Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Hello Hong Kong: may you continue to Enlighten all!

Really pleased to welcome on board, Enlighten - Action for epilepsy, a charity facing a hideous uphill struggle. Yes, I know all epilepsy charities have a hard time but listen to this....

Until relatively recently, the very word for epilepsy in Chinese (dean gan tsing) suggested craziness or madness cented on the character name 'dean'. Only in 2010 was the word changed to 'no gan tsing' disassociating the condition from the crazy character 'dean'.

Is it surprising then, with their society being so harsh that the 65,000 people in Hong Kong with epilepsy tend to squirrel themselves away, hiding their secret because they fear discrimination and social exclusion. Although...when Enlighten's communication officer contacted me, I wonder if she thought the UK was light years ahead. I don't think we're so very far ahead.

I think we've made a little more progress but - and here's the troubling bit - it seems to me mainly because lots of people in the UK now know what they're supposed to think or say about epilepsy. What many feel sadly hasn't changed much.

What has changed, is that there are many of us doing our own little bit to fight the discrimination and social exclusion that still exists - despite laws that are in place to prevent it. We're trying to enlighten people too.

I was talking to a young woman, 24, the other other day who said she found it hard to find work - even voluntary - and friends were few on the ground because her seizures (the full-performance tonic-clonic type) scared them off. That really hasn't been my experience but it's symptomatic of the fact, Hong Kong, that you aren't so far behind!

Another epi-friend pointed out that while most of us, in the UK, would imagine that there are no longer any issues facing members of other ethnic groups, members of other ethnic groups might tell the story differently.

While the subject of race has been heaved onto a public stage and debated at length, epilepsy which has been around as long, has stayed in the wings and has yet to make a real entrance anywhere in the world.

But we are definitely getting somewhere. It's people like those behind Enlighten that will make a difference to the lives of so many people who felt they had to hide away. Thank you for adding to the voice that's beginning to be heard.

Let's keep at it. Together we will get people out of the shadows and make sure that no society ever again dares to demonise the name of epilepsy.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Life was rosy - then at 52 he developed epilepsy


Epilepsy is limiting. Many of us get the chance to get our heads round that, if you know what I mean, because our minds start misfiring early in life. But can you imagine if you've been happily motoring along life's journey and suddenly your brain flips a switch at the grand old age of 52. You have to give up your job, your driving licence and adapt your way of life  - because you get 'that thing called epilepsy'!

That happened to Ryan* when out-of-the-blue two years ago, aged 52, he developed a form of epilepsy. He was employed as a security guard and, with the best will in the world, people who have recurrent seizures can't hold onto that kind of job. Of course, he could no longer drive either and because in the UK we have to be seizure-free for one year before the DVLA reissues a licence, he's still not driving.

"I thought my life had come to an end!" he says. "Everything I knew was taken away from me."

That seems a bit dramatic to me (and I've told him so - but, then again, I was a teenager when I was diagnosed so have lived a pretty epi-ful life and had plenty of time to get used to it. Yep, in some ways I've had it easier by having it longer!)

He says: "I kept telling the professor he couldn't be right when he diagnosed 'epilepsy'. I told him I didn't fall on the floor and shake. I didn't believe him - and I didn't want to believe him. I thought my life would be over."
Ryan wanted answers - why had he suddenly developed epilepsy? There had been no accident so no head injury. There was no history of epilepsy in his family. It had descended without warning for seemingly no reason. But doctors had no answers for him. He had to accept that sometimes, it just happens. So what does Ryan (who now realises, by the way, that his life is not over) do when he has a seizure?

"Well, I need to sit, otherwise I lose my balance and sort of stagger around. I get a dreadful headache and tremble - although people can't always see that I'm trembling. Afterwards I feel very, very tired and I just want to sleep for maybe two or three hours."

Apparently some people might even think Ryan was drunk if they saw him during a seizure - and that's fine by him because even two years down the line, he's told very few people about the diagnosis. He would rather people make that assumption than 'come clean'!

It seems it's partly to do with cultural attitudes. Ryan comes from an area of Russia and although he and his sisters came to the UK when they were very young, it sounds like epi-troubles are very much hushed up in their corner of the world and Ryan's keeping true to the tradition. He hasn't told half his family or most of his friends in case they'll reject him. He's only let me tell this story by changing his name to protect his identity.

Shame...because the more of us who try to hide will only be helping to fuel society's fear of disability. Believe me, I understand the temptation. I just refuse to give into it.


*Name has been changed to protect identity.

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