Invisible Disabilities

By Marlena Corcoran

Marlena Corcoran is a writer and an electronic narrative artist. She lives in Munich.

The small-town midwestern pharmacist looked at me from under his eyebrows.

"I have another customer who takes this." He gestured with his counting knife to the white tablets of anti-convulsant medication he was counting out for me.

"A little boy."


My heart reached for the little boy. Somebody like me, in the next generation.

"'Course, his parents don't know why."

They have a son with seizures and they give him this medicine every day and they don't know why?

"The doctor didn't say anything."

"How can the doctor not have told them?"

The pharmacist looked out harshly.

"You wouldn't want to tell people that their little boy was like that."

I am a college professor in a small midwestern town. It is the beginning of school, and I take my first-year students on a tour of the library, so that they will be able to find out anything they want to know.

A student to my right crumples to the floor. I follow her down. Hell, she fell under a table, and the table legs lie to the left and the right of her head. I would block her from harm with my arms. I will shove my body between her head and any hard thing. It all happens so fast, and yet it takes forever. I lie next to her. She looks straight in my eyes.

She knows I am there, but she herself is somewhere else. The look will remain with me for the rest of my life.

I stand up and look at my shocked students. I say something about how they should quietly go home. They want to be sure that their friend is okay. They want to be sure that this person is their friend.

"Has this happened before?" I ask.

She shakes her head and the blood flows from her nose. "What happened?"

A senior librarian says she will drive the student to the doctor. I wonder what will happen if she has another seizure in the car.

"It's alright," says the librarian, who wasn't there. "She just fainted."

I hear this again, later. She fainted.

I call the small-town doctor on the phone. "This is Professor Whatsit, at the college. My student, you saw her, had a seizure in class."

"Oh, she fainted," said the doctor.

"The student had convulsions."

The doctor replies in his best now-now tone. "Now, how would you know?" he asks.

How would I know.

"If that had been a seizure," he chides me, "she would have had a fully arched back."

"Her shoulders were off the floor."

There is a short silence.

"Now watch what you're saying," he says. "That's a serious thing."

"Remember the knock on her nose?" I ask.

"She hit her nose on the table," he replies.

"If she had simply fainted," I said, "the table would have hit her from below. The blow came from the top, because her head jerked back."

"Well, thank you for calling."

"Have you referred her to a neurologist?"

"That won't be necessary."

I look at the schedule of classes. I'm down for an eight o'clock session. I can't. I just can't. The medication I take metabolizes as phenobarbital. I am groggy in the morning, and it just takes awhile for my mind to clear. I go to my department chair to explain. I offer to teach the unpopular four o'clock session instead, or anything else she'd like to propose.

"Why don't you get your doctor to change your medication?" she asks. "Or you could do what I do. Get up at five o'clock, and go to aerobics at six. Then you'll be wide awake."

I can't.

"Well, in that case," she says, "you go around to every member of the department and tell them you have epilepsy and see what they say."

I decide to start with a member of the department who is also an assistant dean. He must have some training, I assume, in disability accommodations.

"But you saw the college schedule during your interview," he says sternly. "You saw that classes begin at eight o'clock."

"I saw there were classes at eight o'clock," I say, "but I didn't think they would have to be taught by me."

"You should have told us right away," he says, "that you couldn't do the job."

In our department of eleven people, two like to teach at eight o'clock, and that fills our department's obligation to offer two classes at the earliest hour. The problem is that next semester, one of the early-birds is on sabbatical.

"Couldn't we explain this to the dean," I ask, "and get an exemption for one course this one semester?"

"I think you should just try it," says the assistant dean. "If you have to go to the hospital, we'll cover for you."

I say nothing.

"I tell you what," says the assistant dean. "Ask George if he'll teach for you at eight o'clock. He'll do it. Of course, he has a weak heart, and it may do him in. But he's an army veteran. An old soldier would never say no."

As an afterthought, he assures me that this is not discrimination. "Look at Bob," he says. "Bob takes medication. That's why, you may have noticed, he sometimes falls asleep at lunch."

I wonder what it would take to make someone take so much medication that they pass out in the middle of the day.

"He doesn't really have epilepsy," says the assistant dean. "He only had one seizure, once." The assistant dean chuckles. "But that was enough for Bob," he says seriously. "Bob said, never again."

I cross the old highway and the railroad tracks to get to the ramshackle midwestern house I have rented from the college. I lock the door and splash cold water on my face. In the mirror I see a little boy who isn't told, a young woman who wonders what happened, and a grown man who'd rather spend his life drugged to the gills than face a second seizure. Out the window I see vast empty spaces. On the sink is a dark plastic bottle. Inside are small white pills. You can take them one by one and disappear, or take them all and die.

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