Delving Into Jewish Roots for Source of Her Epilepsy

A Writer's Traumatic Search for Answers

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By Merissa Nathan Gerson

Published November 17, 2013, issue of November 22, 2013.
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When I started having seizures at the age of 7, no one ever suggested an exorcism. No one sent me to discuss with a rabbi what was going on inside my writhing body, or to try incantations, or amulet prayers, or minyan circles, for the sake of extricating the spirits.

My motor seizure disorder was treated strictly and cleanly by neurology. One hundred milligrams of Tegretol daily put down the beast, sequestered the disorder and left me cured, or so my doctors said.

Merissa Nathan Gerson
Courtesy of the Author
Merissa Nathan Gerson

For the next 14 years, until I turned 21, I did not think twice about the cause of my epilepsy. Top neurologists diagnosed me with paroxysmal kinesigenic dyskinesia, a rare motor seizure disorder. When I forgot to take my medication I had strange and embarrassing episodes, triggered by sudden motion or nervousness: My speech would slur; my arms would swing and writhe, and my body would shake. These occurrences forced me to reckon with the enormous unknown that was grinding through my own body.

But the clinical neurological speak of genetic mutation and basal ganglia misfiring did not satisfy me. I grew curious beyond the scientific. What was I looking for? At the time I had no idea.

Years later, I learned: to understand my body in the context of the Jewish people, in the context of my ancestors, of my history and of my connection to Torah. That was something neurology could not provide. My search to understand my seizures, to understand my own body, brought me to my family’s history.

It was at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, in Boulder, Colo., that I began to uncover my story. As part of my education, I had to meditate and take classes in “contemplative studies.” I took a class on Jewish mysticism, and I took a course on movement therapy where I began to do assignments that forced me to move and listen to my body.

I would find myself in a ball on the floor of my apartment — or in the classroom, where other people were running about and letting go wildly. Where they were free, I was turning into a potato bug, sobbing. I realized for the first time that inside of me there was a very sad story I was refusing to acknowledge as my own.


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