The Truth About Epilepsy

Every year in March, it is Purple Day! For those unaware of what ‘Purple Day‘ is, it is the international day for epilepsy. It is a day when people worldwide come together to raise awareness of the condition and make a difference for those affected by epilepsy. When my son was diagnosed with epilepsy, I instantly thought about him falling to the ground, soiling himself and foaming at the mouth. The media often portray these characteristics, but it’s been anything but that. This is the Truth about Epilepsy.

*I would like to disclose that I am not a medical professional; if you suspect you or anyone you know of having seizures, please consult with your GP.

How does it start?

The thing about epilepsy is that it can be months or even years before someone notices, or it gets bad enough to warrant hospital treatment. A slight hand jerk, a strange feeling, and migraine-type symptoms are all normal reactions, but the frequency matters.

Finding out you have epilepsy is scary at any age; it isn’t just something that begins in childhood. Even as adults, epilepsy can be thrown into the mix. For Thomas, it started during his sleep at the age of 2, I came home from work early one morning, and he appeared to be choking. Given his disabilities, he often struggled with swallowing, so we put it down to too much saliva sitting on his chest. However, over the next few months, he’d sometimes have two or three episodes a night, usually in the early morning hours.

Mother Holding Her Baby
Photo by Kristina Paukshtite

We mentioned it to his consultant, who suggested monitoring these episodes to see if we needed to seek the help of a sleep apnea specialist. Then while on holiday that summer, we experienced a strange moment in the supermarket; he laughed hysterically, his left arm was stiff, and he was staring at the floor. It raised alarm bells to us that something wasn’t right. We had an appointment with his consultant in September, so we continued to monitor him. During our summer holiday, we were in a large department store, and he suddenly leaned over the side of the pushchair and stared at the ground; it was less than a minute, and he was then dazed and sick. After speaking to a first aider, we visited the local outpatients to check him over. He was still sleepy and was ill a second time. They seemed to think it was a virus and gave him fluid, but we knew it wasn’t a virus in the back of our minds.

Finding out your son has epilepsy.

Finding out our son had epilepsy just after his third birthday was terrifying. We were in the middle of moving house, lots of upheavals, messed up routines and living in limbo. Like any other day, I was off to work (I worked shifts then) and sat and watched as he ate a biscuit. He suddenly started coughing, almost choking. There was something odd about it as he went blue in the lips; they were smacking, starry-eyed and dripped excessively. It was over before it had started, and he cried and seemed dazed. I cuddled him, and we all assumed he choked on the biscuit. I went off to work and left him for his evening. Upon arriving at work, I had five missed calls from my terrified husband. He’d had the same gazed expression, choking appearance, blue lips etc., every 15 minutes since I had left. He was tired, so I suggested they do his usual routine, put him to bed, and hopefully be okay.

But an hour or two later and another seven missed calls, something was wrong; he kept waking and having this episode. I called an ambulance from the car and met them as I arrived home.

When you are told your son has epilepsy

It was confirmed it was epilepsy, highly likely linked to his brain damage and cerebral palsy, and so began our epilepsy journey. It was hard in those early days, it was so new, such a unique experience, and we were always waiting for the subsequent seizure.

We have never been seizure-free, and we usually have an episode every six to eight weeks. I thought I would take the time to share what we have learnt over the years.

Greyscale Photography of Woman Wearing Long-sleeved Top
Photo by Kat Smith

What we have learnt

No amount of planning can prepare for a seizure day or cluster episode, there are good, bad and downright awful days, but we get through them, and although he will never be seizure-free, they are under control for now.

1. Seizures – No seizure is the same, no episode is the same, and you will continuously wait or expect the next one and sleep seizures are a thing!

The media has always led us to believe that seizures are the ‘drop’ ones where you drop to the floor, shake and go unconscious; we quickly realised that there are:

1. Focal/Partial Seizures – Can remain conscious and aware.

2. Absent Seizures (Petit Mal) – Can appear to be staring or doing everyday things.

3. Convulsive Seizures (Tonic-Clonic) – Usually, the person will lose their entire consciousness and drop jerk, have no awareness, and be awake, dazed and confused.

4. Drop Seizures (Atonic) – There is no awareness of attack, just abruptly hitting the floor.

5. Clonic Seizures – Part of the body has jerky movements

6. Tonic Seizures – Infrequent and usually associated with other conditions involving upper body facial muscles, often involving bladder/bowel control loss.

7. Myoclonic Seizures – Jerky movements that can affect any body part.

Thomas has had the misfortune to have experienced five out of the seven types at some point.

Dealing with it

All the books and advice don’t make you feel any better the moment you start counting; it will feel like the longest 2 – 5 minutes of your life.

1. Medication – There is no magic cure; although the seizures are under control, he is still prone to ‘clusters’ and a day of ‘clusters’. His record is 19 in a day! We have rescue medication for this.

2. Triggers – It would have been easier had a trigger been obvious, apart from stress and citric fruits like fresh oranges. Nothing was ever confirmed, but to some people, triggers include flashing lights, stress, lack of sleep, a particular food, drinking alcohol and changes in the weather.

3. Dealing with anxiety as a family – You can never prepare yourself for the news that your child has a life-changing condition. When I first found out, I ‘googled’ and wished I hadn’t. There was so much information, too much information, that it was hard to understand how we would live like this. Different medications meant different side effects; then there is the controversy surrounding medication and development delay; unfortunately, we didn’t have a choice.

It was hard calling ambulances, trying to remain calm for our daughter, and getting Thomas the help he needed. After the few hospital trips, I realised it was unnecessary stress for Thomas as he was kept overnight for observation and never understood why he couldn’t leave.

It does get more comfortable, but it is at the back of my mind. ‘Will it happen today.’ It’s hard for others to understand the strain it puts a family under. I am always watching, waiting for the next one.

4. Plans

We’ve learnt that epilepsy does not consider family events, days out, Christmas, or birthdays. When one is coming, it will come and plans change. We’ve driven to theme parks only to have a seizure in the car. I’ve had days out planned and had to cancel them. I do not mean to sound selfish; it’s just about the circumstances that ‘normal’ life gets put on hold for 24 hours.

Epilepsy First Aid

1. Keep calm

2. Protect the child from further injury


3. Do not restrain the person.

4. Do not insert anything in the mouth.

5. Roll the child on their side after the seizure subsides.

6. If a seizure lasts longer than five minutes or repeats without full recovery, seek medical assistance immediately.

7. Talk gently to the person after the seizure.

Changing Lives Forever

For young children and their families, it can be terrifying. Today, seven more children will be told they have epilepsy; it will change their lives forever. This Purple Day, the money you raise will help more children and their families come to terms with epilepsy, know they are not alone and give them the confidence to deal with their diagnosis.

Having a son with epilepsy changed our lives. I wish we’d been offered counselling, support dealing with anxiety, and help as a family; I wished someone had sat us down and said, ‘I’ve been there; let’s have a coffee?’ Sadly, like us, you are always given a leaflet and told to ‘google’ support groups.

Was this the same for you? Do you wish you’d received more support? Do you think things should change? Perhaps you are still struggling with your epilepsy or your children’s?

Do something amazing and raise money for children affected by epilepsy.

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