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Accidental Pugilism

By Richard Farrell

My first diagnosed seizure occurred in the cockpit of a Navy T-34C Mentor, on a formation flight over Pensacola, Florida. I was twenty-three. Another pilot flew the ‘lead’ aircraft that day, and I was the ‘wingman,’ which meant I  flew by staring straight at Lead’s plane, judging distance and spacing by markers on the other fuselage, constantly adjusting altitude, airspeed and direction to stay close. We tucked in tight, flying less than ten feet apart, wingtip to wingtip. Just before the seizure occurred, we lined up to perform a ‘turn-away,’ a maneuver where, on signal, Lead would bank his plane sharply and I would follow. The goal was to maintain the narrow gaps as our planes turned, never breaking formation. I was on a check ride that day, flight school’s equivalent of a final exam. My instructor graded every move from the seat directly behind me; if all went well, I would be flying a formation solo later that afternoon. Lead’s orange wing bobbed in the air, so close it seemed that I could reach out and touch it. We climbed to five-thousand feet, boring through the sky at over two hundred knots, and prepared for the turn-away. I don’t remember his signal. I don’t remember his wing going up, or his plane pulling apart from mine. All I remember was coming to, the underside of Lead’s wing—much smaller now—drifting rapidly away in the hazy Gulf Coast sky, and the bellowing voice of my Marine flight instructor screaming at me over the plane’s intercom. Something about me being fucking nuts.

That was the last time I flew in an airplane as the pilot.

Thom Jones’ short story, “The Pugilist at Rest,” involves a young boxer who joins the Marines, fights in Vietnam, and is severely beaten in a boxing match. The injuries from the beating trigger seizures in the narrator. Jones himself was a Marine, a boxer, and an epileptic. The eponymous pugilist of the story is Theogenes, a mythical gladiator and Greek boxer who fought his opponents to the death while chained to a stone. Theogenes was undefeated in the arena, fourteen-hundred-twenty-five consecutive victories.

There’s a long passage in Jones’ story about Dostoevsky and the auras he suffered, those wispy, pre-cursor phenomena associated with the onset of a seizure. For the narrator, as for the Russian writer, that aura becomes a vision of a “Supreme Reality,” a heightened state of existence un-matched in normal life. I’ve lived with epilepsy for almost twenty years and have experienced far too many of these auras, so I find Jones’ description of the aura uniquely compelling:

The peculiar and most distinctive thing about his epilepsy was that in the split second before his fit—in the aura, which is in fact officially part of the attack—Dostoyevski experienced a sense of felicity, of ecstatic well-being unlike anything an ordinary mortal could hope to imagine. It was the experience of satori. Not the nickel-and-dime satori of Abraham Maslow, but the Supreme. He said that he wouldn’t trade ten years of his life for this feeling, and I, who have had it, too, would have to agree. I can’t explain it, I don’t understand it—it becomes slippery and elusive when it gets any distance on you—but I have felt this down to the core of my being. Yes, God exists!  But then it slides away and I lose it. I become a doubter.

Sometime after being told I would never fly again, I started reading all of Dostoevsky’s works. I became obsessed with his novels, short stories, novellas, and some of the critical work on him. I read all five volumes of Joseph Frank’s epic biography of the Russian author. Few writers have a more compelling life story than Dostoevsky: his austere childhood, his near execution, the long exile in Siberia, the loss of his wife and brother, all his gambling and money problems. Yet he produced a body of work rarely matched in literature. A severe epileptic, Dostoevsky suffered intense anxiety over his seizures, terrified that one could strike him at any moment. Epileptics were still regarded as lunatics in the nineteenth century, often locked away in hospitals for the insane. Dostoevsky certainly knew the risks of his disease. And of course, seizures went untreated in those days.

For Dostoevsky, though, the attacks were often portals into his writing. Some of his characters were afflicted with epilepsy, most famously Prince Myshkin from The Idiot. Drawing from the personal, Dostoevsky describes Myshkin’s aura in flowing, almost religious terms, as “the acme of harmony and beauty” and “a feeling, unknown and undivined till then, of completeness, of proportion, or reconciliation.”

In my experience, an aura sneaks up. They can happen at any time, and there are no precursors, no triggers. One of my most intense episodes happened two years ago, while living in Spain. It was a hot summer day and I was running on a deserted road along the ocean. As the road curved, a large stand of trees appeared before me. I felt a shallow moment of déjà vu, something about the sight of those trees seemed to trigger it. Then it grew rapidly, into an almost mystical series of sensations, images really, which appeared intimately familiar, like the most intense daydream. In those weird seconds, as the aura passed from something subtle to something more sinister, everything that was happening, every detail, every sight, sound and smell, seemed to have happened before in the exact same order and sequence. I became intensely aware of things: the trees, the angle of sun, the curvature of the road, the crisp blueness of the sky, bluer than I’d ever seen it. The road bent around to the right and a guard rail separated it from a low wash filled with reeds. I felt like I knew what was waiting beyond the curve, even beneath the reeds. The world became hyper-real, an intensely emotional feeling, not of the brain or body but, please pardon the over-amped language, of the soul. The moment felt familiar and strange, recursive in a way. I was filled with the oddest sense that something profound was about to happen, something almost indescribably sad but predestined, too. The future felt fully accessible—I knew exactly what would happen next. Then things shifted, and the sensation rose into an almost crippling weariness; I became nauseated, cold and dropped to a knee. The pleasant déjà vu had been infused with darkness, with fear, something Jones describes as the “typical epileptic aura, which is that of terror and impending doom.” But these darker sensations blended delicately for me. As loopy as this may sound, the moment felt life-altering, epiphanous, expansive and eerie all at the same time. Both terrifying and inexplicably peaceful. I felt no panic, just dread and calm, roiled together in a cocktail of lucid emotions.

Then the aura, which had hijacked my consciousness, almost as quickly, let go.

The feeling simply receded. It disappeared, reversed directions, and I woke from the dreamlike trance. The entire episode lasted less than a minute, I suppose, though I was alone and have no way to know for sure. All that lingered after was a slippery sense of uncertainty. Unsure what to do, I finished my run, as if nothing had really happened.

Epilepsy has been called the “Sacred Disease.” It’s long been associated with demonic possessions and spiritual visions. Paul of Tarsus was said to have suffered a seizure on the road to Damascus, which he took as a religious vision. Muhammad may have suffered seizures; Joan of Arc, Joseph Smith. I imagine that a religiously inclined person might feel some ineffable divinity in those moments, might ascribe to the aura something of the super-natural. I do not, though I can’t fully convey or describe what they do feel like.

Toward the end of “The Pugilist at Rest,” the narrator says, “Good and evil are only illusions. Still, I cannot help but wonder sometimes if my vision of the Supreme Reality was any more real than the demons visited upon schizophrenics and madmen. Has it all been just a stupid neurochemical event? Is there no God at all? The human heart rebels against this.” The auras I’ve experienced, and the seizures that have sometimes followed, have not triggered any great religious awakenings in me. I’ve heard no voices, endured no vision of God, saw no window into heaven or hell. To my knowledge, I’ve never been accused of being possessed by a devil. But Jones is right. The heart does rebel against the cold reasoning that those sensations are nothing more than turbulent storms inside my temporal lobe. They seem to speak to something beyond the self, something arcing out into the unknown.

I would not, like Dostoevsky or Jones, trade ten years of my life to experience an aura again, though I do agree about their intensity and transcendence, about their elusiveness. But I’ve experienced them enough times not to long for repeat performances. They unsettle me.

While it was devastating to be told at twenty-three that I would never fly again, I can look back at that moment, even at my cursing Marine flight instructor, and feel thankful that the seizure happened when it did, and not out at sea, on final approach into the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier. Such a realization was cold comfort to a young man hell-bent on becoming a carrier pilot, a fledgling naval aviator suddenly plucked from the sky. I had imagined myself then, undoubtedly like many others do in youth, as a modern-day Theogenes, landing my fighter jet on a football-field sized runway again and again, overcoming fear and hardening myself to the challenge. I mythologized the danger and the brutality of the arena. I was ashamed of my body’s failure then. It has taken me almost twenty years to gain perspective, and to realize that I was being spared a much worse fate, that the discovery of my epilepsy actually untied Theogenes’ rope and freed me from his stone.

2011 Hunger Mountain Pushcart Nominees

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