In 2002 while in school, I was followed into my apartment and attacked by a man I didn’t know, and who the police said was there to kill and rape me - there had been a string of other attacks and killings recently. That day I fought for my life, and the next day I asked everyone to pretend like nothing happened. I never dealt with what took place in my apartment that day. I compartmentalized it. I shut it away in a little dark box, locked the box with a key, and hid that key so even I forgot where it was. I was prescribed sleeping pills, pain pills and antidepressants to get me through the day - and at night, I drank and did whatever else I could to forget. I was running…escaping from my attacker…every day…every night…
Over time, the pain was less acute. The anxiety started to settle. I got off the prescriptions, stopped partying as hard, and took control of my life. My locked box stayed hidden deep inside. By 2006, I was completely sober, married, and ready to start a family. In the months leading to and throughout my pregnancy, I was incredibly careful about what I ate and drank. I took care of myself because of the little baby growing inside my body, and I was going to be the perfect mother.
Flash forward to 2011 in the ER with my now 2-year-old son screaming as he wakes up from his latest 27 minute, full-body, tonic colonic seizure – the type called a “grand mal” seizure. I hated myself…I thought this meant that I had failed as a mother. This was my fault.
Now I see that I wasn’t failing as a mother, but every time my son had an episode, I would be slammed into panic-mode, and all of those “fight or flight” instincts would fire…for days afterwards I was a wreck. The walls of my little box started to crumble, and I would have nightmares about the attack at school. I tried to stay up all night, so I did not have to relive it.
I thought, “if it happened before, it could happen again.” We installed an alarm in our house. During the day I stayed ensconced in my protected little cage, and on the rare occasions when I ventured out, I never went alone. I was afraid; epilepsy had made me remember what it felt like to be out of control. A seizure can happen at any moment and the results can be catastrophic.
I kept asking my son’s neurologist “why is this happening to my son?” He had no answers for me, because without an underlying brain structure issue, the cause is unknown. He did ask if there was anyone in our family who had epilepsy. There’s no one on my father’s side with epilepsy, and my mother was adopted so her history was unknown. The neurologist said that if there was a genetic link, we could better understand what was going on. However, without the genetic link, we needed to do a whole battery of tests.
During those weeks of testing, I prayed to and begged God for help and strength. I reached out to the world to forgive me for everything I had ever done wrong and made a promise to myself to change my life forever. I would go to therapy, start taking care of myself, open my box, deal with my demons, and help other struggling people to live their lives to the fullest.
The tests came back and there was nothing wrong with his brain that was causing the seizures. The neurologist again asked about family history, and I had nothing to offer. That day, driving home from the neurology appointment, my mom called me. “Stefani, I have 5 brothers, and my brother Patrick is in a home being cared for because of his severe epilepsy.” I could not believe what I was hearing; Catholic Charities had contacted her after an inquiry she made 11 years ago to find out about her biological family.
This was the message I was waiting to receive. It was the catalyst to inspire me to reach out to other people and talk about what I was going through and how I needed help.
I started to write music again. I started running – this time not in my nightmares, but with a friend to support my lifestyle change. I started seeing a therapist, and I read as many books as I could find on health and nutrition. I started losing weight and feeling in control for the first time in a long time. I got involved with the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Los Angeles.
I wanted to be an inspiration. I wanted to live for health, not be healthy enough to live.
Since that moment of inspiration two years ago, I have run four half marathons and one full marathon. I lost 120 pounds by finding the power inside myself, and I am finally comfortable talking about my attack and my son’s epilepsy.
I also started playing the songs I had written for my friends, and they encouraged me to record them. Now two years after my lowest point, I have released my EP that was recorded in Nashville, I have a worthwhile foundation that I’m aligned with (and that benefits from song and album sales) and most importantly, an understanding that no matter how bad things seem, the power to change is within each of us. We can’t do it alone, but when we reach out to the world, someone will respond. It may take a while; you may even hear your own echo, but someone will respond.