Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Petit Mal

The Body Says No - The New Pornographers (mp3)
Until I Wake Up - Dishwalla (mp3)

The modern phrase is "absence seizures." They are very brief seizures that often resemble "spacing out." They usually last a matter of seconds, but in more extreme cases can hit closer to a minute. Often these seizures have no outward sign, but sometimes they include a few ticks, like the shaking of a shoulder or stuttered blinking. Often this illness limits itself to childhood and early teen years.

One of the girls on my daughter's soccer team had an absence seizure in the middle of the game. A teammate passed it to her, and Sylvia (not her name) just stood there. Ball rolled right past her. It was totally weird.

So of course myself and a couple of other parents made some quick initial comment like, "Hellooo! Wakey wakey!" And then Sylvia's parents shoved the cold and calm dagger into our consciences with that little reply: "Actually she was having an absence seizure, but she's OK now."

My wife had just bought me a new pair of North Face sandals a couple of weeks ago, and I hadn't yet had the opportunity to savor their taste, so that was my moment to learn they taste kinda tart and sandy.

Sylvia's parents were totally cool about it, which helped. And naturally I tried making up for my ignorant insensitivity by engaging them in a too-long interrogation about it. How long has she suffered with it? (4 years) Will it last? (They hope and expect it to pass by the early teen years) What's the average duration? (About 15 seconds, sometimes as much as 30, and rarely as long as a minute) Is it genetic? (In this case, not from the parents directly) If it doesn't go away...? (Lots of potential problems but nothing they're not prepared to deal with. No driver's license was the quickest response)

The experience haunted me the rest of the day and as I lay in the hotel bed on Saturday night. I got up and read up on it while my girls slept. Having recalled "Bridge of Sighs" main character Lucy struggling with something between a long-form absence seizure and a fugue state, I went back and listened to an NPR interview with Richard Russo and read another interview looking for information.

We all have moments that remind us of our blessings and help put our own problems in perspective.

"Petit mal" means "little illness." This is anything but a small problem. Milk and peanut and grass allergies, or mild vision issues, or other issues with which my family wrestles, suddenly seemed palatable.

When I woke up at 4 a.m., still a little freaked out by it, I wondered if some people have petit mal phases where they just kind of zone out for a fraction of their lives rather than a fraction of a minute. Maybe an inexplicable day or week of behavior that goes counter to everything normal about them.

My mom started smoking cigarettes to cope with the death of my father and the unthinkable stress of having to raise her little son-creature. Maybe those three or four years -- years she has trouble remembering with any clarity -- were her life's own little absence seizure.

Henry Hyde had an affair when he was 41. Maybe his "youthful indiscretion" was his own little absence seizure.

No, I don't really believe that. But isn't it pretty to think so.

In recent days, every time I've found myself gazing into the distance, distracted from the world around me by a thought or a feeling, I wonder what it must be like to have no choice in the matter. To have something outside of yourself push your pause button while the world continues moving, and you merely disappear from time for a short span.

I'm not a control freak about much in this chaotic life, but that thought frightens me half to death.


Bob said...

Just came out of a meeting where we heard about one of our students for whom milk, peanuts, and tree nuts are so toxic that even a kiss on the cheek from his mother after a cup of coffee with a little milk in it turns instantly into a rash and greater intake of any of those things is deadly. Again, the mother is pretty cool about it, but my initial response is that I'd be terrified to oversee an activity the boy is involved in.

troutking said...

This is a touching and thoughtful piece. Thanks.

Just so you don't feel bad: My niece lets the soccer ball roll right by her all the time because she's busy thinking about a popsicle after the game or chit-chatting with someone on the sidelines or whatever. She's just really bad at soccer. So feel free to yell "Wake me up before you go-go" if you're ever playing against her team.

BeckEye said...

Sometimes when I'm at work, I feel like I'm having a petit mal phase.