I’ve always tried to be open and honest about my epilepsy and how it affects me and therefore, potentially you. There are several reasons for this, the main one I admit is for a selfish reason – it is better for me if you know that I have epilepsy and so if you see me having a seizure you are less likely to panic as you know its “normal” for me. Secondly, I always offer to talk about the disease, the effect it has on me, my family and my friends; this, I believe, helps to raise awareness and go some way toward dispelling the stigma that unfortunately still surrounds the disease. I’ve talked about my own experience with stigma before (Epilepsy and Stigma…) so I won’t labour the points here, but it saddens me that it is still something that we have to cope with along with everything else. I also, selfishly again, like people to know that a diagnosis of epilepsy doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Although, I admit, sometimes it can feel that way.
Often, one of the first pieces of information a newly-diagnosed epileptic (yes, I know that in this modern world “epileptic” is a label that we shouldn’t use, but as far as I’m concerned I am epileptic, in the same way, that I am brunette and that I am green-eyed. It’s a descriptor in my book and not a bad word) is given, is a list of the things they can no longer do. Driving, swimming, diving, etc. Few, in my experience anyway, are given a list of things they can do. I like to believe that this is because the list of cans far far outweighs the list of can’ts. Even then, what we are told we can’t do is often a slight misnomer. For example. I was told I couldn’t swim anymore. I virtually lived in the pool. I swam every day for my club, I also was a regular high board diver. Being told that I could no longer go to the pool was devastating to me. And, it wasn’t true. I emphasise here, that there are many people who suffer far worse than me from their seizures and for them, perhaps, it isn’t safe. What I wasn’t told, was that providing I was accompanied by someone who knew of my condition and how to help me and that I informed the lifeguards on duty, then there was no reason why I couldn’t continue to swim. I did lose my driving licence and I’ve never been able to get it back. This is because my seizures can be unpredictable and while I have gone the required 12 months (it used to be 24) and so I could apply to have it reinstated, it would not happen as I can’t demonstrate that I am controlled and my GP would not sign it off. I think I miss the freedom that being able to drive would bring on so many levels, however, I balance this with the knowledge that I will never cause an accident through having a fit at the wheel and so potentially ruin another life.
Telling people I have epilepsy usually elicits two responses. The first, the most common, is that there is simply no acknowledgement of the information. That’s totally fine with me. I recognise that while I’m comfortable talking about it, others perhaps aren’t and for a myriad of reasons. The second response, is generally, “thanks for telling me that, it’s useful to know. Perhaps you can tell me about it?” Yet, what I only very occasionally hear, is “I have a friend with epilepsy” or “my xx has epilepsy”. In the 20 years or so that I’ve been extremely open about my disease, I can count on one hand the number of times that response has come. My experience sharing my MS diagnosis has been vastly different.
Telling people I have been diagnosed with MS has been a completely different kettle of fish, to announcing I have epilepsy. Firstly, it took so long to get a diagnosis, that I couldn’t tell people what was wrong, all I could give them was a range of afflictions of varying severity that it could be. The medical debate as to whether my optic nerve issues are MS or something else still rages on, but for the purposes of this post (and my mental well-being) let us pretend that it’s all MS related.
The initial similarities between the reaction to the MS diagnosis and the one for Epilepsy are actually pretty similar. Although, I guess that’s not really much of a surprise. Shock, terror, panic, tears etc were all present on both occasions in the early months following diagnosis. My lack of knowledge about both diseases was a factor. Epilepsy when I was 17 simply wasn’t discussed, I didn’t have Google (this was 1988 people) and I dealt with everything by internalising it. If I didn’t acknowledge it, it wasn’t happening. The classic, as my brother often describes it, sticking your head in the sand and hence leaving your ass exposed. I knew nothing at all about epilepsy and my knowledge of MS started and ended with horror stories, Jacqueline du Pre’s death springs to mind as being the only real story I knew of where MS was the destruction of her career and life. She was younger than I am now when she died. The only other exposure I had to MS was hearing about other tragic stories in the media. So my complete lack of any factual knowledge of either disease was total. As an adult, I think that I dealt with my MS diagnosis in a bit more of a mature way. At 17 I didn’t know what to ask and of who. Being as I’d basically shut down, then chances are I wasn’t going to ask anyway, but perhaps if I’d been pointed in the direction of a support group, then it may have changed things for me. Who knows? At 45, I asked questions. Sometimes, I didn’t get answers, sometimes I didn’t want to hear the answers, but ultimately, I had/have to face up to the facts as they present themselves.
When I did start to tell people I had MS, it usually elicits two responses. The first is along the lines of “oh shit” or “chr*st” or words to that effect. These responders are generally the ones that had the same negative exposure to MS that I’d had. The other typical response was a complete surprise to me. It’s along the lines of “my xx has MS” or “I have MS too” or “I know a couple of people with MS”. I did not expect this. Perhaps I was vain to think I was the only one!! It’s estimated that about 100,000 people have MS in the UK in 2016, while the figure for epilepsy is 500,000. It’s mainly for that reason that I was so surprised just how many people who I know and see regularly, have firsthand experience of living with MS or know someone who does. Given there are 5-times as many people with epilepsy than with MS, I’d have thought I’d know more people with exposure to epilepsy.
Does this mean anything? Does it mean there is less stigma attached to MS and so people are more likely to admit they either have the disease or know someone who does? Or does it mean that people with epilepsy are less likely to acknowledge their condition, especially if it’s well controlled? I don’t know the answer. I find it fascinating though.
The first person to be “officially” diagnosed as having MS – albeit posthumously – was Augustus d’Este, the grandson of The Mad King, George III. Although he wasn’t diagnosed during his lifetime, the diaries that he kept detailing his symptoms allowed for the diagnosis to be made. He kept diaries of his condition for 22 years, with the final entry being made 2 years before his death in 1848. However, the disease can be traced back to the 14th century to Saint Lidwina of Schiedam Although she died in 1433, historical texts tell of difficulties in walking, pains in her teeth and terrible headaches. This gave rise to the probability she suffered from MS. However, epilepsy has been documented as far back as 400BC with Hippocrates, no less, dismissing epilepsy as being no more sacred than other diseases in response to the belief at the time that epilepsy or the falling sickness was some kind of supernatural affliction.
There are long lists of famous people who have lived or do live with epilepsy. Bonaparte, Julius Ceasar, Dostoyevsky, Alexander the Great, Lewis Carroll and Prince to name just a few. Yet, I can’t find a similar list stretching through the ages for MS. The lists for those suffering MS seems limited to those currently living with the disease or those, such as Ms du Pre who have passed relatively recently.
I find the differences and similarities between MS and Epilepsy absolutely fascinating. The stigmas, the discussions and the history of both diseases being a source of both wonderment and inspiration.