From graduate school to retail, via epilepsy road.
If it weren’t for Internet support forums, I’d never know the stories of other epileptic people. Guilt lifts through catharsis when you realize that so many of the things you blamed yourself for were really none of your fault, or not as much of your fault as you–as I–thought.
I’ve read versions of my own story so many times, often nearly verbatim. Many of us wallow in retail, like me. I went from studying political theory to selling granny panties. Computer coders find themselves coding whether you want fries with that.
I’ve been ashamed and angry at myself for years. But I realized, we can only make informed choices on how to act when we have all the facts.
I have focal epilepsy and wasn’t diagnosed until age thirty (2018). Up until then, I thought I just had epic panic attacks on steroids. It wasn’t obvious because I don’t have tonic-clonics. I was afraid of it happening in public because I was terrified I’d not be able to escape a room and collapse. I have a license but have never driven alone and haven’t driven at all in thirteen years because I am afraid of blacking out for a few seconds while driving. I’m borderline agoraphobic. My fear of seizures caused me to cramp my life and miss out. I was even afraid of how I looked during episodes.
But restricting my life out of shame and secrecy only led to more lies and shame and secrecy—and missed opportunities.
When I left class or work early, I would lie and say I was having a migraine because I thought it held more social cred than panic attacks.
Grad school was a waste because I didn’t take advantage of anything that it had to offer. I commuted by train to my school in New York City. Being deathly afraid of having a “panic attack” on a city street or in school, I spent all my mental focus and energy on getting from Point A to B to C and so on. Survive the train to Grand Central. Get out of Grand Central alive. Get to the bus stop without collapsing in the middle of the avenue. Ride the bus without being a victim of the knock-out game. Get to school, park my ass somewhere safe until class. Get through class without fainting. Now run as fast as I can to the bus stop to catch the express.
It is possible for some people to ward off seizures with fierce concentration but the energy drain involved in this almost makes it the same difference. I can’t remember if I had a seizure at my grad school; I don’t think I did, actually, although short stories I wrote during that period featured students having these episodes. I know I had them in college and at work.
If my life hadn’t revolved around my fear of these episodes, I could have put my energy into writing papers and attending lectures and conferences, or applying for teaching assistant jobs. By the time I finished my master’s, I no longer had any energy to continue. I had hoped to earn a Ph.D. and become a professor, but lack of money, concentration, and passion put an end to my academic career. I was losing my ability to comprehend texts and write creative research papers. My acceptance letter to the Ph.D. program, what I had dreamed of for years, was dead on arrival. It felt cold.
And by then, I wasn’t in love with the subject anymore. I couldn’t have cared less about contemporary thinkers. And there are probably five tenured jobs open in the entire country at any given moment anyway, so good luck with that.
I am not writing these things for sympathy, only to be candid. That was the life of an undiagnosed epileptic. It messes up your plans, kills your memories, tangles up your self-esteem and mental health. And then the drugs make you stupid. But read this post in a matter-of-fact, even optimistic tone.
Why be optimistic when I’ve done nothing but languish in retail for years now? Because I have finally realized the need for acceptance, acceptance as a principle of life. I can’t point to my college self any longer and demand, why can’t you be like her? Why are you so damned slow now?
I’m going to leave the post here because I have more to say on this topic but don’t want this to become a twenty-page essay.
Till next time…