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The Unexpected Way Epilepsy Changed My Life

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At age 19, my life completely changed. I had always had a calling for a career in creativity, something in the arts. My freshman year of college I decided art history was the perfect fit. It allowed me to be creative yet still put my love of history, culture and writing to work. I was your average 19 year old. Loving life, exploring college, I had just joined a sorority!

Then, the bottom dropped out. On a family vacation, in what I can honestly call the middle of nowhere, I had my first grand mal seizure. After that day, my life drastically changed.

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I’m a jokester you see, the sarcastic prankster in my family, so I couldn’t let them see me sad. I couldn’t let them see that I was scared too and had no clue what was happening. All I can remember is smiling and joking about how we all had on matching “R.I.P. Michael Jackson” t-shirts… exactly the last thing you want to be wearing in an emergency room. But while I was joking and laughing, on the inside I was thinking, “Dear God, don’t let me have a brain tumor. I will take anything else, but please don’t let it be a brain tumor.” That’s the day I learned I have epilepsy, and you can bet I ate my words after finding out how difficult and inexplicable epilepsy can be.

It’s a genetic form, you see. My brain always ran at an exhaustive pace, and now I finally had a reason why. It came at 19, because as a woman that is when my brain had fully formed. Did you know that? I didn’t. I didn’t before countless visits to neurologists, scans and the ever-so- thrilling overnight EEGs (can I get a witness?) It also came at 19 because for the first time in my life I was without routine, a 10:00 P.M. bedtime and the comforts of home.

Of course as every good and lovely 19-year-old girl does, I listened to the words of my neurologist and mother and took a semester off school while I started the journey to find the proper medication… wrong! Did I mention I’m stubborn? Stubborn as a mule. Stubborn as my mama (don’t worry, I love her for it!) I don’t take the word “no” easily, and I never let anyone tell me what I’m going to do with my life.

So, like the stubborn, feisty and sassy woman I am, I moved into a sorority house about a month after my diagnosis. Yes, in the middle of trying to find the right medication while still having uncontrollable seizures, I moved into a house of 100 girls. Those of you reading this with epilepsy or who have loved ones with epilepsy are saying, “What the hell was this girl thinking?!” And you are right.

But honestly, it’s what that got me through. On the nights when I couldn’t stop having seizures and I wanted to feel sorry for myself, my sorority sisters would distract me with movies, stories of the boys they were dating and trips to the yummiest ice cream shop in Bloomington, Indiana.
Britt’s seizures became the norm. The entire sorority learned seizure first aid, and one of my sisters, who was a nursing student at the time, actually gave a presentation on seizure first aid and epilepsy at one of our chapter meetings.

One of the funniest moments took place when I found a medication that worked and my seizures were finally better-controlled. I decided to go to a party. A “pair party” as we called them in the Greek system. I’m about ten minutes in, finally dancing and having fun when one of the guys in the frat decides to turn on a strobe light. Let me tell you, hell hath no fury like 50 sorority girls protecting their epileptic friend when a strobe light comes on. I was out of there in two minutes, protected by an entourage of gals that would rival the Secret Service, all while our social chair proceeded to, as we call it where I’m from, give that boy a “come to Jesus.”

I am so thankful for those beautiful girls. I am so thankful for three years living in a house where I was not allowed to feel sorry for myself. I lived in a house where even though I was different, they made the accommodations I needed so I had no reason to be left out. As one of my favorite writers, Rachel Hollis, said in a recent motivational speech, those girls “revoked my permission to quit.”

Those girls changed my life and epilepsy changed my life. It gave me a calling. During college I volunteered and interned at my state epilepsy foundation. After college I was an ABA (applied behavior analysis) therapist for children with autism. Then the fateful day came when I decided I was going to attend law school and dedicate my life fully to helping people with disabilities. I bet you know my neurologist’s reaction to that epiphany. But by then he knew me and my iron will, so off to law school I went.

Law school was a struggle of its own. Late nights, cram sessions studying and break through seizures from stress became the “new normal.” But you know what? I encountered the same lovely people in law school that I did in the sorority. They would not let me quit. They would not let me feel sorry for myself. My classmates treated me like everyone else. One fateful day during a seizure in the middle of a first year property law class, my amazing professor called 911 (school policy, not mine) and continued the lecture while I was being checked out by paramedics. God bless that man. More people in law school learned seizure first aid. More people in law school wanted to give me notes if I had to miss a class or offer to drive me places. Say what you will about lawyers, but the ones I’ve encountered are some of the most loving and caring people in this world.

The final straw was in July. I sat for the bar exam and wouldn’t you know it, I had a seizure. I’m quite sure this was an epic seizure because the stress and lack of sleep from the entire summer came crashing on me all at once. I couldn’t finish the bar. I couldn’t do what I’ve been waiting to do all of these years, and I was crushed. But those people, my people, my tribe had my back. The well wishes and encouragement I received were amazing, but the best quote of all was from one of my dear friends. She said, “Well nothing has stopped you so far, so we know this won’t stop you know!” Words can’t express how much I needed that. All I wanted was permission to quit. Permission to give up and stop being strong for once, but I was met with “that’s not you.” That isn’t my character, and even though epilepsy is in my DNA, quitting sure as hell isn’t.

So, it’s December. I have a lovely job writing policy for a state disability division and I’m in preparation. I’m in preparation to take this bar exam another time. Because even though my people think I’m naturally strong, it is actually my people that make me stronger. It’s the sorority sisters, law school classmates, friends, family and boyfriend who make me who I am. They don’t give me permission to quit.

So today, I don’t give you permission to quit. Please don’t give up on your dreams. Because let me tell you something, sometimes what changes your life ends up giving your life purpose. Epilepsy doesn’t define me, as it shouldn’t define any of you. But it does give me motivation, purpose and a drive to rival the 2016 Chicago Cubs. And with the right tribe, the right team, I believe you can accomplish anything.

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Originally published: December 7, 2016
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