I talk about Conversion Disorder frequently because it’s part of my daily life. I’ve been disabled from it for years now, though it’s slowly affected me since I was seventeen. There are so many people who understandably know very little about this illness that I find myself explaining it over and over because the more people know, the better. During a hospital stay, I was repeating my symptoms to every nurse and aide with each shift change so they were clear. I know they communicate, but that doesn’t stop a panicked nurse from waving smelling salts under my nose when I’m staring blankly, unresponsive, while inside I’m saying, I smell it! Get it away, please! I beg you! I’m awake!
I don’t blame them. They just don’t know. There needs to be more awareness. One night, I’d been having a rough time of seizures and couldn’t sleep for the extra pain, so I was surfing YouTube and feeling rather alone with my problems. That’s when I found other people’s videos documenting seizures. Often, it’s the best sufferers can do to help others understand because more energy put out to spread awareness brings added stress, which makes our symptoms worse.
I thought I should make a page on my site not only for doing some small part in raising awareness, but also so I have something to link to whenever I mention my disorder. It is much easier than repeating myself.
So what is Conversion Disorder? It can be different for many people, but imagine if your mind is managing stress by keeping this shield up around you. Bad days can chip away at it, some more than others, but it’s rebuilt as you rest.
Well, what if your mind never gets that rest, whether it’s from psychological trauma (even subconscious) that you’re unable to let go of, or something around you at all times? That shield will wear thin until every little stressful thing that hits you, like a loud noise or swift change in emotion, can cause such a shock to your mind that it subconsciously short circuits. It doesn’t know what to do with this overload of anxiety, so it converts it into something physical.
This can resemble the entire body shutting down, though you’re wide awake, or a full body charley horse of twists and spasms. It could be gradual through the day as twitches or vocal noises. Your knees could wobble and drop right out from under you. You could feel like you’re on a ship at sea. You could go temporarily deaf or blind. The list goes on and on! It’s up to your mind and how it chooses to deal with it. And you have no conscious control over this.
These are called seizures and they might or might not show up as seizure activity when tested, but the source is different than with epilepsy, so they can’t be treated as such. Different causes require different treatments, after all. The good thing about these being non-epileptic seizures is that they don’t cause as much damage to the brain and nervous system as epileptic seizures can. The bad thing is that we’re awake during them, feeling every bit of pain and/or the stares of people around us as we cause a scene.
One thing people with Conversion Disorder are not: crazy. While this is considered a mental disorder, we are still completely functional, psychologically. This is a subconscious issue and we can’t help it. Many sufferers may have other psychological problems in addition to this, but simply being diagnosed with Conversion Disorder does not mean you’ve lost any faculties of the mind. You’re still normal in that sense.
See a neurologist about getting a study done with EEG and video (both are important) so they can rule out epilepsy and thus confirm Conversion Disorder, or possibly find out something else that is causing the activity. Remember that many doctors have no idea about this illness and even more don’t understand it properly. Be prepared for this, and be patient.
So now that you, hopefully, have a better understanding about Conversion Disorder, I’m going to get into detail about my personal bouts with it, because it’s a little different for everyone.
In May of 1992, I was in a vehicle accident on a southern Missouri country road. A car sped around a blind curve, cutting it wide so he was in my lane, hitting me head-on. I seemingly walked away with little damage that a few stitches and a few days of healing couldn’t handle, but I had dizzy spells and hallucinations throughout the following months. Doctors labelled me a schizophrenic and doped me up on psychotic meds.
Later that year, my parents moved us to central Florida and I eventually stopped taking the meds – they weren’t helping because I wasn’t crazy. Still, I couldn’t concentrate in school. I took the GED test, passing it easily, so I could be done with that and worry about healing. I tried working here and there but the dizzy spells were intensifying and I couldn’t hold food down. This is really a different, and long, story, so I’ll summarize by saying after three years of going in circles with various doctors, it was finally discovered that my skull was shoved into my brain from the accident; the bipolar region was swollen under the pressure. The rest of my skeleton was out of place in several places, as well. Sometimes, my jaw still pops out while eating and I have to massage it back.
Well, a year after the accident, I was sitting on my couch one day and realized I couldn’t move. I stared at the TV remote and concentrated hard on picking it up. My arm finally reached out for it, but it took several minutes of moving in slow motion. When this spell wore off, I immediately reported it to my parents and they sent me to the doctor. This is when they discovered that my thyroid had stopped working and put me on medication for it. It was assumed that my metabolism had simply bottomed out, and when it occurred once or twice every six months or so from then on, we figured that was what happened.
Then in 2010, shortly before my 35th birthday, they worsened, lasting longer and becoming more frequent. My family doctor was convinced I had cataplexy, where your body shuts down completely but you remain awake. My legs would buckle under me and I’d drop like a rag doll. I could still see, though my eyes relaxed which made everything blurry, and I could hear. People might think I was unconscious but I was quite coherent. My eyes were usually open, staring blank. I could swallow and I retain control of bodily functions (no messes in the pants) yet my limbs, jaw, and neck were completely limp. Sometimes I could talk or mumble, but most of the time I was unable to communicate.
A neurologist did several studies on me and concluded that the cataplectic seizures were non-epileptic, meaning that while they were indeed very real, there was no odd brain activity or damage occurring during them like with normal seizures. It was my subconscious telling my body to do these things against my will. He said that normally, this is caused by deep-seated psychological stress, and while I have my share of that, he said that it was most likely caused by the head trauma sustained at my young age. Amazingly, this sort of thing can just sit there in the brain until it peaks at around 35, then come out full force. And since mine is the result of physical trauma, and because I don’t really have any lingering psychological issues haunting me about it (that I know of), there is no need for me to see a psychologist about it. Or at least, he doesn’t push the matter with me. He knows that while I understand the importance of psychologists (my ex-wife is a disabled paranoid schizophrenic), I’d been misdiagnosed and falsely medicated in the past, and if there was some deep-seated trauma, it was partially thanks to them telling me my very physical problems were “all in my head.”
I was put on disability in 2011, which was fortunate because my Conversion Disorder had only gotten worse. By then, I was also getting dystonia, which is just the opposite of cataplexy. Instead of going completely limp, I get severe muscle spasms throughout my body, either randomly or everywhere at once. They will twist and contort me in various directions over a course of several minutes, and it’s extremely painful throughout. Like the other spells, I’m conscious and plenty sore afterward, as one would with a charley horse. Between the hurt muscles and the buckling legs, I generally got around with a walker, and often my legs simply wouldn’t work for a while, or at least not well enough to support me.
The seizures hit me throughout each day, sometimes one kind, sometimes the other, sometimes a bit of both. I tend to get cold and clammy feeling during them or right after, often pale-skinned. They can last a few minutes or an hour. The medication I’m on helps to keep the duration shorter and relieves the pain a bit. My first dystonic seizure, by the way, lasted four hours and I broke the recliner I was sitting in! Thinking it may be an allergic reaction, a doctor on the phone suggested taking Benadryl and that finally settled it down. That’s been the only thing to stop the bad ones from getting any worse.
I mentioned this to someone on YouTube once, saying how I didn’t know why it helped so much, and someone with the username of blobvision offered this useful reply: “Benadryl is also useful for migraines. That’s what I take when I get them and they go away within an hour or less. It seems that it has positive effects on certain neurological problems. Also, it helps alleviate certain symptoms of vagus nerve damage. Benadryl is from a class of drugs called anticholinergics, which affect the parasympathetic nervous system. That’s why it helps with medical issues like dystonia.” I’ve been told since then that it’s often given to those with Parkinson’s to alleviate tremors.
In addition to the seizures, I also might go a good half a day with pins and needles in my feet or hands. Frustrating but nothing debilitating. I have a lot of moments of confusion and trouble concentrating. My muscles twitch often and my vision blurs. I went to an eye doctor right after a seizure and he didn’t have to dilate my eyes. They were already dilated! I have severe migraines that I take medication for. At times, the headaches are simply the muscles in my forehead having dystonic spasms. My throat acts up once in a while where I have trouble swallowing or talking. It’s sometimes comical when my voice changes as though I inhaled helium. I call it my Joe Pesci voice!
Conversion Disorder Triggers! What sets them off? Here’s a list:
1. Stress is a big trigger. Good or bad, if I get any sort of anxiety, I’ll be having a bad day of seizures.
2. Fatigue. I have sleep apnea so that was aggravating it until I got the CPAP machine to help. Also, I take medications to help with insomnia. See, I’ll be dozing off and start twitching or twisting in my sleep, which wakes me up. The fatigue of that will set off a seizure. I had a bad experience with Restoril: it gives me bad dreams. This added stress was causing actual spasms while in deep sleep. I was pretty sore when I woke up!
3. Emotional shifts. If I get pissed off. If I laugh too hard. If I get depressed. If I’m given an unexpected kiss. I’ll drop like a sack of bricks. For this I take Prozac. For me, it’s not for depression, but to keep my emotions more controllable. Once, I stepped into a restaurant, said, “Oh wow, this is nice!” and then I had a seizure. So if something impresses me unexpectedly, that’s all it takes.
4. Sudden sounds. I’m a fainting goat, no kidding. I’ve been in a grocery store and a bell sounds off – I have a seizure. If it’s quiet and the phone rings near me, out I go (I call it the startle box). You get the idea. The Prozac helps with that, as well, because I’m more mellow. But as much as I enjoyed the Fright Night movie remake, when that woman blew up in the sun, I jumped and… well, I had to finish watching it the next day. When taking a shower, I tend to turn the radio on, things like that to keep me from getting startled in case something falls or whatever.
An interesting note is that sudden sounds (or certain noise) cause actual physical pain, more than just the spasms, etc. It’s like a taser being placed to my head. If someone sneezes, the dog barks suddenly, babies cry (especially the loud yells and more so over the phone or Skype where it squelches more), someone calls on their cell phone so it’s squelchy, road noise in a vehicle (that hum of tires on asphalt), elevators beep, or if I’m in a store and the overhead speakers are letting off static noises, it’s like painful jolts of electricity going through my head. If allowed to continue, my vision blurs and crosses, then I’ll continue to degrade toward a full-blown seizure, especially muscle spasms across my forehead, from one temple to another. If startled, I’ll still drop, etc, as mentioned above, but you might hear me grunt or cringe first, and you’ll know why.
5. Some visuals. I say “some” because this isn’t the same thing as flashing lights causing seizures, as with epilepsy (video games, etc). I play video games often to pass the time without problems because my seizures aren’t photosensitive. The only ones I have to be careful of are when things jump out and startle me. I can’t put my finger on it, but the only real visual things that can set me off are a particular dim, energy-saving light – those ones that have almost an orange or purple hue. It seems when a bulb is not quite on or off, it does something to me. Not flickering, just inbetween. Unfortunately, more and more places have this sort of lighting.
6. Sometimes it just happens. I don’t always need a trigger. While I type this sentence, everything is cool and yet my right foot is twisted in an odd angle. It will eventually relax. Or I may get worse. Moment by moment is how I take it.
Well, that’s all I can think of for now. I’ll try to add more as I think of it. Getting back to my recent hospital stay, I was astonished at how despite how well I’d explained my condition to them, it didn’t really set in until they saw it for themselves. And likewise, people on YouTube filming their attacks are helping to raise awareness, putting a face on the illness. I struggled with the idea, thinking I’d be unable to do it, but seeing how it affected others (yes, it scared the crap out of them but they appreciate the severity of Conversion Disorder and certainly know more about it now), I decided to keep the laptop near the bed one night.
And sure enough, I woke up once with hard twists and twitches, and that familiar feeling that I was losing control. I turned on the lights and hit “record” in time to film it, and now I can add another face to it in public.
I seriously don’t recommend that my friends watch it because it’s fifteen minutes of me in my usual, everyday pain. I mean, go ahead if you want, but you won’t like it. It’s not pretty, but I did it for educational purposes:
CONVERSION DISORDER UPDATE:
As of late January, 2014, I’m having about 2 seizures a day on average and all the usual issues inbetween: trouble moving about due to weakness or simply all-over muscle soreness from the seizures. This is all thanks to including Vistaril with my medications, which, like Benadryl, is an antihistamine in addition to anti-anxiety. Cutting from 2-3 a day from 5-6 a day is quite a change!
I’ve noticed my blood sugar tends to rise before a seizure and lowers after – just my own observation, nothing super-scientific. I still fall on occasion, sometimes I can feel it coming with the room spinning and sometimes my eyes roll up before dropping, but I always remain conscious.
Instead of using a walker, I have been able to stick with a cane, which is better, though I’m always looking around for where to sit in case there’s a loud noise… if I can make it instead of hitting the floor, lol.
Here are the meds I take and why (related to my Conversion Disorder), and this is what works for me. Always check with your doctor for what may work for you:
Vistaril: 50mg capsules, 3 times a day. It’s a non-habit forming antihistamine to work as the Benadryl helps but throughout the day, decreasing seizure activity and also decreasing some anxiety.
Topamax: 25mg tablet, 3 times a day for migraines and motion sickness. I still get migraines after a seizure and lingering ones at night, but nothing like before.
Benazepril: 20mg tablet, 1 in morning and half in evening for severe muscle pain.
Requip: 1mg tablet, 1 in morning and 2 in evening for twitchy muscles and spasms that occur throughout the day, otherwise, and keep me up at night. Similar to restless leg syndrome but all over, and it still happens but not as severe.
Ambien: 10mg tablet at bedtime.
Baclofen: 10mg tablet 3 times a day to relax muscles which are nearly always tense, otherwise, and thus, causing more weakness, etc.
Trazadone: 75mg tablet at bedtime to help rest and decrease anxiety.
Just before going to sleep, my mind will somehow fight it by causing a strong, painful twist in my arms, legs, neck, or waist.
*Regarding sleeping pill alternatives, I’d tried Restoril – my hands and feet would twist and tighten up through the night while I slept, so not good. I also tried Valium and it increased my seizure activity, possibly due to the lingering fatique the next day. I was on Ambien for a while but I was having a problem with getting up and typing strange things online, and also purchasing things without remembering the next day (a common side effect, apparently).
Prozac: 10mg at bedtime to help rest and decrease anxiety – less chance of changing moods quickly, even as a normal person would, which might trigger a seizure.
And of course liquid, children’s Benadryl is given to me, squirted in my mouth during a seizure since I can still swallow. It’s much easier than a pill! I’m given the equivalent of 50mg and makes the seizures stop very quickly as opposed to going on for an hour or more.
CONVERSION DISORDER UPDATE:
In mid-2014, I had to face some harsh realities that my biggest trigger was my wife, whom I’d been taking care of for fifteen years as schizophrenia ravaged her mind more and more. The insomnia? It was from literally sleeping with one eye open too much, never knowing if she was going to get up and try to walk out the door and into traffic. Or perhaps something else that would hurt herself.
I lived with a chain of keys around my neck because I had all the chemicals, medicines, and knives locked away. I say “chain” because it was heavy, so I always knew it was there and not misplaced. All through the day, I’d hear her repeating, “No, no, no…” or “Blood! They’re gonna get me! Blood! Blood!” and I’d be trembling with stress while trying to calm her.
That was my broken shell that couldn’t heal. My neurologist moved out of the country, and before leaving, he said, “You are at a point where you can improve, but you won’t until your situation changes.” And he left it at that.
I had to face the fact that I could no longer physically care for my wife, and she agreed. We divorced and she was set up in a home. And I have, indeed improved, only having a few seizures a week instead of a day.
If you suffer from Conversion Disorder, I hope this page helps you figure out your triggers, or at least get you started on the right path for it.