Talking To My Son About Epilepsy

Imagine we are sitting at a table across from each other. I’m trying to teach you a complicated concept. Except I don’t understand the concept, either. And I’m also trying to teach it to you in another language. Except neither of us speaks that language. And the room we are in is pitch black.

That is what it is like to talk to my son about epilepsy. It’s a topic that I didn’t have a reference for until it entered our lives. I’m learning what it means to be the parent of a child with a disability, but not what it means to have epilepsy. My son has a different perspective. He knows what it feels like to have epilepsy, but he doesn’t have the words to always share what he is going through. He doesn’t remember his life before seizures enough to describe the difference. So we fumble as we try to connect and create a shared experience.

Occasionally, I’ll be able to pull something out of my growing knowledge bank to share with him. A few weeks ago, we strolled through Caesar’s Casino in Atlantic City. We passed a statue of Julius Caesar and I mentioned that he ruled the Roman Republic. I also mentioned that he had epilepsy. “He had epilepsy and he ruled the world, ” I said, “so you can do anything that you want to do.” I skipped the part about Julius possibly suffering from migraines and not seizures. The opportunity for bonding was more important than proven historical accuracy.

There are flashes of a connection, but not enough of one. Epilepsy and seizures will affect him for the rest of his life. History lessons might be inspirational, but they don’t explain what he is feeling and why. They won’t build his epilepsy vocabulary. They might keep him hopeful, but they can’t predict what it will be like for him in the future. Nothing can.

As a father, it makes me feel helpless. It’s my job to protect him. It’s my job to teach him the ways of the world. I think that if I do more research, if I learn more facts, that I’ll somehow be able to forge a path for him. If I can’t make him better, I at least want to make his life easier. But without knowing what he is going through, I’m never sure I’m doing the right thing. What I can do, and what helps me balance my frustration, is loving him and making him feel secure.

Sometimes, there is light in the room. I’m able to see how brave he has become when he tries something new, talks to people, or jumps fifteen feet into a ball pit. I see how hard he works to do basic tasks and how much harder he has to work to do the things he likes doing. There is enough light to see that our family is around the table, trying to connect with each other. We’re still not speaking the same language, but there is enough light to see that we’re in this together.

The Appearance Of Being Strong

We’re more than two and a half years into our journey. For a third of my son’s life, he’s lived with seizures. It’s getting harder to remember the time before them. The carefree days before hospitals and therapies seems more like someone else’s life.
Our new life doesn’t feel like it is getting any easier, even being so far into it. There is no resolution. There are no reasons. There is no consistency except for the looming threat of another seizure. It is chaotic to manage his diet, his medicine, and his appointments. There is a never ending stream of complexities in our lives. On the good days, it feels like we’re barely treading water. On the bad days, it feels like we’re drowning.
We’ve met a lot of families that have been dealing with seizures much longer than we have. I look at them as if they are the strongest people in the world, dealing admirably with such an impossible path. They somehow figured out how to manage the unmanageable. Their perspective keeps them sane and grounded and able to function in such a complex system. I’ve often wondered if we would find that place, and if someone on the outside would think the same thing about us.
I keep waiting for a switch to flip, for that “a ha” moment where the mystery of how to navigate this life is explained. So far, it hasn’t happened and it’s frustrating. I’m a smart guy. I figured out how to ride a bike, drive a car, program a computer and build a robot. But there is no pattern in what is happening. There’s nothing for my mind to organize around and to sort out. We are in a constant state of reaction with very little that we can control.
The lack of control and my inability to figure it out makes me feel like we’re not there yet. People around us use words like “strong”” and “brave” but I can’t let that in because I don’t believe it. Every seizure, every outburst, every failed medicine, every closed off path, every false hope. As much as I try to hide their impact from the outside world, it feels as if I wear them as visibly as I wear clothes. I’m only forcing myself to do what I need to do for my son and my family.
But, maybe, that’s what everyone else does, too.

What Got Me Here

“How are you doing?”

It’s such a loaded question. I fear that if I gave the real answer, it would overwhelm the person who asked it and they would never ask again. I’d be surrounded by people who were all too afraid to ask how I was and I’d feel more alone than I already do.

Most people get the obligatory “Good, thanks, how are you?” Closer friends may get more of the story. Maybe not the full story, but some of the mechanical bits about how tired I am because I never really sleep. But we don’t talk about how sad I am, or how much I worry about the future or what would happen if something happened to me? I’m not sure that I even talk about that with my wife as much as I should.

It’s isolating, this not wanting to burden the people around me with the depth of these issues. Besides, I’m a man. It’s not in my nature to share. We internalize, and apply logic, and try to solve an impossible problem. We certainly don’t talk to other people about it. It’s a sign of weakness. Even if other people are going through exactly the same thing and talking about it would be the high tide that raised all ships, it’s better somehow to keep all the boats stuck in the mud.

I know it’s bullshit. At least, my head does. I think. But after so many years of figuring it out myself and seeing where that got me, it’s hard to let go of the idea that the things that got me here are the things that are going to get me to where I want to be. After all, I have a pretty good life. I’ve done some amazing things and traveled the world. I have a Master’s degree and a good job. These successes are the result of my figuring out how to survive in this messy, hard and sometimes cruel world.

Those tactics, though, serve only to protect me from the outside world. Their side effect is to isolate me from the people around me. My wife is going through the same things I am, and when she is looking to me for support and a connection, I’m nowhere to be found, lost in my own inner workings. She may push and poke to see if I am there and I respond by pulling further away and burrowing further into my hole. In the end, we push each other away when we should be moving towards each other, we are left angry and frustrated when we should be comforting and empathetic, and we find ourselves alone when we should be together.

epilepsy dad help date night

“What got you here is not what will get you to where you want to be.” That is the type of insight you get when you open yourself up to guidance and support. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It shows my commitment to my family and my belief that the stronger and better connected the unit is, the better capable we will be to face what is in front of us together. It shows that I don’t have the tools to solve this impossible problem and that it’s important enough for me to develop a new set of skills. It’s setting a good example for my son so that he doesn’t follow the same path of pushing people away and trying to do it all himself. It breaks my heart to think about the difficulties that he is going to have in his life and the idea of him facing them alone.

What got me here is not what will get me to where I want to be. It’s time to work on what will get me there, together with my wife, my family, and my friends.