When I was nineteen

I was nineteen years old the last time I had a seizure.

I was in the hospital with pneumonia for five days. It was the first big thing to happen in my life since the loss of my parents, I think.

I spent five days in and out of consciousness with a heavy fever that kept coming back and going away again. And I had three seizures.

It was really scary. I thought I was going to die.

That happens. Some people have seizures when they have really high fevers. It happened to me because I had childhood epilepsy. It’s not really right to say “I had it.” I have epilepsy. I just haven’t had a seizure in almost 20 years.

A significant number of children born to women over 40 develop birth defects. Both my parents were in their 40s when I was born. And I was born with epilepsy.

I had what’s called grand mal seizures as a baby and less severe ones as a young child. I was put on a medication called Dilantin. I don’t remember how often I had to take it, but I remember very clearly that it didn’t taste as bad as a lot of other medicine.

I stopped taking Dilantin as a preteen and my seizures did not return, until one day in a hospital bed when I was nineteen years old and afraid I was going to die.

Something like 20% of people that suffer from childhood epilepsy also develop autism or autism-like symptoms. This isn’t hard to imagine if we realize that seizures sometimes re-shape the brain. If your brain is reshaped, your neurotype can be altered.

It took me a long time to realize that childhood epilepsy has had an impact on me.

The philosopher Terence McKenna said this:

“In archaic societies where shamanism is a thriving institution, the signs are fairly easy to recognize: oddness or uniqueness in an individual. Epilepsy is often a signature in preliterate societies, or survival of an unusual ordeal in an unexpected way.”

In many ancient societies it was believed that when a person had a seizure, they were entering the spirit world, seeing hidden truths. Sometimes children with conditions like mine would be taken away and raised to be shamans or oracles.

I don’t think I entered the spirit world when I had those seizures, but I do think they changed me. I see things a little differently. I think that explains my fascination with Buddhism and other mystical paths.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but I’ll probably be writing more about it in the future.

 

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About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg is an independent dharma teacher living in Kansas City. He gives online teachings through the Open Heart Project. He also runs the Monday Night Zen Group at the Rime Buddhist Center. His writing has appeared in Lion's Roar, Patheos, Tattooed Buddha, and Elephant Journal.

2 Responses

  1. I always enjoy Terence McKenna quotes. Sometimes they baffle me then are finally absorbed years later but I always end up enjoying them. I think our tremendous fear of death motivates a lot of our reactions to medical conditions. We are afraid to think about sickness. We don’t like to help people who have a sickness we don’t understand. Our fear keeps us from learning about what is going on. We try to cure things instead of learning from them sometimes. In the west…cure seems to mean “stop it at all costs as soon as possible. The more it costs the better.” Fear keeps us from getting too close to it then ego helps cope with the fear by offering a way to profit from it.

    It is refreshing to hear how seizures taught you instead of hindered you. 🙂 Thank you

  2. This is candid insight into the mind of a spiritually aware person. It explains the ease with which some of us grasp enlightenment while others don’t. These reminders that one need not spend a lifetime, or many lifetimes to achieve it are motivating. It is an inmate quality in all of us, this Buddha nature. But not everyone recognizes it. I’m not sure what precipitated my ability to achieve a state of contemplation early in life, but maybe it is that doorway that opens into altered perceptions caused by the social awkwardness of being different. I was diagnosed late in life with attention deficit disorder, after years of struggling, not knowing what was going on. A friend once explained this mental state to a visitor from India. “In my country, people who are as you describe are considered mystics,” the man told him. I chuckled at the idea, that a cognitive impairment could be considered a strength in some countries. Thanks for this article.

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