Epilepsy Association of Utah

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Seize: The Story – Holly E. Ferrin

I
recall waking up out of unconsciousness, blinking dazedly, seeing the ceiling
of the living room and thinking how odd that there’s a mask of some kind on my
face. Then, I noticed there were men encircled around me. I felt intimidated
and scared, what was going on?  The fear
must have been apparent upon my facial expression because next came murmurings
of what I now assume were comfort and reassurance, but it wasn’t clear to me at
the time. Then they were talking pointedly with my parents. What is going to
happen to me?  After that, I was assisted
out to the red Ford Explorer and put into the back seat to lay down for the
ride up to Primary Children’s Medical Center.
It
was December 31, 2000. I had just turned 12 days earlier, and it had been six years
since I had been diagnosed with epilepsy. Six years since the last noticeable
seizure, and the first time I had ever had a neurological event severe enough
to go to the hospital.
It
was a long time at the ER and it has never been clear what happened. Ironically
all I do remember is sitting in an examination room in what I didn’t know was
my new silk nightgown I received for Christmas. This medical person was asking
me all these questions that I didn’t know the answers to. How was I supposed to
know the date? How was I supposed to know what I had gotten for Christmas? Had
Christmas already happened? Then I saw the scared look on my mother’s face and
I knew this was going to be a long journey.
Interestingly
enough, I also remember was that about one month prior to what we call the
“breakthrough-seizure,” I hit puberty and my period began. In retrospect we
believe it was the fluctuation of hormones in my pubescent year(s) that
triggered it.
It
really hadn’t occurred to me that my diagnosis made me different from everyone
else until that day. I hadn’t ever had a seizure severe enough to disorient and
disable me like that one did. Initially, back in 1994, the neurologists thought
my absence seizures were of a juvenile form of epilepsy – take the medication,
control the seizures, and I would presumably grow out of it. It was obvious as
I sat in the ER at PCMC that this wasn’t the case.
So
a new round of neurological tests an EEG and MRI, and a new regimen of
medication was the decision. It would later be presumed, after the tests, that
because I had no brain-damage of any kind or any malformations in my brain to
give some sort of cause to the seizures, that I have a genetic form of
epilepsy. My brain is just more vulnerable to the triggers of seizures than others.
The updated diagnosis? A generalized form of epilepsy – which meant that I no
longer was expected to just have absence seizures, but a slew of other seizure
types due to the genetic nature of it. I wouldn’t grow out of it. This was
devastating.
In
retrospect, I don’t know what has negatively affected me more throughout the
years, the seizures or the medication for the seizures. Seizures just suck. But
the medication, the dreadful Depakote, really affected me, and sometimes does
still. I was feeling so down. I was so tired – so dulled in my mind. I gained
weight fast. I was loosing hair just as fast. My gums became inflamed and
sensitive. In my mind, I wasn’t who I thought was “me” anymore. The transition
was terrible, but it would prove to keep the seizures away, for the most part.
School
kept me distracted from how I felt and kept me focused on my goals. I got back
to the “normal” schedule. I got super involved with extra-curricular activities
to ensure maximum academic and social retentions, despite the depressed sense
of self I had as a result of not really understanding what the heck was going
on inside me. Middle school was, indeed, a struggle but, academically speaking,
I did really well. I stuck with the smart kids and tried to be friends with the
popular kids. I aimed for acceptance despite what made me different and I was
prepared to please.
The
same can be said of high school, until socialized messages regarding physical
image really began to get me down. Even though the seizures were well
controlled, I pleaded with my parents to change the medication, I hated the way
I felt and I hated what it did to me – particularly the weight and hair issues.
So during the summer between sophomore and junior year we consulted with my
neurologist and she suggested Zonegran. It would be a near-tragic experience.
During
the medication transitions I was sick and I wasn’t getting well very fast. I
would try to do the normal summer stuff – go to girls camp, EFY, etc, etc, etc.
It just wasn’t fun anymore. If I wasn’t feeling down about myself before, I was
then. Nothing was appealing or appetizing. I was apathetic. I didn’t eat much –
which on the one hand was great because I was shedding pounds fast, but on the
other hand it was too fast and seemed almost like anorexia. I had no idea why I
was acting this way. I was lonesome. I was depressed. I wanted to hurt myself.
How much of all of this was a result of being sick? How much was the new
medication? It was difficult to differentiate. When the summer homework for my
upcoming honors English course arrived and I couldn’t comprehend the reading,
it was time to call the neuros at PCMC again.
So,
we chose the “safe” medication. The one we knew would work and the one whose
side effects we knew how to cope with. I was back to square one with Depakote,
but I was more myself than I was with Zonegran. This time I was told something
by the neurologist (as I was a teenager in high school) that while on Depakote
I shouldn’t become pregnant and have children, but that wasn’t what I heard.
What
I thought I heard was that as a
result of taking the medication I wouldn’t be able to have children at all –
that I wouldn’t be able to conceive. A new level of devastation had come into
play with my medication. I would silently try to come to terms with this for
several months – almost years before I realized what she meant. It was a
warning to not have un-protective sex while on Depakote. In retrospect, I
understand why I was told this, as Depakote has horrendous track record for
birth defects. I just wish, instead of side-stepping a short talk about sex,
that the neurologist had just been blatantly honest with me about it – doing so
would have saved me so much misunderstanding and grief.
During
my high school experience I was living this “normal,” life where I seemed like
a typical, goal-oriented, high school girl – who, although not happy with her
image, just wanted a successful academic and extracurricular experience so she
could get into the college of her choosing. The whole time, I hated what I saw
inside this typical girl who happened to be me. Physically, I didn’t look
“pretty,” and I hated myself for it. I hated that it took me three times as
long to do homework than the average student in my classes. I hated that I
needed help to get through the homework and get it turned in on time. I hated
that because of my slower processing (due to seizures or medication, it wasn’t
clear) I did poorly on standardized tests, such as the ACT. I was depressed, and
no one seemed to know it.
In
spite of my inner-sadness, all of the time I spent trying to be a smart kid, a
popular kid, and a leader actually paid off. I graduated from Woods Cross High
School with high honors and scholarships awaiting me. I was a Deseret News
Sterling Scholar in the department of Family and Consumer Sciences; a Utah
Scholar; and I would later become a Youth Ambassador for Midvale City.
With
a generous invitation from Utah Valley State College (now UVU) I chose to bleed
green as a
UVU
Wolverine. After six years there, I graduated this past April with my Bachelors
Degree! The areas that I felt inclined to study were American Sign Language
(ASL) and music so I chose “Deaf Studies” (with Interpreting as an elective
emphasis) as my Major, and “Music” as my minor.
First
few years at college were fine, with the help of UVU Accessibility Services, I
was able to receive the academic accommodations I needed and succeed as a
college student. As I started to get into my upper-level classes the slowness
in cognitive processing became more evident and Professors sometimes noticed
this during class. I did my best to remedy it and be open in communicating with
my professors about it. It was this, being open with my professors that enabled
me to see what it was that I needed. I didn’t realize what I needed until I
really got involved with Deaf Studies.
There
were several severely influential professors I have had the privilege of
interacting with, but one in particular who changed my life, and my perception
of epilepsy was Professor William Garrow. No matter what class I had from him,
in the Deaf Studies department, a few frequent topics of discussion were
“oppression,” “stigma,” and “disability” – and how they were all related. The
main point of his lectures (I found) was to allow us to think critically about
why the world, as a majority population in society perceives people with
disabilities the way they [the majority] do and how we [as prospective
advocates] can influence and change that oppressive perspective for good.
Another
main point of his was to talk about the issues – talk about the perception of
“disability.”
Talk
about how the legality of the label, “disability” can both help and hinder a
person. Talk about how the media portrays this so-called “disability.” Talk
about how the typical mainstream (public) education system don’t encourage real
growth or challenges and just maintains disabled students. Talk about how all
of this talk of the “disability” as a label is actually quite oppressive and
stigmatizing in many realms – particularly socially. So, I applied these
discussions and lectures to what I knew of epilepsy and seizures – and to me.
It
was just a year or so before meeting Professor Garrow that I found out about
the Epilepsy Association of Utah (EAU). Between my collegiate studies and the
information and support I have gained from the EAU, I was able to finally be ok
with saying, “I have epilepsy – I have a seizure disorder.”
A
few months later, I would write several papers for Professor Garrow in a
Disability Theory class, and I came to a new conclusion. To reference a passage
from my final paper in that class, I wrote, “Yes, it does seem easier to be
‘normal’ rather than ‘disabled,’ but such convenience does not, in fact, lead
to an increased value of one’s life. Presumptions about the horrors of
disabilities are usually made by those not living life in a disabled body .”
This realization was the beginning of acting on what would be my new
perspective and passion. This new outlook on life would enable me to begin
celebrating that I was different from others that not being “normal,” was ok
and I was ok with it.
Another
part of what helped me open up about my epilepsy was volunteering as a helper
to one of the campers who needed more attention at Camp Spike and Wave (now
Camp Neuro Revolution). I was able to bond with youth who were going through a
lot of the same things I had been through. All of the hindrances youth with
epilepsy experience in academic and social realms– issues with driving, dating,
self-confidence – as well as all the other issues where seizures impacted our
lives. I was 21 years old then – I had the diagnosis for 15 years and I had
been living with it my whole life. I was finally willing to wear a medical
bracelet so I could stay safe if I were to have a seizure. I was finally comfortable
with saying, “I take the bus because I choose not to endanger others if I were
to have a seizure.” I was finally willing to talk about it.
Once
I was open about it, “epilepsy,” as a scary and stigmatized word, no longer had
power over me. Because I am comfortable talking about it, I can guide those
around me on how they can be comfortable with me and know what to do if I have
a seizure. Sure I might have a seizure – it could happen anytime. And sure the
meds may suck, but I can still live my life and I can still have an amazing
time. To quote Nelson Mandela, “There is no passion to be found in settling for
a life that is less than the one you are capable of living. ” I have found that
I cannot and will not settle for a life of limitations and lowered expectations,
I have found my passion and I expect myself to live it! I wouldn’t have been
able to get through college, have a job, and be a leader like I am today
without that perspective. It is such an exciting thing to realize that I don’t
have to let epilepsy get in the way of what I want to do in life.
I
don’t see epilepsy as limiting, I see it as an opportunity to understand myself
better and take better care of myself. It was that change of perspective within
myself that changed everything about my epilepsy – the change of perspective
changed me from the inside out. As many have said to me, in light of my recent
graduation, this isn’t an ending – it’s a new beginning, a new adventure and I
am going to embrace it. The same can be said of my change of perspective on life.
I am still working on bettering myself everyday as a person. I am taking on the
issues I still have with few minor seizures that pop-up, and the negative side
effects of the medication I still deal with. I figure, I’ve made it this far, I
can keep going with this new perspective on my life, and I will.

2 comments on “Seize: The Story – Holly E. Ferrin

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. My goal is to help my daughter come to the same conclusion as you have. Her life can still be amazing and full despite the seizures that plague her. Thank you for being a great example of that.

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