Move over, Julius Caesar. Get out of the way, Alexander the Great. Hi, Fedor Dostoevsky. You guys (and I) have a fellow sufferer. A woman this time. I'm talking about Emily Dickinson. You know, "Because I could not stop for Death," and "I heard a fly buzz when I died." Like us, Emily suffered from epilepsy, at least according to Lyndall Gordon, author of a new Dickinson bio, "Lives Like Loaded Guns."
OK, I exaggerate. My "sufferings" are minimal, thanks to modern medicine. Suffice it to say that whenever I have to inform a medical person that I take meds for seizures, they ask, "When was your first seizure?" I say, "Feb. 21, 1961. Or 1962. I'm not sure." They follow up: "When was your last seizure?" I say, again, "Feb. 21, 1961 " So you could say that unlike famous epileptics (I hate that word) of the past, I have had it relatively easy.
I haven't read Gordon's book yet, but you can bet it's high on my list. There's something comforting to know that one of the greatest American poets suffered from this terrifying and mysterious affliction, and didn't let it stop her from pursuing her exceptional art.
Try to imagine that you're at your desk at work, chugging away, getting things done, and all the while in the back of your mind you're thinking about something entirely different, yet eerily compelling, though silly.
With me it was dreams. I'd remember the one I had last night, and the night before that and even one from months ago, and by golly if I can put it all together it'll add up to something important, some great truth. But wait a minute. I'm supposed to be working here. What time is it? Geez, the time is going so darn slowly. So where was I? Oh, yeah, that dream last winter, and the one right before it -- holy cow, it's almost noon! Where did the time go?
See what I mean by "terrifying and mysterious" -- or is that description too tame? How about getting on a Metro bus and recognizing every person in every seat, as well as the driver? Or doing a little shopping and being sure, absolutely positive, that you've done the same thing many times before -- the same faces, the same items, the same prices, the same words exchanged?
These may not sound like frightening experiences, but believe me, they are. Every person's auras are different. These were mine: warnings that I was about to have a seizure. For some reason, the seizures never happened until the day in 1961 (or 1962) when I got on a bus and recognized everybody. When I was told afterward that I had had a grand mal seizure, I was not horrified or ashamed. I was relieved to know that what I had was a condition that could be treated. Up to that point I was quite sure I was going mad.
I have no idea what symptoms Dickinson experienced, or Caesar, or Alexander, or Dostoevsky. I like the fact that they overcame what was considered a shameful condition to make names for themselves (perhaps reprehensively, in the case of the two military men).
Dickinson's case seems to provide a reason why she lived quietly, rarely traveled and wrote 1,775 poems that were astounding in their economy -- 20th century poems ahead of their time. I like to think that her auras were as spooky as mine, and lent their atmosphere to her imaginings. She is an inspiration to "epileptics" everywhere.
Gay Baines, who lives in East Aurora, is inspired by the news that Emily Dickinson had epilepsy.