Altered State

A year after a grand mal seizure left me convulsing on the floor, I’m still finding my way back into everyday life.

It has been more than a year since the seizure, and although I have managed to assimilate the memory of it, the medication for it, and the fact that it could happen again, I still haven’t made peace with the world. I hate the word “seizure.” I hated it when I was one of the large majority of Americans who have slipped through life unvisited by the demon, and I hate it now that I must count myself among the 10 percent of our population who have had at least one seizure.

It’s a savagely loaded word—one that stands out even in the heavily loaded lexicon of medical science. Nothing silences a room like the word “seizure.” Dark and sinister connotations fairly rattle the walls upon its mention. Try as a medically conscious person might, he can’t help but have thoughts of irreparable brain damage and demonic possession. Put it this way: One of the more common synonyms used for seizure is “fit.” So I was actually somewhat mollified when the doctors at the Englewood Community Hospital in West Florida informed me that what had sent me to the floor of the condominium the night before in a shuddering, retching lump was a generalized tonic-clonic seizure disorder—otherwise known as a grand mal seizure.

Lousy enough luck that I’d become ill on our annual boys-only vacation to the Texas Rangers’ spring training camp. Worse luck by far that I had been stuck by one of the most mysterious and misunderstood afflictions in neurology—especially so in my case, since I had no history of seizure, no trace of epilepsy or anything like it in my family, and I hadn’t suffered a bop on the head since an auto wreck in college. According to the Epilepsy Foundation of America, about half of all episodes of seizure are idiopathic or have no discernible cause. (The word “epilepsy” also doesn’t taste very good on the tongue, but I will have to deal with it only if my seizure recurs. Epilepsy is the umbrella term for recurring seizures.)

A seizure may not be brought on by demonic possession, but that is certainly what it fees like. This much I remember: My four friends and I were hanging at the condo one evening, getting ready to go to dinner. I had felt punkish throughout the vacation. Since we had arrived, I had suffered intermittent fever and chills, slight nausea, insomnia, and a strange sensation of distraction. I had blithely chalked this up to some new strain of Florida flu or stress. (My buds and I have been doing this spring training trip for half a dozen years, and since I had quit drinking the year before, this was my first spring foray clean and sober.) We were watching a Bruce Springsteen video on TV when a wash of intense chills swept over me and I began to shiver involuntarily. The shivering turned to shuddering, and an awful prickly sensation began to creep up my extremities. My chest and throat thickened and my heart began to rampage. A nagging sensation of anxiety gripped my gut.

I called out to my friend David for help. At first he thought I was kidding, but when he saw the fear in my eyes he realized something was very wrong. As David grabbed hold of me, my legs went rubbery and I collapsed in his arms and we slid to the floor. That anxiety in the gut—what I later would learn is an “epi-gastric effect”—had now turned to a churning welter. According to my friends, my body stiffened and then began convulsing. My breathing became shallow and labored. My skin turned clammy, and I was sweating profusely. My jaw clenched shut and my lips turned blue. I lost consciousness almost immediately and I have no memory of what else happened in the condo. I came to just as I was being put in a CAT scan tube at the hospital.

From what my friends told me, they were frightened and not sure what they should do. (One of them, Eric, called 911, while David held me.) In fact, there is not much a bystander can do except make certain that the seized individual’s convulsions do not throw him against the furniture and the other objects around him. He should be kept on his side to prevent him from biting his tongue or choking if he vomits. It is a natural instinct but not a good idea to maintain contact with the seizure victim, because many seizures involve general hypersensitivity to stimuli and the touch of another person may only intensify the symptoms. Seizures look a lot worse than they really are, and they are rarely fatal in and of themselves. They are mostly painless and generally very brief. I was a little sore afterward and a little disoriented, but otherwise I could honestly tell my buddies that “it wasn’t as bad as I’m sure it looked,” to which one replied: “Yeah, I don’t see how it could have been.”

My friends thought it was the Big One, which was understandable since a grand mal seizure can look very much like a heart attack or a stroke. But a seizure is caused by a completely different set of physiological dynamics. The neurons that carry messages to and from various parts of the brain become overloaded—not unlike a surge in an electrical power system. The circuit shorts, and the messages the body gets from the neurons cause abnormal behaviors—fainting, convulsing, stiffening. In many cases, the seizure will start at one point in the brain—the temporal lobe is a frequent point of origin—and then spread. In other cases, like mine, the power surge occurs in both hemispheres of the cortex, producing all major seizure symptoms: muscle contraction and rigidity, convulsing, severe heart palpitation, and complete or partial blackout followed by a period of disorientation—the so-called twilight effect.

Lesser forms of seizure include petit mal, now called “absence seizures,” in which the victim suffers a brief

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