Black History Month 2017

Celebrate Black History Month
Epilepsy's Inner Light: Paul's Story
Monday, February 6, 2017

The following is an account by Paul Cato of Washington, D.C., a member of the Twenty-20s Epilepsy Awareness Group, for Black History Month

Turning to Books

When I was first diagnosed with epilepsy, I couldn’t quite understand what role it would play in my life. My seizures were not life threatening, nor were they nearly as severe as others I had read about.

I had to put the condition into context, so I turned to books. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my hero Socrates and my favorite author, Dostoevsky, both suffered from seizures and epilepsy. If you look at my bookshelf now or the quotes posted on my Facebook page, you’ll find many references to epileptic incidences in Dostoevsky’s novels or Socrates’ life. I think my favorite is Plato’s description of Socrates’ epilepsy as a source of wisdom and so-called inner light.

Putting Discrimination into Context

At various points I’ve been told that my epilepsy is some kind of privilege or benefit. People also have insisted that my convulsions are the embodiment of sin. Several times I’ve been kicked out of jobs and classes because my seizures made teachers or supervisors angry or nervous. For a while my response to all of this was entirely reactionary. I let their unkindness shape my sense of self. 

But now I see that the prejudice I’ve faced is less about me than it is about my neighbors. Instead of being unnerved by my condition, these people are fearful over their own health. My seizures remind them that eventually they too will lose command over their bodies, and that one day – whether in 5, 10, or 50 years – their physical agency will be on par with mine or worse. So rather than be reminded of such fear when they see me start to seize, these people choose to use denial, blame, and ableism (discrimination in favor of able-bodied people). 

Their behavior seems to say, “It is on us to avoid facing Paul’s condition and thinking about the future of our health – let's shame, malign, or send him away, before we have to see him seize again." 

But having realized all this I’m now eager to work with anyone and everyone to come to terms with the limits of the body. I think this is essential to stopping ableism.

Fighting Ableism Together

As I continue my studies as a doctoral student and work towards becoming a professor, I am committed to fighting for disabled students.

Drawing upon my studies of black social and political thought, I’ve found that many of the same thinkers, tools, and texts that I once used to navigate my experiences as a black male have been useful in exploring my nature as a disabled individual.

Now I consider my disability to be an identity marker rather than a mere burden to bare, and I see that any oppression or difficulties that stem from it are attributable to my existence within an ableist society.

I seek to build a new consciousness for the disabled individual, in much the same way that my black heroes developed a positive black consciousness for those of the diaspora. My project is ever developing and will take a lifetime, but it is one I undertake wholeheartedly. I have been blessed with an education, opportunities, and a voice not afforded to most people who suffer from seizures. It is on me to take advantage of these privileges and use them to advocate for persons with epilepsy everywhere.
 
While I first tried fighting against this bigotry on my own, I’ve now found a remarkable group of friends to reach out to through the Twenty 20s project. Reading old books is great, but what better way to forge one’s identity than by turning to someone who shares your experience?

So what is a seizure like in my mind? It’s a chance to teach and share some of that inner light, brought on by my epilepsy.

 

 

Authored by: Paul Cato | Doctoral Student | University of Chicago, Committee on Social Thought on 2/2017

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