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Epilepsy Exorcisms: All The Rage?

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This morning as I was getting dressed, I heard that some sects of certain churches (I didn’t get name of the church or town, alas) were again performing so-called exorcisms on epileptics. You know the type – all Linda Blair and green puke and shouting (in the radio version) ‘Your mother sews socks that smell.’ You do the translating. But it seems that it’s all the rage now to “out the evil of epilepsy.” We have regressed a couple of hundred years; while we’re at it, why not just add that epileptics got it by masturbating (one prevailing theory) or that freezing cold baths prevent seizures, or for that matter, let’s lock us all up in some sanitarium along with Carroll’s “mouthing idiot” because, after all, we are spastic.

Look, I’m all for a cure, and if I believed this were some kind of cure, I’d go along with it, but shouting at someone because you believe you are facing down a demon (which means you can, by rights, be as nasty and aggressive as you like in the name of self-defense) is not likely to help. The problem is, and I’m epileptic so I ought to know, that I just can’t see the evidence that I’m evil. I mean, I have my bad moods and all and sure, I even (my gosh) scream and curse once in a while, and if you ask my son he’d tell you I can be scary. But does that mean I am possessed by some evil spirit? Quick, get me to a Catholic church and pray they’ll take me as one of the “authentic cases” and wave a wand of holy water over me and voila! I’ll be cured.

Boy, if only life were so simple. It’s an interesting construct though, and so the story on this morning’s news caught my attention for several reasons. For one, I was appalled and remain appalled that people can still be treated as animals (when even animals shouldn’t be treated this way), and more, because I have temporal lobe epilepsy, I am drawn to almost all things religious and through the years, have collected a vast array of religious antiques, from various votive trays and crucifixes to actual antique exorcism kits with room for the pyx and the holy water and eve a small horsehair whip–like object that the priest would use to fling holy water. All of these things, at one time, fascinated me, and walking into our home was like waking into a really creepy church.

I had one woman from my office literally run out the door before she even sat down. To me, it just looked like home but I left out a key bit of information here – I had not been taking medication and so what I thought was normal and what was actually normal were blurred.

It seemed perfectly normal to me to live in a house that looked like a church. I also volunteered at the church, had many church friends (all Episcopalian, I should note since this article speaks to some Catholic issues – i.e., in the Episcopal church we don’t really do exorcisms anymore), I was also a church bell-ringer and I was a lay minister who wore a cassock (the black frock and a cincture that tied about my waist) and it was my job and mine alone to run the evening vespers that began at 5:30 promptly regardless of who was there.

I would be there at The Advent, enshrouded in my blacks, and reading from The Black Book of Anglican Prayer, beginning page 68, as I recall, and I would read to the congregation and in turn, they would answer back. Every once in a while I would get a tough case. Someone wandering in and who, because I was dressed like a full priest, assumed as much and would begin confessing their sins. I remember one girl in particular; young, beautiful, Italian looking with an accent who came to me because she was pregnant and thought that if she got an abortion, she just might go to hell. I remember thinking what a problem this presented.

Yes, I could by rights and rites take her confession and I did, and I could advise her, and I did, but I could not absolve her, which was the hardest part of all. What I could do, however, was to tell her as a friend what I thought and so I did this much and she was grateful. All I did, by the way, was tell her what the Episcopal Church believed. That the church does not believe abortion is a sin according to our canons; that we neither condone nor endorse. That we are pro-gay, that we are, for all intents and purposes, a liberal lot who wear too much madras and drink one too many Tanqueray and tonics in the after-church garden party.

I could not imagine any of these people holding me down and tossing water in my face and shouting “out demon out!” because they believed I had some impure or unclean spirit in me. Yes, I had the unclean spirit of epilepsy. Yes, village shamans are or were often epileptic (funny how in Western culture we institutionalize and marginalize what in other cultures is often revered and hailed as the village healer or leader. Both of these things happen in the world simultaneously. No communicating vessels, just different cultural mores and views.

Oh, to be Inuit! I would much rather travel down the Witness Tree as it were, placate the gods, and come back to reassure the village. I would rather induce my seizures through a coat of mirrors and flashing lights, the steady sound of drumbeats (all seizure triggers), the incense (another trigger) and let myself fall and to a good cause. This is what I mean. Shamans force seizures as well – through certain herbs and through mirrors and drums and scent. They then travel down the Witness or World tree.

They have visions, not unlike my own when I seize. The only difference is that their visions are taken seriously – that their epilepsy wins them favor whereas in our society, it wins you nothing, or it can win you a stay in a psych ward as it used to (even though it is not a psychiatric condition). Small wonder Tennyson and Lewis Carroll didn’t want the fact of their epilepsy to get out. As Carroll said, he feared becoming, “a mouthing idiot at Bowes”.

Imagine if they knew that there were at least some people who believed them possessed on top of everything else. It’s bad enough to fall down the proverbial rabbit hole and think yourself quite loopy and late for a very important date. To have to sit before the Red Queen. To have to deal with Mock Turtles and Cheshire Cats, omniscient and smiling. All of that seems somehow tolerable because that is what a seizure feels like. One gets used to the sensation of shrinking and growing – the macropsia and the micropsia. You adjust. You are epileptic. It’s the hand you were dealt, so deal. Enough of this whining shit and playing Russian roulette by not taking your medication, Phenobarbital or whatever.

You resolve to take medication for as long as you have to (often your life), you resist it at times and stop taking it, then you have more grand mals and are ‘caught’ so you start taking it, but really, the only person you’re screwing over is yourself. A grand mal seizure may look scary to someone else but it won’t leave them brain damaged. Have one on your own and who knows how bad it will be? And what if you have, as I have had, status epilepticus, where you seize for hours and hours – what if you wake up amnesiac, as I did, but forever? What if you are a writer who can’t write anymore? All of these things are reason enough to take the nasty medication that says “DRINK ME” even if you don’t want to.

I’m willing to put up with a great amount of nonsense (read: bullshit) before I blow. I’m willing to keep my mouth shut to keep the peace, but since the film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose came out, it has become almost faddish to be exorcized, either by choice or not. And there are break-off sects that go around from house to house doing this “work of God.”

When I was little, I used to write letters to Jesus (that’s how much temporal lobe epilepsy and Geschwind’s Syndrome affected my life). It wasn’t that my faith wasn’t real, only that it was heightened by my epilepsy and I was thus drawn to all manner of things religious. I even thought I’d be a nun for years, sneaking off to church after school. While the other kids snuck off for a quick snog, I was on my reddened knees praying before the Virgin statue. My grandmother always knew where to find me. But I digress; I wrote to Jesus and miracle of miracles, every morning there is an answer with illustrations, just as I had sent. He had the exact same handwriting as my grandfather, the meaning of which was lost on me until adulthood.

You see, it is possible to be quite religious and yet still maintain a healthy sense of humor as most normal people know. It’s also more than possible that the Exorcism of Emily Rose, true story or not, should never have been true. An epileptic should never be put through such what I would label abuse. Fine if you disagree, but take the argument elsewhere since to me, it is too absurd to have.

I’ve been called names, I’ve had to throw people out of my house and now I have to wonder if some people want to “save” me, if they’ll tie me down and shout obscenities at “the evil forces inside” me and put me through a living hell, as if seizures alone were not a living hell. But what bothers me most is the ignorance of it all. That much, I just cannot and will not swallow. Silly me; I thought we’d moved beyond this.

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • Having had some experience in the more enthusiastically holy-rolling churches growing up (we stopped just short of handling snakes), you have my sympathy on this one. Indeed, the “cures” seem to be more calculated towards inducing seizures than preventing them, although I suspect the seizures induced would be viewed as “psychogenic non-epileptic seizures” rather than epilectic ones in such a context, technically speaking.

  • …by which I mean that they seem to induce seizures even among those who are not epilectic.

  • Baily, you’re bang on the money – this type of thing would or could induce seizures in anyone, esp. those with a lower seizure threshold… In an epileptic, most certainly they would.

    be well – s.

  • Baronius

    I’m not sure why you focus on the Catholic Church. The Emily Rose story is based on a Catholic exorcism that happened 30 years ago. The Catholic Church has been performing exorcisms for a long time, and I don’t know of any recent increase. It takes a long time to get approval for an exorcism, so I doubt that a post-movie increase would even be possible.

    There are plenty of evangelical ministers who perform exorcisms, and they don’t have the authentication procedures that Catholics do. So if that radio story is true, that’s probably where the increase is taking place.