Memoir

I Faked Epilepsy as a Child to Get Attention

I thought I was just a liar, but years later a therapist explained a deeper reason for what I'd done.

I Faked Epilepsy as a Child to Get Attention

When we arrived at the neurologist’s office, I ran to the bathroom and pretended to have a seizure. For the past two months, I’d been faking seizures to get out of chores and high school, so it was a habit — when I had a problem, I had a seizure. Today, I had a big problem: Mom had taken me to the neurologist for tests, and in minutes the doctor was going to hook me up to a machine that would tell her I was a liar who should be sent to some sort of facility for the disturbed.

“Help!” Mom yelled out the bathroom door. “She fell by the toilet! Somebody help me get her back up!”

I could have gotten back up myself since I hadn’t really fallen, but I stayed put, crying in the fetal position and hoping Mom’s theatrics would prove that I had too much epilepsy to be here and needed to go home right away.

The receptionist, Vanessa, who had long, brown hair she liked to flip when she moved, ran down the hallway to help Mom haul me off the floor. She led us back to the waiting room.

“Have a seat over there, and we’ll be with you shortly!” She gestured to two empty seats surrounded by toys and sticky toddlers.

As we wiggled ourselves into the tiny plastic chairs, I asked Mom again why she brought me here.

“What’d you want me to do? Let you go without a doctor or medicine, falling down every day until you knocked your teeth out?”

Mom knew all too well what untreated epilepsy looked like — my older brother Shawn had it, and for years they’d struggled to get him on the right medicine.

“I meant why’d you bring me to the kiddie neurologist? I’m almost 15!”

Mom shrugged. “She had an opening.”

“That’s because this isn’t a real clinic!” I hissed, loud enough to make the other parents gawk. “This is a house! There’s carpet in the bathroom! This waiting room is a living room!”

I quit while I was ahead because Mom was giving me the look, the one that said if I didn’t be quiet, she’d slap me in the head.

When she finally called my name, we followed Vanessa’s white coat down another carpeted hallway.

“The doctor’ll be with you soon!” she said, backing out the door.

Mom tightened her mouth. “I don’t even know why this damn place bothers to take appointments.”

I could tell she was getting angrier the longer we waited. Normally, this would’ve calmed me. Mom had a wrath burning inside her like a pilot light that could leap into a bonfire. We fought often, and since most of our fights ended with me on the ground getting whacked around the legs with Dad’s belt, I’d say she won most of them. I wasn’t brave enough to hit her back, but I’d learned how to direct her attention at others — if Mom was mad at them, whoever they were, it meant she was too busy to be mad at me.

Today was different — I just wanted to confess. If she was in a good mood before the doctor showed up, maybe I could tell her I’d only been pretending because of all the perks. Shawn’s doctors had told Mom that stress aggravates the condition, and Mom knew that beatings were stressful. The fighting had stopped, no matter how much school I missed, how many chores I skipped, or how much I “sassed.”

But for all her willingness to save me from the epilepsy, if I told her I’d made it up, Mom would kill me herself — especially if she was already pissed at the doctor.

You should be ashamed, Sherry Marie! is what I knew she’d say. Your poor brother damn near swallowed his tongue last year! I should beat you to death!

“Quit kicking that damn table!” Mom said in real life.

I’d gotten nervous during our imaginary confrontation and had begun thwacking my legs on the exam table. I stopped just in time for the doctor to open the door. She was tall and thin and looked like a woman who’d be offended by how much I sweated, if she knew about it. She had short blonde hair and a perfect family she mentioned three times in as many minutes.

Then she and her clipboard started with the questions.

“Do you get headaches a lot?” she asked.

Enter now through June 27

Win $3,000 and a lot more!

“Yes.” Shawn had headaches a lot.

“That’s very common,” she said, scribbling.

Ding ding ding! 

“Do you ever lose consciousness?”

“No.” My first truthful answer. Loss of consciousness occurred most often during grand mal seizures where the person passes out and convulses. Shawn only had these more severe seizures once every two years or so, and I knew from watching him the rest of the time that the seizures I pantomimed were called juvenile myoclonic jerks. I’d started practicing falling like him one morning when I hadn’t wanted to go to school, after Mom, fresh off raising one teenager with epilepsy, had imagined she saw me twitching.

“Are you jerking?” she’d asked me, the same question she used to ask Shawn.

I’d told her yes. There was no decision — the word just popped out of my mouth one moment, and I’d thrown myself facedown in our kitchen the next.

“What do the seizures feel like?” the doctor asked.

Like I have a superpower. Like when Mom comes at me with the belt for missing school or, in a knockdown-drag-out with Dad, promises to crack his head open, that I can fix it by just falling down. Like skinned palms, and kneecaps that’ll ache for the next 12 years. Like it’s worth it.

“They feel like … tingly?” I said. I glanced at the doctor’s face and saw frowning. I started again. “Not tingly! More like a jolt?”

She nodded and asked me to perform tricks. While she stood along the wall and wrote fast and hard on her clipboard, I walked for her, on my heels and on my tippy toes, forward and then backward.

“All right, all done!” she said, clicking her pen. “All that’s left is the EEG, and that’s a breeze!”

“What does the EEG feel like?” I asked, hoping I could claim it hurt too much and demand they turn it off.

She smiled. “The whole thing is painless! Vanessa will perform the test, but I’ll see you afterward.”

The door slammed behind her, and I climbed back onto the table and curled into the fetal position. I imagined Mom’s face when the doctor told her I had a normal brain scan with no extra electrical activity. I wondered if she’d beat me in the doctor’s office or wait until we got back to the car. I hoped the car — getting hit in front of people was so embarrassing.

Vanessa opened the door, pushing a cart full of rubber caps and wires. I sat up and stared longingly into the hall — if only my tubby body would let me run farther than 15 feet, I could make it into traffic and pretend to get hit by a coal truck.

“We’re going to fit this on your head,” she said, holding up a shower cap with holes in it. “And we’ll hook these through the holes.” She held up jumper cables. “And then I’ll be able to see inside your brain over there on my screen!” She pointed to her cart as if she were a magician about to perform an act of telepathy.

Once she’d attached the nodes to my scalp, she held a metal square up to my face. “This is a strobe light,” she said. “Make sure you keep your attention right on it because that’s what’ll make your seizures come out!”

The light flashed slow and then faster. I stared into it as hard as I could, crying openly and hoping for some sort of liar’s miracle.

“Wow,” Vanessa said.

I stopped breathing. Mom asked, “Do you see anything?”

“Yep,” Vanessa said. “There they are!”

“Where!?” I jerked my head toward her.

“Don’t move!” she scolded. “Dr. Goulde will have to confirm, but I see unusual activity.”

Dr. Goulde prescribed 200 milligrams of Zonegran daily. Mom stood over me each night to make sure I swallowed the pills, but even if she hadn’t, I still would’ve taken them. I’d dreaded being found out, but only because I’d been too stupid to dread being believed. Pretending to be sick is sick, and some days I couldn’t stand how lonely I felt. Some days, I tried to believe I really needed the pills.

I knew I had to stop, but I let months pass because I was afraid of getting better too fast. Mom, as godly as she was angry, asked her church to pray for me. I let her think it worked — gradually, as my dosage of Zonegran went up alongside the neighbors’ prayers, I quit falling. A year later, against the advice of Dr. Goulde, I stopped taking the medicine.

Afterward, I disappeared from rooms like smoke if Mom tried to tell a neighbor about how Jesus and modern medicine had joined forces to heal me. I wanted everything to go back to normal, and it did: Mom and I once again became enemies.

It was a Friday evening in December in the holler where I grew up, and I’d been seizure-free for almost a year. The snow was coming down in big, wet flakes, but Mom was sopping wet with sweat, cooking dinner in the kitchen. Dad sat shirtless in the living room, rubbing his hands together enjoying the heat from our woodstove while Mom slammed dishes and called us a bunch of lazy motherfuckers.

Since I wasn’t having seizures all the time anymore, I got to be a nerdy teenager again. I was sitting cross-legged in my bedroom between my boyfriend, Tim, and my best friend, Mary, playing Magic: The Gathering.

“Dead!” Mary yelled as one of her worm creatures took out my shadow demon.

My bedroom door flung open. “Get out!” I screamed. It was my 6-year-old niece, my sister’s kid. I needed her gone because I was an asshole teenager who wanted to curse and talk about blowjobs while I played my game.

“Gran says let me stay!”

I rolled my eyes. Her Gran was my mom, and I was positive “Gran” had sent Hillary in to prevent the three of us from being alone — she was certain we were having an orgy or using the cards to summon demons.

That’s because something weird had happened after the seizures stopped. One day while Tim and I were playing, Mom had spotted a Magic card called “Disembowel.” The card’s illustration was gruesome — a forked-tongued demon being bent over and gutted by a metal rod. Mom decided the Magic cards had caused my seizures.

“I wish you wouldn’t bring them demon cards in the house!” she’d yell every time she saw me with the cards sprawled in front of me. “Them things is probably what caused your seizures in the first place!”

Even though the theory was batshit and the timelines didn’t add up, Mom’s rage toward the cards and me had been building ever since.

“You’re stepping on the cards!” I told Hillary. I stood up and grabbed her by the shoulders, steering her back toward the door. She went dead weight and screamed bloody murder.

Mary tried to pull me away by reminding me of Mom’s temper, already flared up because of the heat, but it was too late. Mom had already heard the commotion and came charging into my bedroom.

“Hillary’s ruining all the cards!” I yelled. Mary pinched my leg.

“Good!” Mom said, kicking a pile of my cards so they went flying across the room.

“Could you be any more of a psycho?!”

Mom grabbed me by my hair. “What did you say to me, you little bitch!” She yelled in my ear so loud it rung for hours.

“Let me go!” I was bent backward and squirming. I could see Tim getting up and putting on his tennis shoes, fleeing. His car was in our driveway, and I resented him for not taking me with him.

Mom let go of my hair and shoved me onto the bed, then looked down at the rest of my deck still on the floor.

She grabbed a handful of cards, gritting her teeth and attempting to rip the pile in half, but she’d grabbed too many, so she only mangled them into irreparable folds. It’d taken me months to put together that deck and I screamed like she was twisting up my organs instead of a few pieces of cardboard.

“You’re totally fucking crazy!” Mary said.

My jaw dropped, and I looked up from my internal pity party to see Mary shoving past Mom into the living room. Her family lived a mile away, and she planned to leave and walk it. Mom chased her the rest of the way out, screaming.

“All you know how to do is scream like a banshee,” Dad told her as he leaned sideways to try to watch television around her.

Mom stomped off to call the neighbors and tell them her side of why she sent a 16-year-old home on foot in a dark blizzard. Dad waited until Gunsmoke was over, then drove up the road to find Mary and give her a ride the rest of the way home.

I stayed slumped against my bed crying and feeling like I always did after Mom and I had a fight — like I wanted to rip her into pieces but didn’t have arms. I glared at Hillary, but inside, I didn’t blame her half as much as I blamed myself. I knew it was all my fault — if I hadn’t pretended to have seizures, everything would’ve been fine.

As a grown-up, I looked back at this story with shame, unable to understand why I’d faked an illness. I buried the story deep in my head in a box marked Weird Shit You Did as a Teenager: Don’t Open, and I left the box molding until a year ago when I took up writing. Even then, I’d only crack the lid, grabbing pieces of the story and skittering away. A few months back, I shared some of these scraps with a therapist, bits and pieces at a time until I was sure she wasn’t going to have me locked away.

Instead, she assured me behavior like this was common in children who are emotionally and physically abused.

“It was a survival tactic,” she insisted, leaning forward in her chair.

I nodded, wanting to believe her, but inside, I couldn’t. Abuse is too strong a word, I told her, and I shouldn’t let myself off the hook for doing something so awful.

“It’s not awful; it’s clever! The child is refocusing the mother’s attention as a defense mechanism!”

“What about the EEG?”

“People make mistakes.” She shrugged. “Maybe someone over-read the test, or maybe you just have strange brain waves.”

She didn’t have any fancy machines scanning my brain to back up her diagnosis, but that’s not the only reason I resisted this explanation. The word “abuse” made me sick to my stomach, and I hated how in order to absolve myself of guilt, I had to indict Mom.

I’d wanted to leave home when I was 16, but Mom promised she’d call the cops — since she was the adult and I was the kid, I assumed they’d believe her and haul me right back. I waited until I turned 18 and moved out the same month. Still, we talked on the phone almost every day because she insisted on it. When she can’t see or hear me, she assumes I’m dead, like an infant who cries during peekaboo.

“My mom loves me too much,” I used to tell my friends when I was 13 and they asked why I wasn’t allowed to go swimming or spend the night at their house because Mom worried it might burn down with me in it.

“Mom just loved me too much,” I repeated to my therapist that day. “We just fought a lot. It wasn’t abuse.”

I wish I could say I know that isn’t true now and that I see it like everyone else seems to, but I’ve been in therapy for a couple years and I still struggle with the A-word. Slowly though, I’m realizing that even if Mom did abuse me, that doesn’t mean she didn’t love me. It’s just what happened; just like me faking an illness to avoid it is just what happened.

I moved to California and put a continent between us. We don’t talk every day anymore, or even once a week. I miss her, so we usually spend an hour catching up once or twice a month in addition to my weekly texts that say things like, “Still alive!”

During one of our phone conversations, I didn’t know how to ask her if she thought she’d abused me. Instead, 12 years after the fact, I blurted out that I’d faked the epilepsy.

I expected yelling or sobbing, but got neither. Mom just didn’t believe me.

“They saw them on that damn machine!” she said. “You can’t fake that, Sherry Marie!”