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My Brain Is Threatening to Kill Me

Having epilepsy makes bathtubs seem like lethal weapons.

Photo by Jared Leibowitz

George Watsky is a YouTube slam poet and rapper with a big vocabulary and, sometimes, very poor judgment. He's released a number of albums since his debut in 2007 and his online videos have received hundreds of millions of YouTube hits. As of this month, he's a writer, too. His debut book, HOW TO RUIN EVERYTHING, is a compilation of essays that touch on the hilarity and humiliation of his life so far—from his misguided pursuit of women twice his age to the time he accidentally became an international ivory smuggler. (For the record, he acknowledges the self-absorption and douchiness of writing a memoir in your twenties.) In the excerpt below, Watsky writes about his experience with epilepsy, and how inheriting the disease has affected the way he thinks about his family and his mortality.


—Kate Lowenstein

It's hard to tell what year it is in Hyampom, where Aunt Marion and Uncle Jack's raw wood cottage is buried deep in California's Coastal Range. Two weeks from now the worst forest fires in decades will rage across the Trinity Alps, turning acres of century-old pines to spent matchsticks. Our family will cry and wring our hands and wonder how we'll cross the suspension bridge to the cabin when it's turned to cinder. But then the fifty-foot flames will peter out just at the base of the hill and retreat, and the house in Hyampom will stand to see another summer. For now though, I float in the deep swimming hole near the cabin, toes poking above the placid water, staring upward at the greying bridge silhouetted against its bright blue backdrop, serene.


"What year is it?" a voice asks faintly.

I'm lying on my back, bobbing up and down as overhead fluorescent lights race by.

"How many fingers am I holding up?"

Hmmmm . . . I puzzle, a mess of digits advancing out of the fog toward me. That's a tough one.


"Good job, buddy. Now, can you tell me what year it is?"

No, I realize. No, I can't.

"We have to give him a spinal tap," the doctor declares, jogging alongside my rolling bed. "In case it's meningitis."

"2001!" I recall, suddenly motivated.

I look down to see I'm wearing my navy-and-gold San Francisco Unified School District gym uniform, an IV in my arm, knees scraped and bloody, thighs spotted with fresh bruises. The fog gives way to a searing migraine. My jaw muscles are locked, the sides of my tongue chewed meat, burning as I probe my mouth to find slices of dead skin hanging on the inside of each cheek. The last thing I remember is running The Mile in gym class—the official one that determines whether or not George W. Bush will mail me my coveted fitness certificate, with the sweet gold foil stamp on it. I remember pumping my legs as hard as I could, making my hands sleek and aerodynamic, desperate for the athletic approval of a warmonger. I don't remember finishing.


Waking up from a seizure is a bit like being born. Everyone else runs around the hospital freaking out, but you've slept through the drama. You open your eyes to a world you can't make sense of. Information comes slow, until, out of the mist a faint voice asks what year it is, and before you can come up with the answer, you conjure your first word—Fuck—then think, not again . . .

After my second seizure two weeks later, at the Japantown bowling alley, my new neurologist puts me on a medication called Depakote. For the first few months swallowing the little, blue, diamond-shaped tablets, I have the head of a fat little boy on a frail body, cheeks chipmunked. I want to sleep all the time. On car rides I sit and stare indifferently out the window, never too happy, never too sad, which makes sense when I find out Depakote doubles as both an anticonvulsant and a mood stabilizer prescribed for bipolar disorder and depression. This revelation pisses me off, and I fight my parents hard. It just doesn't seem right to swallow a handful of mystery pills engineered to rewire my brain. What's the point of getting cured if I end up a zombie?

"It comes down to what you would rather put up with," Mom says, "the symptoms or the side effects."

It's no family secret that Mom's Aunt Polly, who died in 1945, wasn't simply having the "fainting spells" described in old letters from her mother. But those were the days when epilepsy could be legally punished with forced sterilization, and Polly was unmedicated when she died—fell and hit her head on her Freshman dorm bathtub at Sarah Lawrence. She'll be seventeen forever.


Epilepsy is known to have a hereditary element, and I'm proud of my connection to Great Aunt Polly's spectral legend. Although seizures, in and of themselves, aren't generally dangerous, there are noteworthy exceptions—seizures beget more seizures and "status epilepticus," a dangerous condition in which many episodes follow one another in rapid succession, can be deadly. But for the most part, it's the rest of the sharp and rigid world that wants to drown you, knock your teeth out, cave your skull in when you're going down. After starting my pill regimen I develop a new consciousness, at all times wondering, What am I near? What would it do to my body if I fell on it/into it right now? I learn you can't trust coffee table corners, rooftop edges. You can't trust urinals either—massive grinning underbites that would get a good laugh out of leaving me to be discovered unconscious, pants down, molars scattered across the linoleum. Hard things, tall things, and wet things—double-crossing murderers. Bathtubs, both hard and wet, are porcelain caskets. For a while we crack the door during my baths so my parents can rush in if they hear splashing. Then I switch to showers altogether.


"Can you tell me what year it is?" a faint voice asks as I bob up and down, lying on my back.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.

When I can lift my head, I see that I'm still in my gym clothes—a pair of Nike shorts and a sweaty white T-shirt.


"George, what year is it?"

"2008?" I reply, recollecting that Barack Obama was elected president.


Man, could it be 2009 already. . .?

"George, it's 2014. How many fingers am I holding up?" My head is propped up on a pillow, neck craned at enough of an angle to see three men, one whom I recognize and two I don't, a hazmat box on the ambulance wall. Details float back to me slowly . . . leaving my apartment in Los Feliz, the Easton gym, running on the elliptical machine, sweat pouring down my temples. . .

Seizures are triggered by different traumas for different people. Lack of sleep, dehydration, the stereotypical flashing lights—anything that stresses your body and overheats your brain. It's clear now that one of my triggers, aggravated by dehydration and fatigue, seems to be exercise, specifically long-distance running. My first breakthrough seizure was running The Mile. With this second breakthrough, triggered on the elliptical machine, I consider that a higher power may be screaming: STOP EXERCISING! I CREATED YOU TO BE SOFT AND SCRAWNY! But I concede later there may be something more fundamental to my character at work. Running may pop the bubble, but it's anxiety that builds the pressure. The tension's been a part of me for as long as I can remember—a feeling of restlessness, a density of time, a sense that everything must be accomplished before it's too late. The seizures come at those moments when I press too hard, when I can't remind myself to breathe, when I can't lean back and accept life as it comes.

The week following my breakthrough seizure in LA is tough, particularly because my license has been revoked, and unless you happen to live and work along the route, Los Angeles, where it could take three hours to get from the Eastside to the beach, has possibly the lamest bus system in the country. I hate the dependency of asking for rides. It's a regression: relegated again to the backseat on family road trips, staring indifferently out the window. But it is funny, I have to admit, looking around the 704 bus in my Rollerblade liners—Skid Row burnouts asleep in the back row, runaways headed to the Venice Boardwalk, and Mexican mothers with young children on their way to and from school and work shifts—my memory is a sieve in the immediate fallout of a seizure, so I was annoyed at myself but unsurprised to realize that, after skating two miles to the bus stop and searching my shoulder bag, I'd forgotten my shoes at home. I was fucked in the head. But I felt at home trudging through the Chewbacca and Spider-Man impersonators my in my Styrofoam skate boots, just another lunatic at Hollywood and Vine.


The odds of having a seizure are pretty low at any given time. But floating alone at the Hyampom swimming hole, it does cross my mind. No one would hear me. I'd just taste copper in the back of my mouth, enjoy that warm weightlessness, soak up one fading view of the Trinity Pines, and no one would ever ask me what year it is again. It's a self-indulgent thought, but it builds a bridge to my parents in my mind. Their jokes about aging and AARP memberships are getting a little more morbid and a little less funny. The truth that anyone can die at any moment, including me, including right now, reminds me of a conversation I'd had up at the house with Mom and Dad that felt less like a talk between parents and son than of one between old colleagues.
"What age do you see yourself as, Dad?" I'd asked him.
"Aaaahhh . . . the continuity theory of personal identity . . ."
"Jesus Christ." I'd immediately regretted asking.
"I'd have to say in my early thirties… you know, maybe it sounds silly but I still feel like I have these endless possibilities in front of me."
"It doesn't sound silly to me," I recall replying, before swimming over to the bank of loose shale to dry off in sun.
I catch my reflection in the water, pieces of me plagiarized from the past—Dad's nose, Mom's chin, her dad's hair, his sister's brain—and look up to admire the scenery, while I can.

From HOW TO RUIN EVERYTHING: Essays by George Watsky, to be published on June 14th by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by George Watsky.