The first time I ever saw a seizure outside of a movie or TV show was at my friend Lisa's house. We were sitting in her kitchen, and while we chatted, she held her dachshund Champion in her lap. Champ was teeny, not much larger than a kitten, and Lisa was telling about his myriad health problems, which included having seizures. Then, almost as if on cue, Champ began to shake and make little squeaking noises while his eyes fluttered and then fixed on the middle distance. "See," Lisa said. "He's having one right now." It was nearly imperceptible, the movements Champ was making while seizing. I probably wouldn't have known if she hadn't told me. But the longer I watched Lisa's tiny dog, a feeling of profound dread and panic began to overwhelm me as I observed the small changes in Champ taking place before my very eyes. "Oh god, Lisa!" I exclaimed. "Can't you do anything???" Champ looked so helpless, so far away. I'd never seen a living creature have a seizure before, and watching Champ have one, I started to feel a little scarred inside. What a terrible thing, to be trapped in your own body, at the mercy of an electrical storm inside your brain. Eventually the seizure ended, though, and Champ hopped off of Lisa's lap and ran around, like nothing had ever happened. Lisa and I joked about it for a long time after that, about how Champ's seizure nearly sent me to the looney bin.
And then I watched my fiancé have one.
I knew Michael had a history of seizures. I even asked him once time to give me a brief tutorial on what to do if one should happen. "Don't put anything in my mouth, and DO NOT, under any circumstances, call the paramedics." Thus ended the tutorial. But the likelihood of a seizure happening seemed so small, as he hadn't had one in a decade, and they seemed so specific to a period of trauma in his life. I never gave the possibility much thought, and neither had Michael.
Everything seemed so low-key that night in early August. We were tired, sure, sleep-deprived even, but weren't we always? We went to bed early that night, since Michael had a gig the next night in the city, and we needed all the rest we could get. We got under the covers, and we chatted little, just like we do every night in order to start winding down. The irony of the topic of this conversation has not been lost on me: "Tell me one thing I don't know about you," I said to him. What a funny, disturbingly-appropriate thing to ask someone that you've known for so long, right before something terrible happens to them. "Uh....you know everything. I honestly cannot think of a single thing," said Michael. I responded that I'm sure that wasn't the case, but before we could explore the topic further for the purposes of a consensus, we drifted off to sleep.
I was awakened by yelling. One loud yell, then shaking, and then a strange, wet-sounding noise. It was so disorienting, so sudden and unfamiliar, for a second, I was sure I was still asleep. I put my hand on Michael and felt him flailing and struggling to breathe. In one motion, I flew out of bed and turned on the light to see foam streaming out of Michael's mouth, foam that was pink and streaked with blood, his lips grey-blue, his eyes transfixed on something not here, something that neither of us could see. He couldn't respond to my cries and my shaking him, because he couldn't hear me. He was gone, farther away than he'd ever been, farther even then the times he'd been touring the planet playing music. He was trying to move, trying to sit up, trying to breathe, trying to talk, trying to BREATHE and not succeeding. It went on for an eternity, the strange whimpering and sucking noises. I couldn't help, and I stared at my phone, completely unsure of what to do. "DO NOT, under any circumstances, call the paramedics," I remember him saying. But he was grey. He looked like a reanimated corpse. Surely I should call.
"DO NOT, under any circumstances," he said.
"But why not?" I asked.
"Because the last time I had a seizure, my ex-girlfriend called the paramedics, and they wrestled me to the ground to get me into an ambulance to take me to the hospital. It took me years to pay off that ER bill because I didn't have insurance."
"So what do I do if you have a seizure?"
"Just wait it out," Michael replied, while shrugging his shoulders. "It will be over soon enough."
So while he convulsed and suffocated, I waited. Michael didn't have insurance. I didn't want the paramedics to wrestle him in our bedroom. During the seizure, he had peed a ton, the bed and the sheets and everything he wore was soaked with urine. How humiliating that would be for him, strangers seeing him this way. Wouldn't he be angry at me if I called them? I stared at my phone. I looked at grey Michael. I dialed 9 and then 1. I watched Michael flail and fail to get air. I thought he said it would be over soon enough. This isn't soon enough, I thought. It's been almost ten minutes. Horrible, dark, sad-beyond-compare thoughts flashed into my mind. Visions of a life without Michael. Terrible thoughts I can't bring myself to describe, even now, months later. I dialed the final 1.
The great thing about living three blocks from the ambulance shop is that the EMTs will probably be at your house before you even hang up with the dispatcher. In the time it took me to put on pants, check and make sure my daughter hadn't woken up from all of the ruckus, and run downstairs to open the door, the ambulance was already there, like they had been idling for a while. The two paramedics who arrived were so calm about the whole thing in contrast to my complete freak-out that it occurred to me at one point that I should be pissed at them. How dare they do their job with professionalism and aplomb while MY world was crumbling around me in what seemed like Apocalyptic proportions. By the time they were in our bedroom, Michael was starting to come around. He was talking, trying to walk, some color was returning to his lips, but the things he was saying were incoherent, nonsensical. He seemed angry that these strange men were in our bedroom. When the paramedics tried to talk to him, Michael got frustrated and slurred, "But I just have to go downstairs and lock the doors. Can I just do that? Can I lock the doors?" But within minutes, he was making some sense. His blood pressure was through the roof, and his tongue was bleeding and shredded, resembling ground beef, from chewing on it so hard, but he was making sense. "What's going on?" he kept asking, over and over, even after we answered him, over and over. But at least he was making some sense. And, oh, relief of reliefs, he was breathing and not grey anymore.
Flurries of questions on medical history from the paramedics, who tried to convince me to have him taken to the hospital, followed by an explanation of Michael's current insurance status (read: He has none, so please don't insist on handing us a financial burden on top of this). Another blood pressure check. Assurances that if it happened again, they could be back in an instant. Calm words. Reassuring words from these two strange men in my bedroom whom I suddenly wanted to hug and invite over for Thanksgiving dinner. In the midst of all this, my neighbor across the street appeared in my bedroom, asking me what was wrong. Sorry, dude, the bedroom is officially full. Out you go bye-bye we'll explain later (I must've left the front door open when the ambulance got here). And then, the two strange men were gone, leaving me to strip the bed, put on clean sheets, and ponder and puzzle with Michael over and over again about the hows and the whys of what had just happened. We were both so tired. The seizure had occurred around midnight and the paramedics left around 1am, and we were just. So. Tired. There was nothing left to do but sleep, and eventually, we drifted off.
And then it happened again. The yell. The gasping and sucking, the peeing, the sweating, the blue lips, the pink, bloody mouth foam. Before I could reach for my phone again, it was over, and Michael was looking at me and saying, "Honey, I love you so much. Why are you crying?"
Michael played the gig that next day. I don't know how, or where it come from deep inside of his heart's depths. But he showed up and played, because he's a pro, and when you're a pro, you suck it up and plug in. For weeks, I slept with one eye and ear open, or I just didn't sleep at all. Every murmur, every gasp, every fart, every weird noise, and I was sitting up in the bed, heart clawing its way out of my throat, shaking Michael awake to make sure he wasn't grey and far away.
The next time the seizures came, two months later, I knew exactly what was going on. Everything was the same. Every noise, every movement. It was long, like the last one, and it was scary, like the last one, but there's nothing like familiarity to dull the edge of sheer terror. He even got up and tried to leave the bedroom, falling into the bookshelf and bureau in the process. I tried to bring him back to the bed, but Michael is tall, very strong, and outweighs me by a good amount. If Michael wants to go somewhere, he's going, and there's nothing I can do to stop him. And again, like August, the seizures came in pairs. When the second one arrived, we were in the living room, he on one couch, and I on the other. He slept, and I did not. While watching some shitty pilot on Hulu, Michael started laughing hysterically from his couch, which I find kind of odd, but then again, not so odd. After all, the pilot I was watching WAS really shitty. And then the signature yell came. This time, I ran to his side, dug my feet into the floor, and using every ounce of strength I had, wedged him against the couch so he wouldn't fall, get up, hit his head, or otherwise injury himself. He had enough problems, right at that moment, what with all these seizures and stuff. Last thing he needed was a broken wrist or a concussion to make things TRULY inconvenient.
When Michael eventually came around to coherency, I insisted on going to the emergency room. "We don't know how many more of these will happen tonight, and we're running out of clean sheets." That last part was meant as levity, but I immediately regretted saying it, because neither of us were laughing. Defense mechanisms are involuntary, I suppose. In truth, I was scared to death he would just keep having them, every hour, all night long, possibly forever. Something had to be done. So at 2am on a Tuesday morning, we packed up Madeline and her blankie, and we headed across the Hudson River to the Northern Dutchess emergency room, sleepless, penniless, insurance-less, and terrified.
And what happened after that? Well, it's pretty well-known now. The CT scan revealed...something. We don't know what. Something that shouldn't be. There have been tests, MRIs, a prescription for an anti-convulsant that must be taken twice-daily, neurologists, ER bills, worry, uncertainty. Michael's neurologist told me that he should've gone to the ER every time he had a seizure, because anything longer than 5 minutes is life-threatening. Thanks, Doc. Thanks for that. Of course, if they happen again, I won't hesitate to call the paramedics, Michael's tutorial be damned.
There are no answers yet. And every day with no answers becomes packed to bursting with more questions. The seizures have been silent. The pills quell the storms in Michael's brain, I guess. But I can't help but feel that somewhere, they're just waiting. Waiting for a moment of peace. Waiting for complacency. Waiting for sleep-deprivation, or low-blood sugar, or stress, before they make themselves known again with a yell and a stream of pink foam trailing down the cheek of the person you love the most, as you watch him disappear into his own body while you stand there with your back braced against him, completely alone, being of no help to anyone whatsoever.