The Community History of: Epilepsy

Today we’re having a history lesson. I’m super passionate about the history of my people in all aspects, even if it hasn’t been very well recorded over the years due to the shame the abled world has pushed onto us.

 

The point of this history lesson is to stop people from laughing at the expense of those with epilepsy.

 

Epilepsy has been affecting people at least since the beginning of recorded history.

 

Ancient history believed epilepsy to be a spiritual condition.

The world’s oldest description of an epileptic seizure from the language use by ancient Mesopotamia, Akkadian, text and was written around 2000 B.C. The person described in the text was diagnosed as being under the influence of a moon God and underwent an exorcism.

 

Ancient Greeks saw epilepsy as a form of spiritual possession also but associated it with genius and divine instead. Epilepsy appears throughout Greek Mythology and is also commonly associated with the moon.

 

Ancient Rome didn’t share pottery with people with epilepsy in an attempt to avoid catching epilepsy. People would also spit on the chests of people with epilepsy to avoid being affected as they believed epilepsy was contagious.

 

In 1780 B.C., The Code of Hammurabi lists that slaves may be returned for if the slave were to have seizures in the first three months of ownership. The code also dictates that a person with epilepsy couldn’t marry or testify in court.

 

During the fifth century B.C. of classical Greek a physician, Hippocrates, rejected the idea of epilepsy being a spiritual related disease. He proposed that epilepsy was not divine but a medically treatable problem. Instead of referring to it as the ‘sacred disease’, as was common practice at the time, he decided to call it the ‘great disease’ instead. This decision gave rise to the modern but now outdated term ‘grand mal’ for tonic-clonic seizures. Despite his work of great detail, his view was not accepted at the time and people continued believing epilepsy was of a spiritual, usually negative, nature.

 

Evil spirits were blamed in majority of the world until at least the 17th century.

 

In the 18th and early 19th centuries people with epilepsy were labelled as insane and locked in asylums with incredibly poor treatment. Around 1825 Jean-Martin Charcot found people with epilepsy side by side with the criminally insane in Pitié-Salpêtrière University Hospital, the birthplace of modern neurology. Until the late 1800’s, people with epilepsy were often incarcerated as ‘criminally insane’ despite some stigma easing in Europe and North America due to beliefs shifting from psychiatry to neurology.

 

In 1956, 18 US states provided for the sterilisation of people with epilepsy on eugenic grounds.

 

Organisations like Epilepsy Queensland Inc. were only founded in 1969. The Kemp family were inspired to found EQI due to their son with epilepsy being fired repeatedly on discriminatory grounds. This discrimination was commonplace with no anti-discrimination laws in place.

 

Until the 1970’s it was still legal in the United States to deny people with epilepsy entry to public places such as restaurants, theatres, recreational centres, etc.

 

In the United Kingdom, a law prohibiting people with epilepsy from marrying at all was repealed in 1970.

Before 1971 in the UK, epilepsy was grounds for marriage annulment despite the common vow “in sickness and in health”. To this day in India and China, epilepsy can justify denial of marriage and it primarily targets women in a further act of discrimination.

People with epilepsy in the United States were forbidden to marry in 17 states until 1980.

 

In a 1987 ruling, the United States Supreme Court ruled that “a review of the history of epilepsy provides a salient example that fear, rather than the handicap itself, is the major impetus for discrimination against the people with handicaps.”

 

As late as the second half of the 20th century, in Tanzania and parts of Africa, epilepsy was associated with possession by evil spirits, witchcraft, or poisoning and was believed to be contagious.

 

Today stigma can interfere with timely access to healthcare, early diagnosis, which is extremely important, and treatment.

The negative perceptions of epilepsy among medical professionals and structural discrimination resulting from stigma can impair the service utilization, particularly when there is scarcity of resources for treatment, rehabilitation and research.

In south India, for instance, parents of children with epilepsy tended to isolate themselves from others in their social network.

Around the world a young child with epilepsy may be refused continued access to education because social attitudes in educational institutions are prejudicial and discriminatory. I personally was denied access to continued education during my time in hospital and home care while in high school.

 

While some countries have laws in place where people with epilepsy can obtain a licence after a certain period, typically a year, of being seizure free, people of India simply can’t get a licence.

 

Insurance cover to people with epilepsy in India are issued at disadvantageous rate and are denied benefits in the event of accidents and/or death occurring due to epilepsy.

 

People with epilepsy find it harder to find a stable job as uneducated employers will often find a way around anti-discrimination laws that may be in place, some countries don’t even have these laws, to not employ the potential worker who is fully qualified for the job. If they find a job they may be refused advancement in their role or be treated differently by their employer and peers for having epilepsy.

 

Another obstacle faced worldwide, especially in rural areas, is lack of access to comprehensive epilepsy centres. In 2017 somebody presenting to a rural area hospital was left by doctors and nurses to experience seizures a publicly accessible space outside of the hospital because they believed she was faking for attention when, in reality, they were not accurately educated.

In this same rural area I was personally told that I shouldn’t be an activist because people with epilepsy live perfectly fine lives, so there was no need for what I do.

 

Todays media is just as harmful as the real world.

 

While Grey’s Anatomy is a progressive show that educates as its team learns, in 2005 the show used terms like “fish out of water” to describe somebody having a seizure. This is harmful and hurtful language that is dangerous to use in major mainstream media in modern times.

 

Even more recently a study of Twitter with authors from Dalhousie University in Canada found that of 10,662 tweets containing the word “seizure” collected during a single week in April of 2011, 41% were considered to be derogatory in nature.

 

People still video people having seizures unpermitted to mock the people being recorded. People with epilepsy are constantly the butt of generic, offensive, overly used jokes that have stuck around years upon years.

 

In 2019 after actor, dancer and philanthropist Cameron Boyce died, people acknowledged his death by posting videos of them poorly imitating seizures as the #CameronBoyceChallenge.

 

In 2020 the #SeizureChallenge rose to fame in mainstream media when people used social media platform TikTok to post videos of themselves faking seizures. In the background of the majority of these videos was a song from musician Juice Wrld who died after a seizure that was brought on from drug use. His death made headlines worldwide and this was people’s way of acknowledging that during their already offensive ‘challenge’.

 

Negative stereotypes of people with epilepsy have been so ingrained into society that many with epilepsy accept them. We also sit by silently when things like these TikTok videos arise. I hope by speaking about our own experiences and taking ownership and pride of our history we can change these habits and feel empowered to make change, even if the only change we make is amongst our friends and family.

Good News, Bad News.

It’s hard to celebrate good news when surrounded by bad news.

 

I’m officially epileptic seizure free! After over a decade of epileptic seizures, of medications that slowly drained the life from my body, of neglectful doctors who wouldn’t admit that they didn’t know what they were doing, I’m finally epileptic seizure free.

 

I didn’t give up even though I wanted to many times, my mum never gave up on me and my new medical team of Pete and Sasha never even considered that my case was worth anything less than all the work they put into it. It all paid off because I’m 21 and epileptic seizure free.

 

This is worth celebrating and thankfully, while covid-19 lockdown limits me from doing much, I have people who remind me to not forget the good and I’ve sold a few of the paintings I create to cope with the bad, so I can afford to treat myself in celebration. (Buying a hoodie from my own merch line that you can get here is a good treat, right?)

 

Unfortunately for me, in the same mouthful as the above good news, I was also given bad news. My Functional Neurological Disorder (FND) is worsening and intensifying. I must try a new approach with my treatment plan as what I’m currently doing clearly isn’t working. New things scare me. Treatment for FND can be a lot harder than Epilepsy treatment in certain aspects, which is disappointing as I’m already exhausted. I’ve spent majority of my life fighting with my body and the medical system to be able to get to where I am. I just want to rest but I can’t afford to stop treatment without the high risk of slipping further behind.

 

FND is also making it hard to process that I’m epileptic seizure free as part of it getting worse is my non-epileptic seizures (caused by FND) are beginning to imitate my epileptic seizures. My FND is accessing the part of my mind that holds memories of my epileptic seizure patterns and uses that information to replicate the thing I’m celebrating the end of.

 

It’s hard to feel happy that my epileptic seizures are gone when, quite literally, every other morning I’m waking up feeling like I just had another. At least now I know it’s FND but that doesn’t make it much easier.

 

FND steals my independence and abilities, it takes away my ability to live life rather than just survive, but as if that wasn’t enough it takes away the joy of the miracle I never thought would happen. I’ve spent countless occasions feeling hopeless with tears pouring down face for over half my life, feeling like I’ll never get to feel the euphoria of being seizure free. I was right. I’m epileptic seizure free but I’m yet to share in the euphoria my community experiences when reaching such milestones because I’m not yet truly seizure free and yet again I’m not sure I ever will be.

 

I share this, despite it being quite sad, because there are many stories that sound like the opposite of mine but where’s the diversity. It took me a while to be able to process my feelings into such words but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has such an experience or feels alone in this part of their journey.

It’s also just good to tell the world how you feel sometimes and for the world to have diverse perspectives.

 

P.S. if you could all congratulate the young Renee for making it this far when she never thought she would, that would warm my heart for both young and old Renee.

Purple Day 2020

A lot of events around the world have been cancelled or postponed and for good reason, but I want to talk about why I’m sad that I’m not spending today at South Bank.

While anybody who knows me knows I love the colour purple, Purple Day is more than just a colour. Don’t get me wrong, I love that one day a year it’s acceptable to wear purple excessively but that’s not the priority.

The priority is the people. We celebrate the workers all around the world who spend their time making our lives easier, the activists who go out of their way to fight for our rights, the people with epilepsy surviving and their support systems.

Purple Day is an important event every year where I, somebody who has spent almost a decade feeling isolated and ‘othered’ by this disorder, can feel like I’m one with others. I get to celebrate in an environment created for me, free from judgement and discrimination. I celebrate somewhere I can unapologetically be myself surrounded by people who understand me, somewhere we’re all equal and worthy and don’t have to fight to be seen as such. It’s a safe space where this isolated and othered person can have fun with others just like them. A safe space I wish I had sooner to combat all the negatives I’ve faced during my journey with epilepsy.

Part of Purple Day is also about educating those who may not be as aware about epilepsy as they should be. This is something I work hard at all year every year however this year I had to listen to my body’s needs and change my approach, so it was important for me to get to still enjoy fun times and feel valid with my community.

This year is my first Purple Day as part of the official Purple Day organisation’s ambassadors, so I wanted to commemorate it with a big, fantastic, purple, day.

Hopefully, in case you didn’t know before, you realise now that Purple Day is more than just a colour, it’s a community.

Striving to Achieve

There’s a giant part of me that people either don’t know exists or they don’t understand how it exists within me. That part that coexists with my illnesses and disabilities is my athleticism. That’s right, I’m sick and disabled but I’m also an athlete.

 

Before everything went downhill I was on the Australian Development Squad for Taekwon-Do with big plans for my future.

I was so focused on representing my country and doing my best to win gold in Spain first before moving onto more. But there are people I consider best friends who have never known that I held such potential at some point in my life.

 

Osgood Schlatter Disease (OSD) in my right leg was the first bump in the road to Spain. At first it seemed like a small blip until it came to a point where I had to learn to walk again. I engaged in intense physiotherapy regime, learned how to walk, learned how to live with my knees disease and gained my strength back to be able to return to the sport that owns my heart.

 

Then epilepsy reared its ugly head into the situation along with some symptoms that were undiagnosed at the time but we now know are from Functional Neurological Disorder (FND). Some say that given the high contact level of the sport and the potential knocks to the head meant I had to give up the sport then and there. That wasn’t going to happen on my watch. Protective headgear wasn’t a requirement at the time but it became a personal requirement for me. I trained harderthan my team mates to be able to dodge head attacks specifically. I was already quick on my feet and fast at calculating somebody else’s moves and my countermoves but I worked hard at perfecting the craft so I could truly protect myself. I learned to listen to my body better than anybody else on my team, I had to listen and learn what my body could and couldn’t handle so that I could continue at the sport I adored while staying safe. 

I trained at least twice as hard as my team mates, learnt things they didn’t bother with, just to keep up and keep safe.

Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) made multiple appearances and took me out of the game on many occasions but I always came back. I worked my butt off in intense physical therapy regimes to get to where I wanted to get to. I’d go into remission just to fall back into its evil clutches and have to learn to walk again while my team mates progressed in their learnings and competing. I think this part has been the biggest hurdle mentally. This time I wasn’t working twice as hard to keep up, I was working three times as hard to get back to where I was at. By this point I had been removed from the team with my spot on the team reserved should I ever be able to make it back. Most people would’ve given up at this point and I don’t blame them, I’d be lying if I said I’d never been tempted to give up, but I wasn’t ready to give up at any CRPS hurdle I faced. I currently face the arguably biggest CRPS hurdle yet and you can ask my Sabomnim (instructor) I am still determined to catch up, be the best Jeja(student) and make it onto the national team again. Even as I can’t currently physically participate in classes I still play a big role in keeping my fellow jeja’s on their feet because I spend my extra time studying theory and challenge them to keep up with me. I also have the most competition experience and get to share that with them and push them to do better. I’m forever grateful that I’ve been able to surround myself with wonderful Sabomnimand fellow Jeja who give me these opportunities that keep me engaged and full of determination.

 

I also dance at the most welcoming and understanding studio that I’m also thankful for. Thanks to FND I currently need to learn how to walk and use my left leg again. I’m also still dealing with the aforementioned mess of CRPS. I’ve already missed so much recently but the studio owner/instructor and my dance family are so supportive and remind me to focus on overcoming this hurdle so that I can dance again. They know I’ll make it back to them and don’t rush me which is the best daily reminder I could possibly receive, especially the reminder to not rush myself. In dance I still have to apply a lot of what I’ve learnt throughout the years in regards to my OSD, epilepsy, asthma, FND and CRPS. It’s not an easy sport for anybody but my body has made it harder and thankfully my dance family understand that. They know as much as I do that I’ll probably be back in the studio slightly too early before I’m supposed to be back but I’ll be back and fighting to do my best when the time is ready for me and we all know it.

It’s not easy and I still have to do things differently or pay different attention to my body but I’m still there.

 

The point here is this is shocking news to a lot when it shouldn’t be.

In an era where events like “The Paralympics” exist and are gaining more attention we still expect people to give up all athleticism the second they get sick or gain a disability. The abled society expects us to just give up even when we don’t have to. Some people are in situations where they can’t keep going on with their sporting ventures or they make the decision to put it aside but there are still people that can keep going they just have to do things differently.

 

We also automatically treat the people who continue with their sporting endeavours as irresponsible as though they don’t go above and beyond to keep their bodies safe. The other side of that coin is treating those who don’t have athletic projects as not caring for their body because we believe that yoga fixes everything.

 

We need to listen to people from all unique walks of life and respect that they know what their body can handle, that they know how to adjust things to suit their needs. We need to create a safe environment for ill and disabled people to discuss exercising, or not exercising, in a way that leaves them feeling connected, listened to and respected. The current style of discussion leaves people not wanting to talk about it. There will be people who are shocked but proud that I have persisted and people who believe I’m endangering myself when they know nothing about the extra precautions I take to protect my body while still enjoying what I love to do. Some will simply say I’m faking all of my illnesses and disabilities if I’m able to do what I do. This is not the environment we deserve to be stuck in. I work my butt off to keep up with my peers and I deserve to be able to talk freely about that without judgment and accusations. I should be able to talk about it the way any other athlete talks about their experiences; the highs, the lows and everything in between.