Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/07/2010

This is my Brain in (hypergraphia) overdrive without an automatic pilot

Last night I attended the Epiphany service of Lessons and Carols followed by the burning of the greens at an over-sized Episcopal Church in Dallas. I love to attend their services in spite of my almost total loss of belief in the fine points of Christianity. The music is heavenly (how’s that for trite?). Well it is. I haven’t heard the Peter Cornelius “The Three Kings” in years, for example. Going to a service like that, where I am drawn to and moved by everything that happens and at the same time repulsed by most of the ideas expressed or implied in any of it, puts my “crisis of faith” right “in my face” in a way that nothing else can. But that’s another story. This story is about my brain. And the two stories are connected. 

“OK. That’s OK. I get it. I’m sorry. I won’t bother anyone with it again. I know I’m making the whole thing up, and I won’t do it again.” 

Sometimes (most of the time) that’s what I assume I should confess when I think about (feel my way through) or (horrors!) talk about what’s going on in my head. 

Then I remember what happened to me last Monday evening. I was to meet a friend for our weekly dinner together at 6 PM. I had been feeling weird all weekend (but in the midst of it managed to throw myself one of the best birthday parties I’ve ever had), but I thought I’d be able to cope with it. Here’s the best I can do to describe my physical/mental state off and on all weekend. A Long time ago, when I was having a little too much (!) to drink every day, I experienced hangover as mental/physical fuzziness of the head that made me want to take two aspirin and go back to bed. The same feeling can result from crying (I mean the sobbing, can’t-control-it kind of crying no one wants to do in public). When I finish crying that way, I feel for awhile much as I used to feel when I was hung over. 

That’s the beginning of the way I felt off and on over the weekend. But added to that is the sensation that someone has slipped me (gracious! I’d never have taken one on my own) a Demerol or six—that narcotic haze of not being quite sure you are saying what you hear yourself saying or that the person in front of you is the person in front of you. 

My seizures (if that’s what they are) stop right there. I don’t go into convulsions, I don’t black out—oh, maybe once every three years or so just for kicks—and I don’t have involuntary ticks and jerks of my head or lips or any such thing. Most epileptics experience what I feel as the “aura” that precedes a seizure.  But it’s the whole shebang for me. 

Monday evening I was having one of my aura/seizure/crying jag/hangover events, and it was time to go to dinner. I did. And the noise of the restaurant made things worse. I told my friend what was happening, and eventually I told him I had to go home. And then I found myself wanting to talk like Chatty Cathy. That’s crazy-making. I can barely believe what I’m hearing is coming out of my mouth, and at the same time, I want to talk and talk and talk. And the whole while I feel like shit—that horrible hangover/Demerol thing. And I’m pretty sure “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream,” anyway. (You can imagine what this experience was like when I was hung over.) 

“OK. That’s OK. I get it. I’m sorry. I won’t bother anyone with it again. I know I’m making the whole thing up, and I won’t do it again.” 

Not being a scholar but knowing all the tricks of the scholarly trade does not help any of this. And neither does running around with remarkably healthy people (I ought to have two different fonts that exchange themselves automatically when I’m being sarcastic/ironic and when I’m not—here I’m not). I have many ways to think about/deal with all of this. Much of the time, I wish that I had seizures that everyone (including me) recognizes as such. In the absence of falling down on the floor and swallowing my tongue or any of the other urban legend ideas about what a seizure looks like, I think no one quite believes how bizarre (rotten) I feel. Or that it is imperative for me to stay out of certain places with lots of noise and fluorescent lights. That last one is a bugaboo. There’s little scientific evidence that modern fluorescent lights cause seizures, but no doctor or anyone else can convince me (I wish they could) that the way my brain feels normally is the same way my brain feels when I’m in certain rooms lighted by certain fluorescent lights with a certain amount of noise. I suppose these are hysterical seizures, like hysterical pregnancies. 

Oh, the good old hysterical fit. Nineteenth-century British doctors could have cured me in an instant. Seizures, they would have said, are hysterical fits. Get over it. 

Difficulties in distinguishing between nervous, functional ills and the physical diseases they mimicked were serious and not uncommon. Epilepsy, for instance, was classified as a neurosis, and sometimes designated “hysteroepilepsy” because of the perceived similarity between a hysterical fit and an epileptic seizure. . . .(1) 

I am grateful that I don’t have all of the symptoms of this condition. I have never had a religiously ecstatic dream or vision. Never say never. I’m not sure about that. But that is not part of the panoply of the bizarre that covers my brain. However, something about religious thoughts, ideas, and ceremonies gets to the core of my being as nothing else can. I know that is not unusual. I see people around me at church services being deeply moved all the time. I have no clue what they are experiencing. But the power of my experience frightens me sometimes. It did last night at the Epiphany service. I’m not going to try to write about it here. As I said above, that’s another story. 

I’ve got to make sure right now that no one who might be reading this thinks I think I’m crazy. My only problem is this peculiar hangover/crying jag/Demerol thing going on. I’m never quite sure if it makes me act or appear as weird as I feel. 

If I were a better thinker, and thereby a better writer, I could pull all of this together into a tidy idea. I can’t. There is some weird connection between my religious fervor and my hangover/crying jag/Demerol thing. I know that.  This is not a new or simply personal idea.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a strong tendency to link some phenomena of mystical ecstasies with psychological pathology, particularly hysteria. The church itself    had struggled for centuries to distinguish between mystical experience and various forms of “insanity”, such as epilepsy, possession, humoral imbalance, and others.  (2) 

Most of the people I know with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy have had intense mystical/religious experiences—visions and the like. My religious (which I consider to be different from my spiritual) experience is, as I said, so intense that it frightens me. I’m not going to write about any of it in detail here. But I do know that I once had a conversation with Jesus in a rose garden. Only once. I have no idea how to sort out imagination from intense desire from emotion. I have no idea what anyone else experiences, say in church.  And it happens whether or not I “believe” in whatever the ceremony depicts. It has also happened to me several times at the opera, most remarkably during a performance of The Ring in Seattle. 

The one aspect of all of this of which I am absolutely certain is that my hangover/crying jag/Demerol thing and the intensity of my religious experience are both out of my control. As is my need to chat even when chatting frightens me because I am not sure I’m saying what I hear myself saying.  All of which is to say, aren’t brains fun? 

One more observation. If I were in control of my urge to write, this probably would not have happened. I had a point in mind when I started.  I have no idea where it went, but that was irrelevant to my writing. This is the most vivid result of my brain in overdrive. Write. Write. Write. (I’m supposed to be getting ready to leave town for a week.)
(  1  )  George F. Drinka, The Birth of Neurosis: Myth, Malady, and the Victorians (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.) Quoted in:  Furst, Lilian R. “Daniel Hack Tuke walking a tight-rope.” Nineteenth-Century Prose 27.1 (2000): 60+.
( 2 ) Glucklich, Ariel. Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Quoted in: Arnell, Carla A. “Wild writing: holy stigmata and the aesthetics of ‘sacred pain’ in Ron Hansen’s Mariette in ecstasy.” Christianity and Literature 57.2 (2008): 181+.


  1. Writing is telepathic. Your urges are correct and on course. Michaelmatician writes in time/ of time.


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