Tuesday, September 25, 2012


I don't know if I've ever mentioned this, but when I was about 12, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. Not the falling-down-and-frothing kind, but a rather less well-known kind that is more difficult to pin down. Temporal Lobe epilepsy seizures produce some profoundly weird experiences, with a lot of hallucinations, and can leave a person, especially a young person, with some rather strange perspectives on reality. For me, reality was never so hard and fast as it seems to be for some other people, a difference I didn't even know was there until I was much older. I had been having the seizures for as long as I remembered, and, despite a prodigious skill at describing things, they remain extremely elusive.

Words are a medium meant to abstract reality, to create symbols that point to something real. But if your perception of reality periodically gets radically altered, if you regularly wake up in the middle of the night and can't tell the difference any more between here and there, the distance between here-ness and there-ness is either non-existent or infinite; if you can't tell the difference between an inch and a thousand miles, between a thing and not-a-thing, between a space and the object that defines the space, words meant to describe the ordinary waking world, will tend to fail. I can say that on occasion, I've been able to see sounds.

I was told when I was diagnosed that it would go away and the seizures would stop when I reached puberty, and it was true that I now rarely have the strange experience of falling backwards into another world that presages them. Now that I know what is happening, they aren't so frightening. I have also learned to make them stop when they are inconvenient by playing music, making noise or by physically grasping objects, all methods of trying to make perception and the external world match up. I remember once I was even able to just let it all happen and ignore it and carry on reading my book while reality hissed and bent snakily away from me.

Now, in my stolid middle age, they come so rarely that I can often forget about it entirely. Only when I am really sick with flu and a high fever, or experiencing extreme emotional stress (something that has happened a lot in the last few years) do I ever get a glimmer of the Other World. And oddly, though it was a bit of a problem when I was a kid, I sort of miss it. The only thing left that makes me remember it is knowing that I can't take modern anti-depressants. Apparently the serotonin re-uptake inhibitors that are all the rage with the more reductionist variety of head shrinkers "lower the threshold" for seizures and create a kind of constant state of seizureness that more or less is functionally the equivalent of going insane.

(I found this out the hard way several years ago when I went to the doctor complaining of being down after losing a job. The drugs he gave me, as a matter of routine, and which successive doctors added to, made me so ill that I was told on one occasion that I was probably going to die. I didn't know what was going on until a specialist (that I had to nearly threaten a lawsuit to get referred to) told me, rather alarmed, that it was no bloody wonder I was so badly off. While muttering something about the damned arrogance and incompetence of the psychiatric profession, he prescribed a mild anti-epileptic drug and a lot of water and rest and two months later I was back in the boring old Real World full time. But it was an interesting experience, and some day I'll write it into something.)

Since diagnosis I've read, though, that what they thought about my kind of epilepsy in 1979 is no longer regarded as complete. When they told me that it would "probably go away" they didn't know what a strange and complicated place the brain was. Epilepsy doesn't ever go away, but it can certainly change. I don't get the huge and terrifying, all-encompassing hallucinatory seizures that frightened me so much as a child. But apparently, the type of epilepsy I have can alter perceptions in hidden and interesting ways.

Of course, it is close to impossible to tell if I am perceiving reality differently from the way everyone else does, but it seems that temporal lobe epileptics have certain personality traits in common, which I suppose makes sense. And a lot of them have to do with communication and perception, which tends to make us arty.

The world looks unique to each person who observes it, neurological disorders notwithstanding. I think of learning to draw as taming those bendy and malleable perceptions. Having not had much parental guidance, I've been making up my life as I've gone along, Indiana Jones style, through my whole adult life. It would be interesting to work out if that includes a perceptual method that differs from other peoples.


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