Seizures: The Enemy Returns
One week ago, my husband and our friends, Matt and Robyn, were sitting on a plane bound for Narita Airport in Japan. I excitedly sent my parents pictures of the entertainment console on the seatback in front of me; it had one of my all-time favorite games (Bookworm—not quite as good as Bookworm Adventures but still tons of fun) and a few movies I’d missed seeing in the theaters. We had plenty of goodies to get us through the eleven-hour flight to Tokyo and were freaking out about the adventure ahead, which we’d been planning for ten long months.
I’d been nervous the night before, not eating much at my family’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration. I’m spoiled enough that I’ve flown to Europe many times and have even travelled for business to a few places in the U.S., but this was my first time flying across the Pacific. Because of the time change, I wanted to keep myself awake for most of the flight instead of waking up upon landing like I usually do. Plus, I’d never visited a country where I didn’t have a decent tourist-level speaking and reading ability… I fell down pretty hard on the job of learning Japanese prior to our trip.
A couple of hours into the flight, they served a dinner meal. Mine was gross. I got queasy after just a few bites but forced myself to eat as much as I could, worried low blood sugar or dehydration would make the impending jet lag worse. Feeling too crappy to keep myself awake, I napped for a few hours. After waking, I took a couple Advil and put a cartoon on my seatback display. The airplane cabin was dark to allow passengers to sleep, but all around me, screens flashed from people watching movies and tv shows. Five minutes into the episode of “American Dad” I’d chosen, I was overcome by nausea. My dinner was definitely coming back up. I grabbed an airsickness bag, tried to open it, and…
Next thing I knew, Kelly and Robyn were saying something to me. Their words were fuzzy, like they were talking to me from the other side of a wall of water. I was slumped over into the (thankfully) empty seat beside me, and Kelly helped me sit up.
“You had a seizure,” he told me.
For a split second, I didn’t believe him. I hadn’t had a seizure in 22 years. I’d been cleared of epilepsy before I got my driver’s license. There was no way I’d had a seizure.
And then the roaring came.
It’s a sound I’ve never understood, a hissing that gets louder and louder until it fills my ears and drowns out all other sounds while I stare at the people around me and take in their worried expressions. I don’t know if the sound is from my ears, or if it’s just something my brain cooks up to make things even more uncomfortable. It only lasts a few seconds, but it was a familiar—and hated—enough sensation that I realized he was right. I’d had a seizure. Even the wave of nausea right before it lined up with my past experiences; the last time I’d had one, on a fine fall morning in the 8th grade, I’d told my dad I needed to throw up. He turned to get the kitchen garbage, and I fell out of my seat at the dining room table and had a grand mal on the floor.
I’ve never seen one from the outside. My paranoid, anxious brain honestly thinks that if I did, I’d have a sympathy seizure. All I know is what my family and classmates have told me. If the tables were turned, and I saw Kelly laying unconscious, hands twitching and mouth grunting, I’d assume the absolute worst thing in the world was happening. It would scare the shit out of me.
But to be fair, having a seizure scared the shit out of me, too.
See, it’s been a nagging fear at the back of my mind for literally two decades that I’m still susceptible to seizures. I didn’t go to the movies for about three years because I had a bout of nausea at the beginning of a Rogue Pictures film that morphed into a severe panic attack (seriously guys, I love your movies but a strobe effect in your production logo? come on), and while I was a performing musician, I’d always talk to the sound and light engineer at the bar to make sure they weren’t going to use any strobe lights because I’ve been paranoid about triggering a seizure.
What I wasn’t thinking about was a sneaky little thing called a “seizure threshold.” My fellow nerds can think of this as body armor in a video game that has a meter, like in GoldenEye. While equipped, you’re protected from losing health points, but the armor can be depleted by damage. My seizure threshold meter had been getting chipped away at by a few things (sleep deprivation, high stress, fatigue, anxiety, The Magical Lady Time, and—I suspect—food poisoning from that inflight meal) without me noticing, so when those flashing lights in the dark airplane cabin hit me, the seizure broke through my armor.
The flight attendants took me to the back of the plane, announcing that there’d been a “medical event” on board and asking if any of the passengers were doctors. Luckily, there were two. Unluckily, neither was fluent in English. The flight attendants translated (I think every attendant on that flight spoke English, Japanese, and Chinese, which is pretty awesome), and we muddled through a physical exam while I sat in a jump seat. I threw up several times, but overall, the doctors felt I was going to be okay. They made me a bed in a row of seats, and I rested until we landed at Narita. (Cue vomiting upon touchdown, but honestly… I do that like 50% of the time after a long flight anyway.)
Kelly and I had thought there was a doctor I’d be seeing in the airport, but I think we were just misunderstanding through the language barrier. What did happen was that I got pushed around in a wheelchair by a very nice man and had to clear quarantine control before they’d let me clear immigration and customs. We’d been planning to take the train from the airport to our Airbnb, but I couldn’t stand for more than a few moments, so we splurged on a taxi instead. More vomiting ensued, so I’m glad we chose that route, and even more glad that Kelly snagged some extra air sickness bags before we got off the plane.
That first night in Tokyo was misery. I was so keyed up and anxious that I couldn’t sleep. The next day, I tried to keep down food and water, but I kept throwing up and having other GI distress (I’ll spare you the details; suffice it to say that I had lots of evidence to support my food poisoning theory) and got too dehydrated for comfort. We went to an ER in Tokyo—we found a list of hospitals that speak English on the US Embassy’s website—and I got IV fluids and anti-nausea medication. Do you know what’s scarier than a visit to the emergency room? A visit to one where you have to hold up Google Translate on your phone because you don’t speak nearly enough of the language to communicate properly with the people around you. For real, thank you everyone who made Google Translate a reality.
The ER visit stabilized me enough that I was able to get a good night’s sleep, and cleared my head enough that I realized I wasn’t going to get better there. I was too far down to get better enough to do touristy things like walking around Tokyo and eventually transferring to Kyoto for the second half of our trip. We needed to come home.
So, less than 48 hours after we’d landed at Narita, Kelly and I were back at the airport. Paranoid about having another seizure and feeling like death warmed over, I bundled myself up in blankets, a neck pillow, and an eye mask and slept for most of the flight. Upon waking, I sat in a little cocoon of darkness and forbade myself from looking at my watch, terrified that it’d only been a couple of hours and I still had ages to go. I knew that as long as I didn’t look, I wouldn’t freak out. (Kelly and I compared experiences later, and he revealed that he’d been doing the same thing, refusing to check the inflight tracker on his screen for fear that we had way too long left.)
I cried the second I saw my mom back at the Salt Lake City airport. I hadn’t admitted to myself until that moment that I’d been suppressing the very worst kinds of fears since waking up from the seizure. I am a horror writer…. Fun as that can be when I’m feeling well, it sort of sucks to have a vivid imagination during a crisis.
I’ve been home for four days and am feeling slightly better. My doctor put in a referral for me to see a neurologist so we can figure out what’s going with my brain. For now, I’m thankful I had Kelly and my friends with me on that trip, and for the technology that made it so I could get the help I needed at the hospital and book an urgent flight home. I’ll keep resting and writing until I can find out if this was an isolated incident, or if there’s a bigger story.
In the meantime, I’ll camp that armor spawn point. I see you, seizures. You won’t sneak up on me again.