I watched the happy, fulfilled customers sitting at the other tables in the restaurant. How could they appear so perfectly adjusted and calm while an atom bomb was exploding in my head?
Some time ago, for around three years, I experienced shattering spells. Each one lasted maybe one or two minutes. These deluges of pure fear, which sometimes occurred several times a day, didn’t cause physical pain, but emotional upheaval and confusion. Afterward, I had trouble breathing. I felt dizzy, my heart pounded, and I wanted to run out of the room. The spells could happen anywhere, but were most predictable in restaurants. I forced myself to act as though nothing was happening and didn’t tell anyone.
During the same years, I experienced periods of torturing anxiety that were probably related to the spells. At worst, I couldn’t sit down to wait for a prescription to be filled or to the Thanksgiving dinner I had prepared. I was coming out of my skin. I was so freaked out I didn’t want to chance reliving the spells by describing them to anyone. Keeping them a secret also made it easier to hope they would go away on their own. I felt ashamed to have been “chosen” to be attacked; experiencing something scary I’d never heard of was isolating.
Fearing this was some kind of punishment for being me, I went to see a psychologist for help. It took 18 months for her to convince me to see a neurologist. When I finally did, the doctor ordered an EEG (electroencephalogram) and other tests to check out my brain. Having a treatable neurological problem was now my only hope for relief; if the tests came out normal, where would I turn?
In the elevator, after finding out the results and leaving my neurologist’s office, I clicked my heels together for joy. The EEG showed I had psychomotor epilepsy, sometimes called temporal lobe epilepsy for where it is located in the brain. You might think I’d be upset with the diagnosis of epilepsy, but it was a relief because now something could be done about it. The doctor prescribed anticonvulsant medicine. It took awhile to adjust the medication and to get over my fear of restaurants, but the spells stopped, crippling anxiety ended, and calmness returned.
These spells are different from the grand mal seizures we usually associate with the word epilepsy. I learned that psychomotor epilepsy is a condition where people experience sights, sounds, sensations, smells, and tastes which are not there. They often feel detached from their surroundings and afraid, and after a spell they may be confused. Some behave in odd ways during an episode, such as making automatic movements. With me, however, there were no outward signs.
A few months ago, after more than 30 years, I slowly went off the medicine with no ill affects.
I’m not comfortable talking about my experience with psychomotor epilepsy. I felt so tortured by the spells, however, that I feared I’d end up killing myself unless I found a solution. This is why I want therapists and others to be aware of it. When I hear of accounts of suicides that leave the survivors completely surprised, I’m reminded of how lucky I was to get help. Some of these may have resulted from the desire to end the anxiety, confusion, and misery psychomotor epilepsy can produce.
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