Aparna Nair is one of 50 million people living with epilepsy. Here she tries to make sense of her personal experience of epilepsy by looking back at the history of a condition that is full of contradictions. It’s an illness of the brain and nervous system, yet its defining symptom, seizures, can be unforgivingly physical and happen in the most public of places. It was once associated with the supernatural but its diagnosis today is dependent on modern technology. People with epilepsy have been stigmatised by both science and religion in the past, but for Aparna, comfort and support has come from an unexpected ally.
Historian Aparna Nair had her first seizure when she was 11. Here she recalls that first time, and how other people’s reactions are sometimes the most disturbing part about having a seizure.
Epilepsy exists between the mind and body, something that Aparna Nair experienced for herself when she was diagnosed as a teenager.
The EEG (electroencephalograph) literally electrified the diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy. But for Aparna Nair the dreaded EEG tests of her adolescence were a painful ordeal.
Abused in her marriage for being 'a sick woman', Aparna Nair looked to history to make sense of the response to her epilepsy. She discovered how centuries of fear and discrimination were often endorsed by science and legislation.
From scarred outsiders in literature to the cold voyeurism of medical films and photography, people who experience seizures and epilepsy are rarely shown in a compassionate light in popular culture.
About the author
Dr Aparna Nair is an assistant professor in the Department of History of Science at the University of Oklahoma. She works on disability, medicine and colonialism in India in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as disability in popular culture and the experience of epilepsy in South India.