Last November I had a single unexplained seizure, a full-on grand mal seizure, with loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions - just like what you picture from the movies. (Translated into English, "grand mal" means "big bad"....charming....) The experience and its aftermath provided me a big opportunity to practice the deeper, non-physical parts of yoga.
I'd woken nauseous with a migraine headache, which is not rare for me, but it was odd to experience at this time of the month. I also had a weird sense of deja vu, a strong feeling that I'd taken medicine I'd recently been given for severe migraine nausea, but I was confused because I'd just risen from bed, so how could I have taken anything? I could picture myself taking the pill, I could feel that I did it, but I also knew that it was impossible that I'd done so. I didn't realize it then, but the temporal lobe of my brain was misfiring and creating the sense of deja vu and confusion. Unbeknownst to me, the seizure was starting.
Apparently I went to make my kids' school lunches but told my husband I felt awful and needed to lie down. He finished the lunches and took the kids to school. I have no recollection of this. When he returned I appeared to be asleep on the couch, but suddenly asked, "What's that horrible smell?" There was no smell. The surge of electrical activity in my temporal lobe was building and sending false sensory signals. I cried out, he ran over, and I was unconscious and shaking. When he couldn't get a response he called 911.
Waking up confused in an ambulance will go down as one of the most surreal moments of my life.
"What's going on?!?!? Where am I???"
"You're in an ambulance on the way to the hospital."
"You had a seizure."
"I don't understand? I'm confused!"
"You had a seizure."
"What happened? What's going on???"
"You had a seizure."
I recall trying hard but I couldn't answer the day of the week, and I answered the year incorrectly. As a person who, in part, teaches about the nervous system and the brain, it is pretty interesting to be aware that your brain is not functioning properly. That's all I remember except hearing at the hospital that I'd need an MRI and proclaiming that I'm claustrophobic. They administered a relaxant called Ativan that is useful for treating seizures, so along with the brain stuff I was then pharmaceutically knocked out.
The next thing I recall was walking into my home. I hugged my children who had not witnessed any of this and were with a beloved nanny who had retrieved them from school. I got into bed and slept the majority of the next couple days. It takes a long time for the brain to reboot. Who'd have known? I thank God for my husband and my best friend, who came over the next day and took care of me, including the business of covering my scheduled classes and dealing with transferring hospital records and making appointments doctors. Yoga: where can you find the good during challenging times?
A couple days later I started feeling more like myself, though my memory still was challenged. For the time being I was unable to drive, couldn’t take baths or bathe my children, and I had to rely on others for many things. Not easy for this independent women who absolutely loves to soak in a hot bath. It would be two weeks before I could see a neurologist, so I researched seizures online to try and understand what had happened. WHY did this seizure occur? There were no precipitating factors. My primary physician told me some people have a single unexplained seizure and never have another, so I searched for their stories. They were mildly reassuring. But if it happened once randomly why wouldn't it happen again? It didn't make sense to me. Yoga: stay present with discomfort.
My research kept referring me to epilepsy websites, and I suddenly was hit with the realization that seizure disorders were epilepsy. This previously nebulous word and unpleasant mental image solidified into my consciousness as now possibly referring to me. It felt like a slap. The onset of epilepsy can occur at any age, a fact that came as a huge surprise to me, and as I said to others around this time: this is when the real yoga kicks in. There was a potential shift to my life as it previously had been, the first time I've ever felt anything like this, and I had a wide range of emotions. Yoga: stay present and breathe during intensity, learn what you can without latching onto things you cannot yet know.
I'm grateful to have been practicing these deeper dimensions of yoga for years because this is when they truly are needed and powerful.
I continued to research and look for clues, until it wasn't healthy anymore. I was in a research rabbit hole not learning anything new, and the information I was getting was bad and no longer balanced. There is a subset of the population with epilepsy that cannot easily be treated, and many people wrote about depression from losing their independence and freedom, loss of being able to take care of their kids, and having increasingly more seizures after taking medication. I slipped into a dark place of fear. And I immediately stopped myself from reading any more because I was looking for answers I wasn't going to get. Clearly, people who have controlled seizures or a single seizure and never another aren't spending a lot of time online writing about it, so the picture being created was not balanced. Yoga: where I place my attention is my choice, and it influences my perception and well-being.
As a teacher who is fascinated by the brain, (the ancient yogis had it right that the brain/mind is the centerpiece), on a clinical level it was very interesting to have a firsthand experience of my brain misfiring, and to experience the headaches, confusion and other feelings I had during post-seizure recovery. I always am grateful for experiences that help me more deeply understand others. This experience, the potential of my brain being "different" and the short period of loss of my independence, helped me more tangibly understand a number of students (beyond natural empathy and ability to imagine), whose ability to move, and hence aspects of their independence, was taken away by accidents. I also feel a deeper kinship when I interact with people whom I know or observe to have conditions that affect the brain.
I finally saw the neurologist at Cedars-Sinai, and my EEG a week later came back normal, as she suspected it would. Ultimately, there isn't enough information after a single seizure to draw any conclusions, so I came to peace with that. It's a waiting game. If I have another it likely will be within three to six months of the first, meaning I'm of "out of the woods" at the end of May. Another seizure would mean a diagnosis of adult-onset epilepsy, and I likely would begin taking medicine to control the seizures. It's also possible that I may never have another ever again—something like 1% of the population has unexplained seizures, and of that 1%, 10% never has another.
I'm back to living my life and don't think about it much—even though it obliquely is part of my consciousness. Seizures generally present the same way for people, and mine presented with me feeling awful, so I know it's not going to occur just walking down the street. On days I wake with a migraine I won't take the chance of getting into a vehicle and will look for help if my kids are not at school.
I hope this sheds light on seizures and epilepsy and puts another perspective out there for people like me who are searching for information. Mostly, though, this is an ode to the deeper dimensions of yoga. It was powerful and freeing to become content that this unknown is just one manifestation of the many unknowns in our lives. It is a reminder to be present and enjoy what you have, and not latch onto fears about tomorrow because we have absolutely no idea what tomorrow may bring, we can only have faith and trust that the odds are in our favor.
[I wrote this blog but didn't publicize it because in the subsequent period I had a couple more episodes of seizures. A day where I had "auras"--the odd feelings preceding the passing out and shaking, and then another day where I fully seized. Game changers. So I was dealing with that and the official diagnosis of epilepsy the accompanied them. I'm done now with the grieving process and am at peace with the diagnosis and the life changes I've had to make. When I have time, I will write more and go more public on social media. My friends and students know, and I speak openly about it, but I would like to make this offering to others who end up walking this epilepsy path because I struggled to find something positive online to support me during the rougher parts of this journey, and there is not much out there. I still have periods where I feel challenged, mostly by the medication. But the more time passes it becomes part of my life, not a major part of my life.]