Freya Radlein is the founder of Finding Freedom with Epilepsy. By documenting her life experiences through writing, she hopes to provide a greater education and understanding of the condition.

People talk of bravery, but for me and many like me, it’s daily life.

As I notch up a good thirty-four years with epilepsy, it is the absence seizures which have plagued me for the last twenty-five of them.

I think of absences, also known as petit mal, as located in somewhat of a grey area. They’re not what people normally associate with seizures. Grand mal or tonic clonics are normally the ones that spring to mind: falling to the ground, shaking, tongue biting etc.

Now, this is positive in its own right as these seizures are quickly recognized and for that I am thankful. However, if you don’t know someone with epilepsy or aren’t very familiar with the condition, my type of seizure is not necessarily one many would identify them with.

Absences can be easily missed or mistaken for daydreaming, not listening, not concentrating or behavioral issues. Having become a professional, developing what could be perceived as a degree in absences as I navigated my way through the university of life, I have the skill of hiding them down to a fine art. This is to the point where friends, family and work colleagues barely notice them unless they know me extremely well.

The way I would describe them is as if you’re listening to a song. With an absence, it’s like someone is hitting the mute button for a second and then the music returns. I get to hear most of the song but to really understand and make sense of the lyrics, I have to piece together the muted sections which I missed.

Most of my conversations have panned out like this over the years and I give myself a 12 out of 10 for problem solving!

Why do they occur?

There has never been rhyme nor reason to them. I’ve monitored food, sleep, and exercise to see if I could find some sort of correlation. The only remote correlation I found was that, approximately a week prior to menstruation, I experienced a significant increase in the number of seizures.

It is my understanding, through endless conversations with neurologists and epileptologists, alongside much personal research, that hormones play a huge part in seizure activity in general – absences are no exception. Catamenial epilepsy needs to be taken into account, of course. This is getting more recognition as time goes on; it is seizures that occur only at menstruation (perhaps other than time of ovulation) which offer that diagnosis.

However, this remains another fairly grey area as it’s very difficult to separate the two – a bit like the chicken and the egg.

Coping mechanisms

With hindsight, during a particular part of my life working at a law firm and being under a fair amount of pressure, I really don’t know how I managed. I was unhappy in the place I was living, I wasn’t overly content with my job as many with seizures will have experienced, I was obsessed with that ever-present need to prove to people that I was just as able as them.

That was somewhat of a double-edged sword. I was overjoyed that I could lead a relatively functional life, but at the same time, the fact that no one really noticed the seizures other than me was distinctly to my disadvantage.

With memory loss, troublesome word recall, and the awareness that my brain could suddenly stop my train of thought, I became stressed and I found it difficult to work without some minor and major mistakes.

One occasion, I forgot I had received a check for $80,000. All offices were frantically looking around for this lost cheque that I had received from the client with absolutely no recollection. Embarrassed didn’t quite cover it. I had to reread the letters I typed as seizures would transpire during dictation and I would miss out words. I would take extra time to complete these tasks, making me appear slow and inefficient. The stress became greater, my absences worsened and a vicious cycle began.

That being said, I would occasionally bring it up with my boss, asking him if he felt there were problems with my performance. He was understanding and kind. It was just never a problem for him, and I was treated no different to anyone at the firm, which was refreshing and confidence building.

With a small insight into some of the experiences I have had with absences, it’s important to note that my gratitude towards them is endless. My achievements hold greater value because basic activities were/are that much more challenging; I am able to hold down a job; I can live alone and I have quality of life. Not all types of seizures offer that and with my grand mal under control, every day has become a blessing.

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