When the graphic novel Mis(h)adra was first released in October 2017 and I heard about the personal story of a young man named Isaac who deals with epilepsy, I knew I had to read it. It is a semi-autobiographical tale written and illustrated by creator Iasmin Omar Ata. In Mis(h)adra, Ata explores their past struggles with the consequences of seizure disorders. Often common modern activity such as attending college classes, going to the doctor, or dealing with roommates can be excruciating. The graphic novel details actions that most folks consider daily tasks in a way that truly conveys the extreme stress, emotional labor, and physical awareness a person with an epileptic disorder experiences. Mis(h)adra relayed the seemingly infinite ordeal that is the seizure disorder reality.
I admittedly had a personal interest in this book. My sister Anna Poley, editor of indie fantasy books such as To Survive Divinity, has a seizure disorder like Isaac. Once I read Mis(h)adra, I knew I wanted her opinion on it. I felt suddenly that perhaps I had not asked her about it enough; the graphic novel had left me reflecting on the community around those with seizure disorders and how important a support system is for anyone who is dealing with a disability. I shipped it off to her across the United States to find out if the story was relatable to her own experience. She kindly agreed to discuss Mis(h)adra from her perspective with WWAC, after the graphic novel recently won the 2018 Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent.
Do you feel like this is an accurate depiction of the epileptic experience? Did that resonate for you?
It most certainly did. The thing I think it captured especially well is the isolation and confusion that you feel, when you have a seizure disorder, because there is a stigma surrounding it. It’s a difficult disease for even doctors to understand. I think much of the social awkwardness he kept experiencing in the story…I feel like that’s entirely accurate when it comes to the types of experiences I have had.
How do you feel the illustrations represented the experience of being an epileptic?
There were a couple of times where it was unclear as to what was going on [in the illustration]. But when I realized that they were seizures, it was interesting to me…You know how he uses the knives multiple times? That was relatable for me because it represents an attack, and really when you have a seizure it does feel like an attack, not only on your body and your brain, but kind of like a personal attack on you. So I thought that the art depicted the seizure experience very well.
For you, did that connect you to the character? Do you feel like Isaac is someone you can identify with in the story in a way that other books and comics didn’t accomplish that?
I would definitely say so! I think my favorite part was…So you remember how he’s having the convulsive seizures, and towards the end he has the seizure that isn’t convulsive, where he ends up wandering around in the street, and he’s disoriented. And he gets a call from Jo, and hours have passed. That to me, the illustration, the design of it, the overall description of the seizure is very accurate. That’s a type of seizure that does happen, but is not very well known.
I’ve only ever had tonic-clonic seizures twice, and then all the others are absence seizures. I have had that type that he had where you’re just very disoriented, and you don’t know what’s going on. You have an out-of-body experience. I really appreciated that instead of the common trope we have of, “well all epilepsy is just someone rolling around on the floor and foaming at the mouth,” they decided to add something that was more than that, which told me that they really understand the matter.
Do you have any other thoughts to share about the story?
I really did appreciate the isolation factor that plays in. When I was first diagnosed, it was extremely difficult for me to figure out, okay, what do I say to people, and what do I not say to people? You have to do things like excuse yourself from parties, etc. How do I balance needing stuff like space? Space is very important when you’re an epileptic or have a seizure disorder versus wanting to socialize with people.
Isaac has to make these very hard decisions between what is best for his physical health versus what is best for his social health (if you will). I actually didn’t tell any of my coworkers about the seizures until six months after I was diagnosed. I didn’t want them thinking that I was making excuses or making something up, especially since they were the uncommon seizures that aren’t as well known. Even then when I finally did say in a staff meeting, “You know I do have a seizure disorder, here’s what you should do in the case of a seizure and this is when you need to call 911, etc.” One of the first things they asked me was, “Well why didn’t you tell anyone about it?”
It’s something that needs to be managed all the time, and something that’s difficult to manage all the time. Instead of having a shallow depiction of what it’s like to have epilepsy he went more in-depth, and that’s powerful.
I found myself in the same position as Isaac where it’s embarrassing, and it’s a disadvantage, and why would I tell people? They were dismissive because he just kept not showing up to different events and he has this train of thought of, “What do I say to them? ‘I have a chronic illness, sorry if I drop out on you’?” And when you have that sort of thing to manage it’s extremely difficult to figure out how to maintain a support system, but also maintain boundaries, I guess, as well.
The one criticism I would have also is…I think it’s true that the author does have epilepsy and has these experiences as an epileptic. The part where they was talking about the medication. Isaac went to the doctor, and the doctor chewed him out and said, “Where is the medication? What have you been doing with it?” That seemed pretty unrealistic to me, since the medication that he had been using was lamotrigine, which isn’t a narcotic or addictive at all.
Yeah, that’s kind of strange that a doctor would have a problem with a non-addictive medication.
Exactly. That’s actually more an issue with the second medication that he got, which was Ativan, and quite honestly a doctor is way more likely to be stingy on what they prescribe for Ativan and then get on your butt about going through that [potential addiction] with that medication.
I was fortunate that I didn’t have this exact issue, which I have heard about from other people, and I’ve seen sometimes in the medical field how ignorant the doctors are of epilepsy beyond just the convulsive seizures. So when he’s being treated poorly in the ER after his non-convulsive seizure and they’re dismissing him and telling him that it’s anxiety, or a panic attack, or something like that, that’s really unfortunately a common experience.
It’s something that needs to be managed all the time, and something that’s difficult to manage all the time. Instead of having a shallow depiction of what it’s like to have epilepsy they went more in-depth, and that’s powerful.
Sounds like it’s a really accurate story and depiction about what it’s like to have epilepsy.
Definitely throughout this whole thing, the thing that resonated for me the most, was the isolation factor. That’s probably true for any illness, I think chronic illness is something that is very isolating, and I definitely appreciated that the author seemed to understand that.
When we have these common tropes of epileptics or people with seizure disorders, and it’s just like oh they convulse and then they’re done and they move on with their life. The fact is that it’s not really what happens. It’s something that needs to be managed all the time, and something that’s difficult to manage all the time. Instead of having a shallow depiction of what it’s like to have epilepsy the author went more in-depth, and that’s powerful.