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 a rare thing 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 a 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 medicine? I could picture myself taking the pill, I could feel that I did it, but I also knew I had just gotten up so 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. 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 seemed to be asleep on the couch, but then I asked, "What's that horrible smell?" There was no smell. The surge of electrical activity in my brain was building and sending false 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."
"What? I don't understand? I'm confused!"
"You had a seizure."
"I don't understand. What happened? What's going on???"
"You had a seizure."
I recall trying hard but not being able to answer the day of the week, and I answered the year incorrectly. 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. 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 hospital records and doctors. A blessing. I always love the beauty that you can find 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. It would be two weeks before I could see a neurologist—crazy to have to wait that long when something like this happens!—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 had told me some people have a single unexplained seizure and never have another, so I searched for their stories. They were somewhat reassuring. But if it happened once randomly why wouldn't it happen again? It didn't make sense to me.
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, 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. But mostly I stayed present and balanced, breathing, and learning what I could without latching onto things I couldn't 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, and I think that was healthy—until it wasn't. I started going down a research rabbit hole to a place where I wasn't 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 started slipping into a dark place of fear. And I immediately stopped myself from reading any more because I'd reached the saturation point and 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. This is another dimension of 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 unexplained seizure (e.g., not from fever, head trauma, etc.) 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 unexplained 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 is obliquely part of my consciousness, as I have lingering awareness it could happen. Seizures 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. A reminder to be present and enjoy what you have, and not latch onto fears about tomorrow.
[I wrote this blog but didn't publicize it because in the subsequent period I had a couple more episodes and was dealing with that and the official diagnosis of epilepsy the accompanied them. I'm now mostly at peace with the diagnosis and the life changes I've had to make, even though I'm having some mildly unpleasant side effects from the medication and am not yet 100% comfortable with the regimen. When I have time, I will at some point write more and go a little more public. I struggled hard to find something positive to look toward during the rougher parts of this journey and would like to make this offering to others who end up walking this path because I think I ultimately offer an example of a situation that is positive and realistic and hopeful, even though I still have periods where I feel challenged. I've shared openly with friends, acquaintances and students, of course, as we all have things like this that come up in life. Ultimately, I think my situation is pretty positive, and there certainly have been a lot of positive and interesting things that have happened even while I was struggling, which I will write about when I have more time. It's definitely made me grateful for my yoga practice, the deeper dimensions, where I get to be present and aware, even when I might not like what I am feeling. Practice yielding and accepting, controlling what I can and letting go of what I can't.]