Epilepsy Killed a Friendship, but Different Than You'd Expect

I grew up in Sullivan, Illinois, a small farm town which obviously limits the number of prospective friends. The smaller the town, the mightier the reign achievable by individual bullies.

Despite being epileptic since the age of 2, my complex partial seizures usually struck when I was at home and weren't what targeted me for bullying. Instead, I was incessantly bullied because I was clumsy, slow, and overweight.

Being bullied as a kid

The most dreadful class every day was physical education ("PE"). Teachers would pick 2 kids at random to be team captains, who then selected their teammates. Bullies naturally started by picking from their ranks, and when "nerds" got the chance to be captains, their desire to win was often so desperate they'd resort to letting those same bullies help them select a winning kickball or wiffle ball team. It was always humiliating to have all captains squabble about who would get "stuck with Tim!"

Another nerd, Harold Reynolds, whose face was strewn with freckles, was never an "early round draft pick" on any captain's roster because he was the smallest boy in the class. We'd wait to see which of us was picked last. Harold and I also stuck together during all recesses since no one wanted to play with us.

A best friendship emerged

We told one another our favorite lines in John Wayne war movies, and favorite scenes from "The Adventures of Johnny Quest" and "Underdog" cartoons a gazillion times! We'd make sure the other one heard about the latest battle or B-52 crash in the Vietnam War, and we both had tops that resembled Army shirts.

He even got a knit cap that resembled Corporal Radar O'Reilly's from the newest TV hit, "M*A*S*H." Although we never concocted "playing M*A*S*H," he always walked one step behind me, frequently calling me "Sir," which cast me in a role like that of the show's bumbling Col. Henry Blake.

Dad took a job in another town the summer before we'd start middle school. It was a hundred miles away. Once there, I took on new interests, like delivering newspapers to earn money to buy model airplanes, and we lost contact. It breaks my heart to say that I hadn't realized that Harold’s friendship would prove to be one of the sincerest friendships I'd have – even to this day.

A shocking reunion

A year after college, I prepared to move even farther away to Chicago. Beforehand, I returned to Sullivan to see my Uncle George. While there, a former classmate told me that Harold was terminally ill with cancer and that I should see him. His condition kept him on his farm with nothing to do between radiation and chemo treatments, so undoubtedly he'd appreciate a visitor.

"Radar" was excited to get the phone call from "Col. Blake," and I quickly drove to his home. It was a summer afternoon, and he was waiting for me in a lawn chair beneath a shade tree. I rushed from the car to give him a warm bear hug, but froze when seeing that he was too crippled to rise and return my greeting. He looked so pathetic!

Embarrassed of my postictal behavior

The next thing I remember, I was frantically running back to town on the gravel road. His father, driving his pickup, was to my left. With its windows rolled down, he was shouting to see if I was okay.

Typical of my postictal behavior, I don't think I stopped immediately, but Mr. Reynolds kept up with me and eventually helped me into his truck. It was probably half-a-mile back to their home, and my embarrassment of my seizure in front of his dying son kept me silent.

What triggered my seizure? What happened postictal?

My seizure most likely was triggered by how shocking it was to see my once best friend being so helpless! I recall Harold laughing, not making fun of me, rather something more akin to his self-acknowledgement of how shocking his appearance must be to someone who hadn't seen him for years.

I'm not certain whether the postictal phase of my seizure simply hadn't ended, or whether it was my assumption that my reaction was probably agonizing to my friend, but I probably left within 10 minutes after not having communicated with him for over a decade.

Too embarrassed of my seizure... and regret

I saw Uncle George at Thanksgiving 4 months later and asked him how Harold was – lacking the courage to call him myself. Least wise, I should have apologized. But I felt too cowardly to find out what he'd actually thought about my seizure. My God! He was the one dying. My problem was just having an occasional seizure. I was a rat.

Soon after, another friend told me that Harold had died. It was the first time a friend of mine died, and I'd done nothing for him. Unquestionably, getting calls and letters from me would have been good for his spirits since life on a farm was so much more isolated in the 1980s compared to the TV streams or internet that are available nowadays to occupy one's mind.

Hiding from the embarrassment of my epilepsy festered into a bitter hatred of my own betrayal of a friend in need. It was longer than a decade until I confessed to anyone how shamefully I'd abandoned my friend.

I learned from my dear friend

It's a relief to tell you that Harold lives with me now. He returned to me because I'd heard too many complaints from others about losing friends after the friends witnessed seizures. I accept seizures as a disorder and not a source of self-pity. They're an opportunity to educate others who might observe me having them.

Personal relationships are more sacred than ever in today's fast-paced, impersonal, high-tech world. Relationships shouldn't be neglected to wither on a vine and die. Harold encourages me to do anything I can to see that the relationships belonging to others who cross my path don't become tarnished or obliterated because we don’t accept ourselves for being people with epilepsy rather than prisoners of epilepsy.

Gotta go, the PE teacher's calling that I'm team captain... "My first pick – I want Harold on my team!"

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