stand at the edge of a flight of stairs, let go of the banister, and look up. That sense of vertigo is the first sensation.  Then the water begins to fall. It’s almost like I’m standing behind a waterfall, thick and fast, trying to reach through it, trying to speak through it. I can’t walk through the water; it would knock me down. I can’t hear you, as the water is too loud. And you can’t see the waterfall at all, so you have no idea what the hell my problem is.

When the strange feelings started in high school, I attributed it to my consume-nothing-but-Dexatrim-and-then-eat-dinner-with-the-family-diet. (NOTE: Not a good idea.) Sometimes the Waterfall came several times a day, always followed by a spectacular headache. Doctors said, it’s most likely a migraine aura. I dealt with it. I dealt with it when the Waterfall showed up while I was driving. I could feel it starting, and always had enough time to pull over. One time, it showed up at a job interview. I didn’t get the gig; I can only imagine the poor woman thought I was drunk. I’ve missed my stop on the subway because I couldn’t get up and make it to the doors. The waterfall showed up once while I was en route to work in Midtown Manhattan. I stood quietly at the intersection of 57th Street and Broadway, in my high heels and holding my pocketbook, until the water stopped. It was not an easy shift.

I dealt with it, until I awoke with a goose egg on my head and a broken toilet seat in the bathroom, not long after I’d moved to New York. “What the hell did you do?” I asked my now-husband. “You tell me,” he replied. “I’m not the one with a bump on my head.” “My insurance doesn’t kick in for another two weeks,” I said, “I can’t go to the doctor.” “You’re going,” he said.

Thus was triggered the yellow brick road of medical tests. Brain tumor? Some other form of cancer? Minor stroke? All would very rare in the case of relatively healthy 28 year old. Are you sure you weren’t drunk? High? Enough blood was taken to sate any vampire. The blood pressure cuff was wrapped on often enough to leave bruises around my bicep.  The mystery persisted, until my now husband saw his future wife suffering a grand mal epileptic seizure in her sleep.  Having lived alone for ten years, there had never been anyone around to witness me shaking in my sleep.

Seizures vary, a veritable rainbow of brain problems. My usual choice in seizures—The Waterfall—are classified as partial seizures, where I simply slip away for a few seconds. The Grand Mal, which I’ve only experienced in sleep and never fully remember, are the full-on shake, rattle, and roll routines. In both cases—and this is an extremely amateur assessment—the brain’s neurons misfire, skipping over the brain the wrong way, requiring the brain to kind of reset itself, like a computer that must be restarted. The partials are the sneaky little bastards, the unschooled not recognizing them as seizures.

My last seizure was a grand mal. I don’t remember the seizure itself, but, for the first time, I remember awakening from it. I was at my sister’s house in Massachusetts, and for some reason I insisted on working through the incredibly dizziness and standing up.  I had to pull myself up using the ironwork on the dresser like a ladder to get from the bed to a standing position.  The floor rolled like a ship; the room spun.  I felt like I was going to be sick.  But I stood.  Worse came to worse, I probably figured my sister’s St. Bernard could drag me to help.

The treatment has been relatively simple and cheap — two pills, popped twice a day.   It took some time to find the right dosage and only now, about seven years after being diagnosed, have I gone a year without a seizure.   My memory has improved, because my brain isn’t going postal anymore.

All is not rosy. I’ve had to cut off my career at the knees, because I can’t work overnights anymore.  Not good for a freelance broadcaster. But having a work schedule snake all over the clock isn’t good for becoming and staying seizure free.  I’m going to have to give up the work I’ve always loved.  I’m networking, building contacts, and moving towards public relations.

We don’t know where the epilepsy comes from.   It could be genetic; it could have come from an old head injury.  No one on either side of the family confesses to be epileptic.  Then again, I didn’t know what the odd sensations were; perhaps they don’t either.

When I was last in the hospital for testing, with electrodes glued to my head so computers could capture my brain’s every move, New York Presbyterian’s head of epilepsy came to tell me they think they found the problem — neurons in the left temporal lobe that appeared to be behaving differently than the rest of the brain.   I asked him to pause while I, ever the reporter, reached for my pen and notebook.  He laughed.

“What’s so funny? I want to make sure I got it right,” I said

“I’m not laughing at you,” he said.  “I’m laughing because I know I’ve got it right.  People with left temporal lobe epilepsy will take notes on everything.”

I looked at the three notebooks I’d brought with me for my four day hospital stay.  Well, I said, I am a reporter.

He said that cinched it.  “People with your type of epilepsy usually work as writers.”

Yes, I made a note of that.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *