In the spring of 2003, I was having a rough time. I’d just been soundly rejected from every grad school I’d applied to.* My plan for the future – or at least the next year – had just collapsed. My ego, long connected to my academic performance, had been completely crushed, my whole sense of self brought into question. I didn’t know what to do next. So that spring, I had some ups and downs. I agonized over grad school, and then I went to a conference and hung out with some great people and started to see that it wasn’t the end of the world. I had an enormous, humiliating anxiety attack in front of my boss, and then I went on my first adult vacation, to NYC, and it was fantastic.

I came home from New York much improved, smoking less and no longer feeling the need to take daily work breaks and head over to the park to swing.** I was back on track. Until five days later, when I had a seizure while sitting at my desk.

I don’t have any memory of the seizure. I remember looking for photos – author photos for California Poetry, I believe – and I remember being on the stretcher in the elevator, saying ridiculous things to the EMTs. I remember everything that came after that: the ambulance ride; the ER; talking to my mom; my roommates showing up; how concerned our waiter was later that evening because by the time our food arrived, I was far too exhausted to eat; returning to work, embarrassed that my coworkers had witnessed my weakness, horrified and enthralled by the details they were able to provide me.

Other things I remember: the first terrifying trip to the neurologist. The EEG, which I still maintain could be used as a form of torture. The call from the neurologist, later that same day; he tracked me down at a friend’s house, and I sat in the middle of her living room floor and tried not to cry while he told me that my readings clearly showed epileptic wave patterns. He told me he was calling in a prescription, that I should keep my MRI appointment, and that he would see me back in the office in a month. There was no room for doubt, and I let go of the few fragile threads of hope, the last desperate bits of denial that I’d clung to.

I should back up a bit here. My younger brother was diagnosed with epilepsy in 1994. I was the one to find him when he had his first seizure, and I’d been there, both with my mom and alone, when he’d had subsequent seizures. Although I’d left home for college in 1998, my mom had kept me up-to-date on my brother’s medical problems. I knew that epilepsy wasn’t the end of the world, but I also knew that it couldn’t always be managed very easily. So when I was diagnosed, all the anxiety I’d tried to put behind me returned with a vengeance. I spent the summer terrified that something else would happen, that I’d have another seizure while crossing the street and get hit by a car. I’d always prided myself on my independence, and now I was terrified that I couldn’t get through life by myself, that I was at the mercy of this condition that I could neither see nor control.

In the end, it turned out that I was one of the lucky ones. Unlike my brother, who still has occasional seizures, my condition was stabilized quickly. There have been no more seizures. But that first year was hard, and I struggled through more anxiety attacks as I struggled to accept my new situation, the new limitations on my body and my life.

I’ve gotten past that first, horrible phase. I’ve accepted that epilepsy is part of my life. But I’ve never quite stopped thinking about my life in terms of B.E. and A.E. There’s a lingering sense of restraint in my life now. I’ve never been the most adventurous person in the world, but my younger, pre-epileptic self was more comfortable with taking chances. Now, I have to be more responsible about my health. I have to make sure I have health insurance. There’s always the knowledge in the back of my head that I have this extra responsibility. In my lower moments, I long to be 22 again, the last year before I was diagnosed.

My seizure occurred on May 15, 2003. Every year since I’ve marked the date to myself and wondered at the passage of time, at the changes in my life. It’s like a second birthday. This year I didn’t. The first I thought of it was yesterday morning in the shower, when I realized that the day had come and gone six weeks ago. I’ve stopped wearing my medical bracelet, partly because it’s old and scratched and I really need to order a new one, but also partly because I don’t feel any particular need to wear it. I think about my condition every night at 10 p.m. when I take my pills. I think about it every month when I get the prescription refilled. I think about it every year when I realize it’s time to see my neurologist again. But I don’t think about it much otherwise. I’ll never outgrow the epilepsy, but it’s not the defining feature of my life, and it no longer hangs over me like a dark cloud. And it was both surprising and pleasing to realize that I no longer count the days in May, waiting for that anniversary, reliving it in my mind.

For my 28th birthday, I bought myself a new tattoo. It’s on my left wrist, a simple black line design, an artistic interpretation of an eagle. In a convoluted way that makes sense only to me, this eagle symbolizes Julius Caesar, who historians speculate was epileptic. When I learned about that, I thought, Julius Caesar was epileptic and managed to lead the Roman Empire, and that was before the development of anti-seizure medications. If he could do that, then epilepsy can’t hold me back in my average, everyday life. My tattoo has faded into my skin and become an inseparable part of me, both something that I hardly notice anymore and a visual reminder of the strength I’m capable of. It occurs to me now that the tattoo serves as more than a symbol of survival and strength; it serves as a symbol of the condition itself. Like the ink that once seemed so dark and foreign on my skin, so itchy and ill-fitting, my ideas as myself as an epileptic have mellowed with time. Epilepsy is simply a part of me.

*I thought applying to grad school was just like applying to college. Turns out it’s not.

**Swinging calms me. Try it sometime when you’re really stressed out. It’s quite soothing.

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