In high school I started getting nauseating deja vu. Out of nowhere, the world suddenly seemed both unreal and hyperreal, like the clearest dream. I could remember everything before it happened, and then I could remember my entire life, all of human history, all of being. I got magnificent insights into philosophy, I could feel mortality in my bones and understood more than ever the importance of living a reflective and full life. Everything felt other-worldly and intense, and so beautiful. At the same time, I was gripped by horrible nausea and dread. An “unthinkable idea” was chasing my consciousness around my brain, and if I allowed myself to focus on it, something terrible would happen. Sometimes I had hallucinations, like having a dream while awake — I never thought they were real. It was always strange and abstract stuff, like my dog leading me through a rainforest or Friedrich Nietzsche trying to tell me how to live my life. And then within moments, everything went back to normal and I could hardly remember what had happened. For years I assumed this was ordinary deja vu, or maybe an existential crisis. I didn’t think much of it.
Then I began fainting. Episodes would start with the uncanny deja vu, but sometimes they got so powerful I’d fall unconscious. Doctors assured me, “This is OK, you probably have issues with low blood pressure – it’s nothing to worry about.” So I didn’t; after all, this was a reassuring misdiagnosis.
But the first six stressful months of graduate school brought more “fainting” than I had experienced in my life. Trying in vain to describe the deja vu to my boyfriend, I finally Googled it. Somebody else must get these, I thought. “Nausea at existence, being unto death, feeling of the sublime” – it can’t just be me and the existential philosophers.
My heart sank when I saw the results. It was page after page of epilepsy or brain tumor or neurological disorder. When I read the descriptions, I knew instantly this was it.
I saw a neurologist, was quickly diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, and breathed a deep sigh of relief when my MRI revealed a tumorless brain. I learned that a seizure is a cascade of misfiring neurons. When this happens in my temporal lobe (my memory, emotion and spirituality centers), I get confused about reality and memory, I get intense and inexplicable feelings — and of course the spirituality aspect is the most obvious. All of this is called a “partial seizure.” Sometimes the cascade of misfiring neurons can spread from the temporal lobes into the rest of the brain, causing sudden loss of consciousness, which tends to look a lot like fainting. This is called a “generalized seizure” and they’re typically less common. Throughout history, partial seizures have been interpreted as spiritual awakenings or communications with God. With such bizarre and abstract warning signs, I’m not the only one who has gone a decade without realizing anything was wrong.
When I have seizures, dreams flood my consciousness. I feel sick but the world is illuminated; I feel as though some external force is showing me meaning, lifting me up. Eyes close, lips turn white, body falls.
I’ll get back up again, I always do. Epilepsy can be rough, and sometimes I wish I never had it. But I always reach a paradox — my seizures have been formative. Simulated or not, the philosophically profound moments have influenced my thoughts and experiences. I don’t think I would have followed the same path in life were it not for them. An Anna (that’s me!) without epilepsy isn’t Anna at all.
To be clear, even temporal lobe epilepsy is serious and requires treatment — as much as I’ve gained from seizures, they aren’t healthy and carry a risk of death. I take medication now, and seizures happen less frequently. It’s OK if they go away and never come back. I’ve taken all I need from them.
I wish it was more common knowledge that epilepsy isn’t only helmets and convulsions, seizures aren’t all strobe lights and unconsciousness — even doctors seem oblivious. Some seizures are radiant and horrific and unspeakably beautiful.