Yes, And…

We didn’t ask for this. One day, we woke up the same way we always did, and that night we were walking back to our hotel room from the hospital in a strange city after my son had his first seizure.

That was six years ago.

For many of those years, I fought what was happening. I didn’t want it, and I thought if I resisted it that it would go away. I looked at what was happening, and I led with “no.”

That “no” manifested as resentment and anger. I wasn’t angry at my son. I was angry at epilepsy. I was angry at seizures. I was angry at the medication and the side effects. I was angry at the universe for doing this to my little boy. The seizures, the meds, the side effects. The impact on his future.

Even though I wasn’t angry at my son, based on the way I was acting, to him, it probably felt like I was. I worried that he was internalizing what I was projecting. For years, he walked around saying, “I’m sorry” every time I corrected him or asked him to do something.

I tried to change how I was showing up for him. Instead of fighting what was happening with a “no,” I moved on to a “yes, but…” I admitted that epilepsy was happening, but made excuses so that I wouldn’t have to give in to that reality fully. “Yes, this is happening, but someday it won’t.”

The “but” in “yes, but…” wasn’t about giving up hope. It was about a lack of acceptance. There was still that resistance that got worse as things with my son got better. Instead of a bump in the road, every setback, every new symptom, every increase in seizures felt like falling off a cliff.

That falling, too, surfaced as frustration and resentment. I had little tolerance when things weren’t right. I would snap when the smallest thing went wrong. I thought that I could correct our way out of this if I could get everything perfect. I kept trying to control and change the situation into something that it was never going to be.

When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves. ~Viktor E. Frankl

In the world of improv comedy, there is a concept of “yes, and…” The idea is that a participant takes what is given and adds to and expands it. Instead of “no” (the brick wall) or “yes, but..” (the resistance ), the “yes” encourages acceptance and the “and” expands.

Yes, my son has epilepsy, and he is amazing. Yes, he has seizures most days, and he also goes to school and plays baseball and loves Fortnite. Yes, we are on a different path than we thought we were going to be, and the future is full of new possibilities.

I’m not going to lie, even as I typed the sentences above, I struggled to think of the “and…” My brain isn’t wired to find the positive in impossibly difficult situations. But the more I do it, the easier it will become. The more I practice, the more my brain will automatically find the possibility.  I can’t change the situation, but I can change how I approach it and how I engage with him. Because he truly is amazing, and he needs to feel that from me.

Yes, my son has epilepsy, and I am the luckiest dad there ever was.

What It Means To Be An Epilepsy Dad

This post is part of the Epilepsy Blog Relay™. Follow along all month!

Father’s Day was last Sunday.

I woke up early, like I do on most Sundays, and went for a run. When I returned, I was greeted to my favorite sound in the world when my son said “Hi, Daddy. Happy Father’s Day!” as he handed me a card that he made himself and a big hug.

Being a father is the most amazing experience of my life. It’s also the hardest, most fun, most frustrating, most rewarding, and scariest experiences of my life. I feel the pressure to give my son a very different childhood than I had and, most days, I feel ill-equipped to do so, but I am trying.

Adding to the challenge of just being a good father is being the father to a child with special needs. Even if there were a manual called How To Be a Good Dad, it’s the equivalent to trying to read that book in the dark. Every intention, every plan, every expectation went out the window and I had to start again looking through a very different lens.

This July, it will have been five years since my son’s first seizure. It will have been five years since I started looking at the world through that different lens. And it will have been five years of living a very different life than I thought I would.

I’m not just a father. I’m an epilepsy dad.

When I became an epilepsy dad, I started this blog so that I could share my experiences navigating this new world. Five years in, here are a few of the things I’ve learned:

I may never know why this happened. I’m an engineer, a problem solver. I’m used to finding the reason why something is broken so that I can fix it. After countless scans and genetic testing, there is no identifiable reason why my son has seizures. But not knowing why and living in denial doesn’t change the fact that he has epilepsy.

It doesn’t matter why this happened. There is nothing that I could have done differently. Even if there was, there is no way to go back and change it. Looking backward and wondering why takes me away from the present, from my son, and from our future.

It may never go away. My son has refractory epilepsy, which means that even though we’ve tried a lot of different medications, he still has seizures. He is on the ketogenic diet and he has a VNS and he still has seizures. It is the most helpless feeling to know that there is nothing that I can do to fix this for him and that his seizures may never go away.

Plans change. I think as parents we all have grand plans for our children when they are born. But as our kids get older and discover what they want, those plans change. This is no different, even though I want to be mad at epilepsy and blame it for the changes. My son was always going to find his own path and, in some way, epilepsy will influence his course. But that is not a reason to give up on the future. It’s a reason to accept that plans change to support him on his journey of discovery, which is what a good parent should do, anyway.

There is a lot to be grateful for. Five years ago, we almost lost our son when the doctors couldn’t get his seizures under control. The pressure and fear and anger that I have felt in the last five years placed a strain on my relationships and on my marriage. But today, my son plays baseball and makes me the most amazing cards on Father’s Day. My wife and I are closer now than we have been in a long time. The situation hasn’t changed, but we have and I am grateful every day that we are together.

You can’t be an epilepsy dad without being a dad. At the end of the day, I’m still his dad. We still have fun, and laugh, and joke, and have pillow fights right before trying to take a nap. I still need to teach him good values and show him how to be a good person. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the worry and the diagnosis and the future but that shouldn’t take away from being a dad first. Because, especially with all the complexity that life has thrown at us, that is what he needs from me the most.

NEXT UP: Be sure to check out the next post by Lisa Hairston at livingwellwithepilepsy.com for more on epilepsy awareness. You can check out any of the Epilepsy Blog Relay posts you may have missed.

What Can’t Be Undone

The suggestion to implant a VNS was made by our neurologist years ago. But there were still options to try so we held off. Unfortunately, CBD was not our miracle and other medications didn’t help. The seizures kept coming and we ran out of things to try.

When our neurologist brought up the VNS again, I felt the overwhelming weight of the decision squeezing the air out of me. If it even has the potential to improve his quality of life, she asked, shouldn’t we try it? Of course, she was right, but that knowledge didn’t help me breathe.

Neither did having an amazing surgeon in one of the best children’s hospitals in the country. Neither did the love and support of friends who would try to reassure me about how safe surgery and anesthesia are. Neither did my wife who held everything together when I couldn’t.

It wasn’t the mechanics of the surgery that occupied my thoughts. It was the idea of cutting into my little boy. It was the permanence of it all. It was the thing that can’t be undone.

We can wean off a medication that doesn’t work. We can stop the ketogenic diet. If years from now his seizures miraculously go away, we could stop everything and pretend that all the hard things about his childhood didn’t happen. There would be no signs, no trace. I could live in denial about how traumatized I was by this experience.

But the surgery forced me to confront the fact that these things aren’t going away. That the magical, unburdened life I wanted for my son is not going to materialize. That I can’t fix this or make it go away. That this is real, and that the future for him will include challenges brought on by his condition. That I’ve somehow failed him.

From the time the decision was made to the time they wheeled him away hopped up on “giggle juice”, I pushed my feelings down. I was practical but emotionless. I showed up for the appointments and answered the questions as he was prepped for surgery, but I wasn’t really there. I couldn’t be. I had to push it all down just to appear strong enough to make it through.

Even after his surgery was over, I had a hard time being present and acknowledging what had happened. I had a hard time looking at his scars. They were bigger than I thought they would be. Instead of small ones hidden by clothes, they’re long and visible. I looked away. I caught a glimpse of the device itself, raised under the skin and I looked away. It’s more than just being squeamish, it’s a spotlight of reality shining into my eyes and blinding me.

I worry that he’ll think I can’t look at him. I worry that he’ll feel like he did something wrong or that there is something wrong with him that is causing this reaction from me. I’m worried that I can’t get over my own hang-ups and be there for him when he needs me.

I tried to explain to him the feelings I was having but he didn’t understand. I didn’t, either, until I started to unpack them. But I still don’t know what to do with them. I want my acceptance to turn the spotlight that was blinding me into a beacon that brings me to him. But instead, it feels like the light has turned off. It’s not repelling me but it’s also not drawing me in. Instead, I’m left in the darkness trying to find my way.

But I can hear his voice. And I hear my wife’s voice. They’re calling me. And so I’m pushing through the blackness, the emptiness, to find my way back to them. It’s scary and impossibly hard. But I can hear them and they need me. I can hear them, and I don’t feel alone.

I’m on my way.