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Why John Bryson and John Roberts should talk about their seizures

By Justin Moyer,

On June 9, Commerce Secretary John Bryson was hospitalized after his reported involvement in three auto accidents. Although details were not disclosed, the White House confirmed that he had a seizure.

On July 30, 2007, Chief Justice John Roberts collapsed on a boat dock at his Maine summer home. Although that seizure was Roberts’s second, he offered little explanation. When Time magazine asked “Does Justice Roberts Have Epilepsy?,” Roberts didn’t answer, and he hasn’t in five years.

Reading these stories, I wish public figures such as Roberts and Bryson would talk publicly about their conditions. They should do this not because they are legally compelled to or because their health may affect their work. They should do it because hiding their problems makes it seem like their problems are worth hiding.

I received a diagnosis of epilepsy in 2001, at age 24. My seizures are generalized, meaning they strike my whole brain and body. Without warning, I lose consciousness for several minutes and remain disoriented for a few hours. Later, I have no memory of the episode save muscle aches and a sore mouth from biting my tongue.

My seizures are idiopathic: They have no known cause. They can be controlled with levetiracetam, a medication that regulates brain neurotransmitters.

I’ve had about 10 seizures in the past decade. Because taking pills twice a day is easier said than done, many of these resulted from my missing doses of medication. I’ve seized — yes, “seized” is the verb — while opening Christmas presents, while sitting at my desk and, like Bryson, while driving. I don’t remember my seizure behind the wheel: I’m told that my foot came off the gas pedal, and a passenger steered the car to the shoulder. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Now I am vigilant about my pills.

We don’t yet know what caused Bryson’s episode. He’s still in the hospital, and seizures can have many causes, including medicines, high fevers and head injuries. According to reporting by my Post colleague David Brown, the secretary may have had a “partial complex seizure,” an abnormal electrical discharge in part of his brain that affected his behavior but didn’t immediately knock him out.

We do know that the 8 percent of Americans who will have a seizure in their lives have no reason to be ashamed of the condition. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) released medical records related to his skin cancer in 2008. When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2009, there was no shortage of information about her treatment. Why should people influential enough to draw attention to a common health problem be any less willing to discuss their seizures?

If they are embarrassed, they should not be: No one asks to have a seizure disorder. If they fear they will be judged unable to do their jobs, their continued service after disclosing their conditions will prove otherwise.

People who have seizures can suffer less from their condition than from the stigma that surrounds it. For example, musician Neil Young is epileptic. As recounted in Jimmy McDonough’s biography “Shakey,” Young’s diagnosis in the 1960s didn’t evoke sympathy. He was accused of faking seizures, and his early band Buffalo Springfield developed a system for getting him off stage quickly if one struck during a performance.

I’ve been seizure-free for more than two years. My illness won’t kill me, but I live in constant fear that I will lose consciousness at a bad moment — perhaps while bathing my 2-year-old daughter.

Politicians’ reticence to discuss our problem doesn’t help.

© The Washington Post Company