How Shorts in My 'Emotional Circuit Breaker' Cause Me to Have Seizures

It started with a migraine that wouldn’t go away. A day stretched to a week stretched to months, and still there was head pain, nausea, blurred vision and other symptoms. One day, my entire left side went weak, my arm and leg useless and my speech slurred for a bit before returning to normal. A stroke? No, hemiplegic migraine. Soon I was having weakness and speech slurring several times a day.


At five months, I started shaking – first my leg, then my arm, then my whole body arching back in a seizure. A trip to the emergency room resulted in five days in a seizure monitoring unit for a four-day video EEG to determine the cause of the seizures. My official diagnosis was psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, a form of dissociative disorder that stems from trauma and stress.

As soon as I received the diagnosis, my seizures lessened. With my therapist, I began to explore the reasons for the seizures – a combination of trauma from sexual assault and the ongoing stress of living with chronic illnesses. I began intensive mind-body connection work, and am learning to recognize the signs of an oncoming seizure and the triggers that make them happen. My hemiplegic migraine symptoms also lessened, the weakness coming several times a week instead of several times a day. The same psychogenic process that was causing the seizures was also exaggerating my migraine symptoms, making accurate diagnosis and treatment difficult.

Many people diagnosed with psychogenic non-epileptic seizures may experience shame about their condition, and I am no different. After months of medical intervention and disability, including several emergency room visits and two hospital stays, finding out that some of my physical symptoms were triggered by a psychiatric condition made me feel guilty for “conning” the people who cared about me and came to my aid. The seizures, in my mind, weren’t “real” because they weren’t caused by the electrical misfirings of epilepsy.

The truth is that my seizures are very real. They often occur at moments of high stress, whether from an emotional trigger, a tense situation or a physical state. A very bad hemiplegic migraine will often spark a seizure. So will an intense therapy session. So will a trip to a crowded grocery store or a long day of social engagements. So will a very long day with my children when they’re tired, bored and cranky. When life is too much – too emotional, too physically painful, too crowded, too filled with screaming children – my emotional circuit breaker shorts out and I have anything from one-sided weakness to limb shaking to a full-body seizure.

Managing my physical and mental illnesses has become a full-time job. I not only need to manage medication, arrange childcare and rides for medical appointments and parent my children through whatever my body throws at me, but also keep my stress levels low, monitor my energy levels on an almost hourly basis and make sure I get enough rest. Then there’s my disability application, with its endless forms, appeals and bureaucracy.

It’s all a little overwhelming, which means it trips my emotional circuit breaker, which means I have more seizures. The cycle feels inescapable at times, and depression sets in. But then I have a good day, or achieve some small moment of normalcy, and the cycle breaks, just for a minute. Those minutes? They’re gold.

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Thinkstock photo via Dreya Novak.

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