Last month on some epilepsy Facebook groups I belong to a member maliciously put up a flashing light GIF which triggered a couple of members to have seizures and one to go to hospital. Unfortunately, the police were unable to prosecute because this wasn’t considered malicious communication. UK people please sign this petition to get the law changed.
I am writing this blog to because I am in a dilemma and doing so might help me gain clarity over which path I should take (apologies – this is the longest blog ever).
As you will recall, I am on the ketogenic diet eating 4 grams of carbs and 40 grams of fat at every meal in the vain hope that the bi-product, ketones, which are derived from eating this way, will control my epileptic activity and thus improve my cognition.
All was going well: Cook in bulk and freeze; check the menu and make adaptions if I was going out somewhere; eat differently to everyone else. It was a habit – I just got used to it.
But the diet has ‘side effects’ that the dietitian didn’t tell me about – I can’t try the biscuits that my ten-year-old daughter has made; I can’t eat the challah bread on a sabbath meal, and because in traditional Judaism a meal isn’t considered a meal unless you eat bread I am not allowed to wash my hands in the traditional way before the meal or sing the special blessing afterwards; on takeaway night I still have to make my own food and sometimes I eat quite late because I have made everyone else’s dinner but not my own.
These things are difficult for me but I know that I can sustain it if the benefits outweigh the side effects. And so this is where I reach a crossroads – I have been on the diet for four and a half months now and I need to make a decision as to whether to continue. The dieticians and doctors say that you should see a reduction in seizures by three months of being on the diet but I have heard cases (on Facebook – where else?) where people don’t see a reduction until six months. But because I wasn’t having seizures – ‘only’ a cognitive deficit it is always going to be difficult to assess if the diet is actually helping me. I am using four measures to help me make this assessment. The first measure being observations from those nearest and dearest to me and they have, almost unanimously, said that I seem more alert and in a better mood. The second is my own self-assessment – I agree my mood is lighter, I feel stronger. But other things are also happening as well. My memory has deteriorated – the other day I went to make myself a cup of coffee and after I made it I put the cup of coffee down and right next to it was another cup of boiling hot coffee that I must have only made a few moments earlier. I’m also noticing that my propensity to get the words that I want to say out of my mouth has reduced. Instead of telling my son to ‘Hurry up and go to the toilet’, I told him to ‘Go and put your clothes down the toilet’. Obviously he found this hysterical – but it was disturbing for me. So my self-assessment of whether the diet is working for me is a mixed bag.
The third measure is a neuropsychological assessment which measures cognitive processes such as problem solving and memory. I had a test before I started the diet and one three months later. The pre-test results were similar to someone with amnesia. After three months on the diet my scores improved in all areas. However, I am aware that, as any good neuropsychologist will tell you, the assessment does not measure everything and that other people’s observations and my own are just as important.
The last measure is an electroencephalogram (EEG) – a measure of my brain activity. I had an EEG before I started the diet, which like all my EEGs, shows that I have epileptiform activity (a propensity to have a seizure) but I am not having seizures. I believe that it is this epileptiform which is causing my cognitive problems. I was on edge for three and a half weeks to get the results of the EEG. And yesterday the results came in – there has been no change in my epileptiform activity since I started the diet. However, just like the neuropsychological evaluation, and as any good neurologist will tell you, I am aware that the EEG does not measure everything that is happening in by brain.
In amongst all of this I have to take another factor into account – I want to come off my meds. I have been researching (on Facebook – where else?) the fact that my anti-epileptic medications could be having a detrimental effect on my cognition in addition to the epileptiform activity. However, coming off meds could be dangerous (I’ve had clonic tonic seizures previously because I changed or forgot to take meds) and so I need to make sure that something else will control my epileptiform activity before I make any changes.
So now my dilemma – stay on the diet or come off? Over the past year, I have realised that it is important to be one step ahead of the game – I have to ask myself – what should I try next if this medication/therapy doesn’t work. My next avenue, as I have said previously, is CBDoil which is made from hemp – part of the cannabis plant. What I am talking about here is the oil that you can by over-the-counter at many health food shops, or online and not Medical Marijuana. Medical Marijuana, which can treat a host of conditions, is made from the marijuana part of the cannabis plant and currently, unfortunately, UK doctors are not able to prescribe it (although it is available in many other countries included 27 states in the US, Israel and the Scandinavian countries).
If you read all the literature (ok, websites) on CBDoil you will find out that it is the new miracle cure for anything from brain cancer to ADHD, chronic pain to epilepsy. There is not as many double blind trials for the legal substance CBDoil as there are for pharmaceutical drugs but if on Facebook groups (where else?) many people are saying that it has reduced their seizures then who am I to knock it and say that it is load of baloney. If it works, it works.
So, what’s the dilemma, I hear you ask – just go onto the next thing – try the CBDoil. Well two dilemmas? Firstly – should I come off the ketogenic diet? I can see that in some ways it has worked, but in others it has made things worse and the reason for going on the diet was to improve my cognition and not my mood. And secondly – if I am going to try the CBDoil which brand should I try? The CBDoil market is entirely unregulated –there are many different brands and each brand has several products – it is a bit hit and miss as to which one works.
In writing this blog, I have come to the clarity that I was looking for. I feel that the ketones might be over-reacting in my brain causing cognitive overload and therefore just like reducing a medication, I am going to decrease the amount of ketones I am making. I can do this by slowly (over a number of weeks – it is just like coming off an anti-epileptic medication) reducing the amount of fat and increasing the amount of carb I take – so that my diet becomes similar to a ketogenic diet for weight loss. People who follow the weight loss programme still create ketones, but not to the same level as on the medical diet and people on this diet often say that they feel more energised than they used to be. It is that energy that I still want to maintain.
Once I have got to a fat/carb ratio where my memory improves but my energy levels are still the same (Ok, this might be asking to much but it’s worth a try) I will go to a naturopath that I know who specialises in CBDoil but if I feel that my mood/ alertness has reduced significantly I can always go back to the stricter medicalised diet. And then I will go to a natupath I know who specialises in cbdoil to ask her to recommend me a product (there aren’t many of them, so I am lucky that I know someone like this). It will work out more expensive to buy the CBDoil through her (because I will have to pay for her time and presumably she will recommend an expensive type of CBDoil) but I am confused as to which product to buy and if I go to her she will make the decision for me. If I feel that the CBDoil is working, I will try, under the supervision of a neurologist, to come off my meds.
Obviously I really don’t have a clue what I am doing. It’s guesswork really. But it’s an educated guess and I have come to realise that I am the best person to make these kinds of decisions.
In other news
I feel like I am getting towards the end (or a new beginning) of my story. It’s just a hunch, and I could be wrong. Anyway if the end does happen, I have decided that I would like to get my blog published as a book. Somehow over the last year and a half I have amassed about 40,000 words in musings and they could be of interest to other people. To that end I have commissioned a proofreader (OK, asked a friend a favour) and then if I do get to a final chapter I might as well send it to an agent or two and see what they say. After all, I’ve got nothing to lose.
PS – A note on medical marijuana – there are many different strains of medical marijuana and each one treats a different condition and I believe strongly that if it can help people, as in the case of little Alfie Dingley, then it surely it should be made available for this use. Although I do not know them, I am sure that if Alfie’s parents thought that the legal substance CBDoil, which they can buy over-the-counter, could help their son they would have given him that rather than going through the exhausting process of trying to get medical marijuana legalised. As far as I understand it CBDoil and medical marijuana can treat similar conditions – but currently it is a bit hot and miss as to how successful CBDoil is but this is not the case with medical marijuana, where each product is grown to treat a specific condition.
To join my Facebook group go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/371346339966284/
 As I keep on saying my mind is a bit of a fog, so if you want more details on exactly what cbdoil is please go here https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317221.php
Here I am on week three of the ketogenic diet and I thought I would update you as to how I was getting on.
I do not want to put anyone off, but there are four reasons why the diet is more challenging than I initially thought it would be. Yes calculating the correct carb/ fat ratio is tricky (and the ketogenic recipes that I found mostly had different ratios to my own so I had to recalculate the ingredients using my own ratios) and yes it’s time consuming to weigh all your food but most of all, and something that I didn’t think about before I started the diet, it has taken me time to find recipes that I like. Changing the quantities in recipes to get the correct recipes has often meant at first I was eating things that I would not of, under any other circumstances have eaten – the crustless quiche didn’t fill me up, so I changed the recipe making sure I was still on my 4g carb / 40g fat and added more low carb mushrooms, the mincemeat was too oily, so again I recalculated and the next time I made it with less oil and added avocado as a fat source for a starter and the cheese and tomato quiche I simply didn’t like. It will take a long time to get a full menu of meals for me.
The second reason why it’s challenging is that, for now and least there is a limited amount of food on my diet that I can give to my family. Quiches with lots of cream, mushrooms in a lot of oil and tomato and pepper oily soup just don’t appeal to my family (although cheesecake with an almond base is a winner). I thought I could convince them in the beginning but now I know that that just won’t be possible.
Thirdly the diet has a monetary cost. There are cost savings to the ketogenic diet – I can’t eat out anymore (at least while I am getting used to the diet), I can’t impulse buy chocolate bar, or decide to just take a Ben and Jerry’s out of the freezer and finish it off. But my staples have become flaxseed, almond flour, extra virgin oil and cream cheese and so our food bill has gone up (and although the NHS are advising me to do this they are not funding the added expense).
And lastly I didn’t realise how much I was going to miss other food. A very good friend of mine said that she couldn’t go on this diet because it would mean giving up chocolate. But I have found that it is easy to give up chocolate (even Ben and Jerry’s chocolate fudge ice cream) but what I miss is bananas, a cup of tea with real milk, a slice of challah – traditional Sabbath bread – and freshly cooked pizza. Before I started the diet it was the logistical nightmare that was concerning me the most, but I now realise that is just part of it and missing some foods is quite hard especially when they are in your kitchen cupboard just wanting to be eaten.
In the past the diet has been a course of treatment mainly for children. But my experience as a mother on the diet is that I am facing different obstacles to the one that I child might face. This is because although I am getting assistance from my mum, Facebook groups and my amazing nutritionist, – no one is doing the diet for me – I am facing the demands of a very complex diet whilst at the same time suffering the symptoms of epilepsy. In my case the symptoms are mainly cognitive – a recently neuropsychologist was a bit baffled when my test results came out as similar to someone with amnesia because I just didn’t come across that way. Thus I struggle to make a simple meal because for example look at recipe sheet for a quiche, and go to the fridge to get some eggs and come back and realise that I need some cream as well and then come back and realise that I need some cheese and so one. It’s exhausting. But I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a clonic tonic seizure (or a partial seizure, complex seizure, absence seizure etc) and then worry about complying to the diet. I’ve had four clonic tonics in the past and the thing about them that I don’t think that most people realise is that afterwards you do not feel ‘with it’. Personally it took me a good few hours to recovery from them. I am sure that excellent advice and care would be given to those on the diet who had a seizure but it would make complying with the diet more challenging. However, like me I guess people who are having seizures are hoping that if their seizure activity is controlled then the diet will become easier to manage.
And the other reason my experience of the diet is different from a child’s is because I am also managing the diet of the rest of the family – I am still peeling potatoes, boiling pasta and shopping for food for the family that I will not eat. (However NB – I only have the deepest respect for any ‘keto’ mum or dad who lovingly makes food for their child and tells them that they cannot eat the same food as their siblings, that they can’t have any sweets and please don’t eat an apple that a friend gives to you at school. And I also have immense respect for any ‘keto’ child who knows that their parents are doing what’s best for them and so does exactly what their parents’ say even though it must hurt inside sometimes).
As I said, I don’t want to put people off the diet. I am told that the diet gets easier once you get yourself into a routine and your knowledge of the diet increases. If this diet means that I can go to the fridge and get the eggs, cream and cheese at the same time (plus do a million other things) then the hard work will definitely be worth it. Although for some people the diet can provoke changes in seizure activity very quickly (as in Meryl Streep’s film First Do No Harm) for me that isn’t the case. But that doesn’t mean they won’t happen. Sometimes it takes time. So I will continue however hard it is and see what happens. I will let you know what happens.
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A blog similar to this was published by the Epielpsy Soceity on 2nd February 2018 here.
This is my new post on the Huffington Post – based on something I have written previously. ‘Epilepsy not just a seizure disorder’
To receive updates of my blog go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/371346339966284/
I’m still on the ketogenic diet and I will let you know how I am getting on that in due course. In the meantime I thought I would share with you a letter I wrote to a neurologist:
I know that you have trained very hard for a long time to get to your position and I want to thank you for the good work that you have done to improve the quality of lives of so many people. However, sometimes when I come out of a consultation with you, I do not think that you have truly met me – Sharon Ross – I think that you have met my EEG or my MRI, but you haven’t met Sharon Ross, mother of-three, struggling with life, clutching at straws but still with Hope. Therefore, I am writing with two suggestions as to how you, and others in your profession, might improve your professional standards and thereby increase your ability to help me and the hundreds of thousands of other people with epilepsy.
You obviously have seen how people with epilepsy behave in a hospital ward and in a consultation room and you also are up-to-date with medical science’s current understanding of the brain. However, I believe that to treat a person you also need to know a person. So my first suggestion is that you get to know the group of patients that you serve. I know that you will say that you don’t have time for this, but I would argue that it is more important to get to know people like me than it is to go to yet another conference or write another research paper. You could do this in one of two ways. One way could be to hang out with someone with epilepsy for a day, for a week or on an ad hoc basis. Then you could see for yourself how their children react when they have a seizure or how not having a driving licence has meant that they have had to retrain in a profession – moving away from the dreams they had as a child or how the anti-epileptic medication (AEDs – see point 2 below) really seems to be screwing with their head.
Another way to get to know your patients would be to join some epilepsy Facebook groups, read what people have written, but do not comment (NB As a member of some of these groups I would be quite happy for you to become a member, but some groups may not allow you to join) . In these Facebook groups you will find a range of comments from ‘I applied for benefits, appealed and still didn’t qualify but I can’t work and I really don’t know how I will carry on’ to ‘I’ve had two brain surgeries and I’m still getting seizures’ and ‘I’ve found it difficult to have relationships because when I have a seizure, they get scared and walk away’. You will also find signs of Hope on these groups – pictures of children holding up signs saying ‘one year seizure free’, ‘two months seizure free’; 100s of responses for requests for prayers as a loved one goes into surgery and lots of ideas and suggestions and messages of support to those that are going through a difficult time from those that have been there and done it.
Getting to know people with epilepsy in these ways might give you a bigger sense of satisfaction when you manage to find a good treatment for them..
And my second suggestion as to how you could improve your professional standards is that you could, like the pharmaceutical industry that serves us, be a little more honest about the side effects of AEDs. The side effects are written on the same type of leaflet as one for aspirin or a cough mixture. But there are a huge range of side effects listed for AEDs ranging from ‘dizziness’, ‘fatigue’, ‘acne’, ‘unwanted hair growth’ and ‘behavioural changes’. They are all real and although the packet might say that only 1 in a 100 are affected; if that 1 in 100 is you it can have a dramatic impact on your quality of life. In addition it is well known that most, if not all, AEDs can have cognitive side effects such as ‘problems with thinking, remembering, paying attention or concentrating, finding the right words, or other symptoms’. I suspect that the fact that these side effects aren’t mentioned most packets of AEDs is not because anyone has acted illegally or in an underhand way – it’s just that it’s difficult for a patient to have the self-awareness to say exactly what cognitive side effects they are having and therefore they don’t report it. However we do know that as ‘seizure medicines lower the excitability of nerve cells in the brain, they can also affect normal activity’ and even if the precise side effects of each medication aren’t known the general rule that AEDs can cause cognitive side effects. Therefore, it would be wise of neurologists when discussing medications with patients and their families have a discussion with them about the powerful nature of these drugs so that they can weigh up the risks and benefits (which might be significant) before taking them. Without this discussion some patients could not be aware of the side effects of the drugs that they are taking and their quality of life, measured not in numbers of seizures, but in other more qualitative measures, might reduce when on them.
I thank you for taking the time to read this letter and I wish you much luck in your future endeavours. If you would like to discuss anything I have raised in my letter, please be in touch.
With kind regards
NB I haven’t sent the letter, indeed it was not directed at one particular neurologist – but maybe I should!
 Or to be more precise, as you well know, 600,000 people in the UK with epilepsy and 50 million people worldwide.
I did not do too badly at school, but last week I went to the hardest lesson of my life – a half-day course on the ketogenic diet at the National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery in London.
It started quite gently – the nutritionist asked what I, along with my mother, the other patients and their family members (who like my mother had come along because they wanted to assist their loved ones in their new undertaking) knew about the diet.
We were a well-informed lot – we knew it was a low carb/high fat diet; we knew that ketones were a bi-product of the diet that could help to reduce seizure activity and we knew that it was going to be hard work. Our little group thought we were doing quite well.
And then she hit us with the tables. A very long list of tables. They listed the amount of carbohydrates in various products. For example did you know that 8g apple, 13g onions and 250g mushroom each contain 1g carbohydrate? And don’t get me started on bread, rice or pasta (11g sliced white bread has 5g carb etc etc). These are the tables for which the next three months, at least, we were going to live by. Our little group knew we had a lot to learn.
Based on my weight, height and activity levels the nutritionist had calculated the amount of carbs and fat I must have at each meal or snack – each patient had different targets, but at least we didn’t have to calculated protein. There was to be no wiggle room she stressed – I must have the amounts she had stipulated, no more, no less at every meal and snack.
So I must know these amounts like a mantra – breakfast, lunch and dinner 4g carb, 40g fat at each meal; and 3g carb and 25g fat for three snacks throughout the day. Everything I eat must be measured in advance like a military exercise.
And then came the crunch time – the calculations. What should we do if we wanted to eat something not on the list? For example I want to use my favourite pasta sauce (to flavour fish or meat but definitely not pasta). It contains 11g carb per 100 gram. How much of it can I use for my lunch? And so, under the guidance of my nutritionist, I learnt to calculate that I can have 36g pasta sauce with my meal to meet my carb requirement. Our dietician/maths teacher was patient with her patients as we learnt our new life skill.
But that’s not all. We had we had to take into account our fat requirements. The tomato sauce has 2g fat in it per 100g. That’s way below my fat target. So I’m going to have to add some double cream to my pasta sauce which could be quite nice and then have a high fat dessert. Of course I still have to limit carbs and also remain kosher – Jewish laws stipulates that I can’t consume milk and meat together in the same meal, so I will have to have tomato and cream sauce with fish which doesn’t sound too bad. And to top it off, at least at the beginning of the diet, I cannot use meat or cheese or oily fish towards my fat target.
It was indeed a very difficult lesson to take in – and with a foggy brain like mine, this is the hardest challenge of my life.
But the nutritionist was upbeat – it is possible came back the message. You can do this – other people have. But it won’t be easy and there are no guarantees that it will improve your cognition or reduce seizures. She was on our side – I’ll be there to help you all the way, adjusting the plan if necessary, she stressed. But, the other patients, like myself, must have been pretty desperate – fed up with the epilepsy that is destroying the quality of our lives, because that is the only reason you would take this diet on.
I came back from the seminar with my goody bag – two recipe books, one electronic device which will measure my ketones and glucose levels daily via a blood test, lots of tables containing lists of carbs and fats in various products and notes about what to do if you are unwell (keep to the diet and check meds are low carb!). Plus we also got the number of direct line to the dietician, which is now listed as a favourite on my mobile phone.
My mother and I were exhausted. We had entered into a world that we didn’t know existed. We were uncertain whether we would be able to stay the distance. But we must try. So next week, after spending sometime meticulous planning each meal I will start the diet – just with breakfast at first and then slowly building up over a week to include every meal. I will let you know what happens.
A similar blog was also published by the Epilepsy Society here.
I am still doing the ketogenic diet and my next blog will be published by the Epilepsy Society in due course but today I would like to discuss again with you free will, because it is something that I think about a lot.
Sometimes, it seems to me that I have no free will. I know theoretically that I should make sure that all my children’s clothes are clean and ready the night before school. I know it now, as I type, but I rarely do it – I forget. My desire to do something and the ability of act upon it seem to be juxtaposed. And so it seems with this and a million other examples, my free will has been yanked out of me and thus something fundamentally human has been taken away.
Yet somehow, given my circumstances, on the face of it, I have made wise decisions and my life is turning out well. I married a man that I love, we have three beautiful children, live in a nice house and I have some very special friends. I also made a big decision to become an observant Jew and in doing so have made, over time, a radical shift in the way I go about life.
‘How can this be?,’ I ask myself – how can I be making good decisions, when on the inside it often doesn’t feel like I am making any decisions at all. And then I ask myself – what about other people with neurological disorders like dementia, schizophrenia, bipolar, ADHD and epilepsy like me – do they have free will? We are taught that the reason we are different from animals is because we have ‘free will’ but because my free will is limited does that mean that I, and others with similar issues, are not so human after all.
After doing a bit of thinking and after trying to read up the subject and then not taking it all in, I have come to the conclusion that in some very odd way, I still do have free will and I am very much human and that therefore others with neurological conditions have free will as well. As I explained I while back (Blog 10 – the theory of the mind – for those that have been following) I have come to understand that there are three types of knowledge – intelligence, cognition and intuition/ the soul (this very roughly follows the Jewish idea that there are three types of knowledge – chochmah, daat and binah). Intelligence is thinking conceptually – some people have it in abundance and can argue theories and ideas on all sort of spurious ideas – and some have less of it. You do need some to live independently and make decisions about the way you live life but you are still human without it and thus you have free will.
And then there is cognition – this is the bit that I struggle with, as do some other people with people neurological disorders. To function independently you need to plan, to process, to remember and crucially to make decisions. For whatever reason schools put more of an emphasis on intelligence than cognition, but as I have tried to illustrate in my blogs if you have intelligence but are limited in in some way with cognition life can be hard. But to be human you do not need to have cognition or intelligence. You still breathe. You have an essence about you that means that you go on. Some people with limited cognition or intelligence might even need assistance in functioning in life but nobody ever argues that they are not human.
However, what every human definitely has is a soul, a nefesh – even those people who have a whole myriad of learning difficulties have a nefesh – no human is born without one. I believe that you love someone not because you are attracted to their intelligence or their cognition (although it might help) but because of something much deeper – it can’t be explained and it isn’t necessarily logically. I have a nefesh. And even if my cognitive free will has somehow been dislodged my nefesh free will has not and I use this part of my brain to make my decisions and so far it has done quite well, even if at times it has felt if something is absent. And because this part of my brain is working just fine, I am very much human.
Therefore, in conclusion, I do have free will – although it’s shape might be different from others because it is based on my nefesh rather than cognition. However, I will fight on eating virgin oil, flaxseed and cream in abundance on the ketogenic diet trying to obtain a cognitive free will that I desire and I will let you know what happens.
 Very loosely daat is cognition and chochmah is intelligence and binah is intuition/ nefesh please see for http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/80899/jewish/Chochmah-Binah-and-Daas.htmfurther info
This is my blog about my first visit to the ketogenic clinic at the National Hospital of Neuroscience and Neurosurgery in September. A similar version was published by the Epilepsy Society the following month.
Sharon Ross is about to start the ketogenic diet. This is the first in a series of blogs about what it involves.
My name is Sharon Ross and I have an unconventional type of epilepsy and I am going to start an unconventional type of l treatment for it. I have frontal lobe epilepsy – sometimes it seems like I have dementia and my neuropsychologist said I have similar symptoms to someone with traumatic brain injury or who has suffered a stroke. My memory, processing, decision making and problem solving are poor. I used to look at a weather forecast and wonder why anyone was interested in them – lots of numbers and pictures in a graph seemed dull. But now I realise that people take an interest because they need to decide what clothes they should wear or how the weather will impact on their day. However, I can’t translate the information on the chart into what it means for me because my mind is a constant fog. Thus frontal lobe epilepsy is not a pleasant condition to live with and I want, indeed need, to find a cure. The brain fog is caused by irregular epileptiform activity and although my medication is treating the atypical seizures that I was having the epileptiform activity is still occurring. I have tried lots of medications to control it but they haven’t helped so in the next few weeks I am fortunate enough to be starting the ketogenic diet and I am writing a blog so that you can join me along my journey.
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carbohydrate diet that is a recognised treatment for epilepsy. Much of the data regarding its efficacy comes from studies in children, but there is now a growing body of evidence for its use with adults. The exact mechanism of the ketogenic diet remains uncertain. The diet provides fat as an alternative fuel source for the body, producing metabolites called ketones and other associated biochemical changes can reduce seizures and control epileptiform activity.
Before I went to my first appointment at the hospital I already knew quite a bit about the diet and how I thought it would impact upon me. I am married with three young children, one of whom loves foods high in carbohydrates, especially jacket potatoes. The ketogenic diet is not a healthy one and my family cannot go on it with me so I know that managing my family’s eating requirements and my own at the same time is going to be tricky. I live about an hour away from the hospital which is useful, but I also know that often the dietician will catch up with me over-the-phone, so the distance is relatively inconsequential. Because I am ill I don’t work, but I see this as a plus because it means that I can devote time to planning and cooking meals – you need to make time for this diet to work. . As I said my illness means that planning, and indeed most things are difficult for me. Therefore I have a secret weapon – my mum. Everyone needs a good mum when they are going through a hard time and I am very fortunate enough to have one. My mum has therefore ‘volunteered’ to help me with the planning and preparation of meals – not for the rest of my life – but just until, hopefully, my brain starts to function as it should and then I will be able to do it by myself.
I am also an observant Jew. Before the first appointment I thought the fact that I already take food with me when I go out on day trips when I know that I won’t find food that fits my dietary requirements would be helpful but I learnt that being kosher is not a benefit on the diet. Being kosher means that I do not eat food derived from a pig or shellfish and I do not mix milk and meat together in the same meal. This is a problem for a Jew on the ketogenic diet because a traditional ketogenic meal is essentially treif (unkosher) – the suggested week’s meal plan I was given has for example dishes such as chicken breast topped with cheese AND bacon, sliced ham with side salad as well as prawn mayonnaise. Treif is high fat and therefore good for the diet. But I have my second secret weapon – Facebook. I have found a few kosher, vegetarian and vegan ketogenic Facebook groups and I am hoping they give me inspiration for non-treif ketogenic dishes.
My first appointment at the clinic took place with a dietician and a specialist in metabolic medicine. They told me a bit about the diet, some of which I already knew and were honest about improvements I was likely to see – 40-50% of patients of patients will have an improvement to seizures after three months and on average seizures will reduce by 50%. They also said that they would be monitoring my overall health throughout because nobody wanted one illness to be treated but to be replaced with another (for example I had a blood test to measure my cholesterol level – if it is high I will not be allowed to go on the diet). I I think the main point of the meeting was for them to outline how challenging the diet would be and then for me to go home and think about whether I really wanted to do it. The diet is not going to be easy and you would only do it if you were desperate and I am desperate.
The next stage is a half day information session with other people also starting the diet at the hospital. I will then spend the first week slowly weaning myself onto the diet and then I will start in earnest. I will let you know what happens.
Unlike secular self-improvement guides on self- improvement, which focus on learning new skills, increasing monetary wealth and setting targets the Jewish way focuses on middot – personal characteristics. This way says that to improve ourselves firstly we must become aware of who we are, our strengths and our weaknesses. We all have good traits such as being generous or hospitable. But to improve we must focus on our weaknesses. If your weakness is that you are impatient, it would take a lot of energy and effort to try to be even a tiny weeny bit less impatient, but that’s what you should do, if your weakness was that you were always late then getting to one place on time might seem like an enormous obstacle but you should try it. You won’t earn more money for making this sort of change but in Jewish terms you have achieved something absolutely huge and it is even said that perfecting just one of these character traits is the reason for the existence of humankind.
In Jewish tradition there is no better time to focus on middot than Rosh Hashana – the Jewish New Year (which falls next Thursday and Friday). Thus, in Judaism, a new year’s resolution – to work on a particular middah (the singular of middot) – is not something superficial, but if thought about seriously, and over time and with sincerity and effort worked upon, can invoke real change in a person.
In theory I think this this method of self-improvement sounds great – self-depreciation is all too easy but then so is keeping to the same behaviour patterns year after year – so picking on the one middah that needs working on the most does seem like a sensible way to improve yourself. However, this year I have decided to take a break and not make any effort in improving myself at all (not that I did very well at it before). I have decided that I am too ill to make such changes. I think I do quite well to get out of bed, get my children to school in clean clothes, give them some sort of dinner and get them to bed (in a completely chaotic sort of way). If I tried to give myself any other target I would surely fail, so what’s the point? This isn’t because I am too lazy or have had enough of religion, it’s just that I’m too exhausted. I don’t have the energy to self-improve. And looking around I can see that there are other people that might feel the same way as me – those living with cancer (and their spouse who is a full time carer); those who are chronically depressed or have dementia or for whatever reason life just seems to be a bit too much. Surely Judaism should give me and these people a bit of a let our clause for the New Year?
However, having done a quick scan of Jewish law I have decided that there are two reasons for the get-out clause I and many others need not try to self- improve this year. The first is that I am ill and the Jewish law can be very lenient on those are ill (for instance if you need to use a car to go hospital, because you are ill, on the Sabbath- a day that you normally wouldn’t be able to drive – then you can). And the second reason why I believe that I and many others who are ill, who are full time carers or who are generally exhausted and life-is-too-much don’t have to try at self-improvement is because that we are already expending all our energy trying to, in whatever way, make life just a tinsy wincey better for ourselves minute-by-minute day-in-day out. Day after day I
write letters and phone doctors in the hope that I will achieve full health and this is a huge challenge. Each ill person is on a different journey and faces different challenges but they are all hard and require extreme effort. In this way surely I am along with the other exhausted-life-is-too-much people surely acting in the best of Jewish traditions of self-improvement – of meeting an internal struggle straight on and day-by-day trying very slowly but steadily to overcome it.
I’m up for any crack pot idea if I think it will help me get better. You name it, I’ve tried it – hair analysis, drama therapy, sacro-cranial therapy, cognitive analytical therapy and soon a new diet. This week someone who I very much respect suggested that I went for some free alternative therapy which involved a very limited time commitment. I was very much up for it. And so, in the spirit of self-improvement, this week I went to see a Very Important Rebbe. For those of you that don’t know a Rebbe is a rabbi who has had a job promotion – he’s a rabbi and then some. People seek a Rebbe’s advice because he’s on a higher spiritual plane than us mere mortals. And I have to say, I was impressed with my visit. The Rebbe listened very carefully to what I had to say, gave me a blessing and a short regular task to carry out. I actually thought the task was a lot more useful than the many tasks that cognitive therapists have suggested over the years and I truly felt blessed from his very sincere and heartfelt blessing. I don’t know if the visit will have any influence on whether I get better or not but as I said it didn’t cost anything and no harm done. So Sharon’s assessment on visiting a Rebbe: an alternative therapy definitely worth trying out.
PS Happy tenth English birthday to my lovely daughter Gabriella, whose Hebrew birthday is the second day of Rosh Hashanah. I don’t know if you will ever read this, but if you do you probably won’t be ten and it won’t be your birthday but I just I just want you to know that I wanted you to have a happy birthday.
PPS The Rosh Hashanah self-improvement thing is obviously a pretty hard thing to achieve many, if not most, Jewish people that I meet do not try at it. That’s because it’s hard, they think that they might fail and maybe they will. And I believe that a compassionate all-knowing god understands that.
 Shlah – Leviticus 1:18
 There are various law surrounding how you would use a car on the Sabbath if you are ill, so check them out – by speaking to a rabbi or Jewish person educated to a high level in Jewish law, if you think you will need to do this or if you’re just nosey. or Jewish person educated to a high level in Jewish law.
‘I am useless’, ‘I haven’t achieved anything,’ I used to tell my therapists who presumably had heard that sort of thing a million times before. But I also said some slightly odd things like ‘I don’t make decisions,’ ‘My seven-year-old daughter knows more than I do’ and most peculiar of all ‘After I had a car accident and my one-year-old daughter, my youngest, was in the back crying I felt that I went to check on her, not because of any instinctive feeling, but more because I knew that was what other mother’s would do in that situation’.
I thought I had these feelings because I was depressed – and that’s what the many therapists and psychiatrists I saw thought as well. But now I know differently, I know that my problem is neurological, not psychological – I have frontal lobe epilepsy − my brain activity is abnormal (but I am not having obvious seizures) and my processing, decision making, memory, attention and awareness are impaired and this, my primary diagnosis, is making me depressed.
It has taken me 20 years of seeing therapists, psychiatrists, neuropsychiatrists and neurologists to come to this conclusion. And along the way I have also discovered that I am not alone in having a neurological condition that makes me depressed. People with undiagnosed ADHD, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy and other neurological conditions often feel, as I do, in some way different from others and it leads them to the therapist’s door. The statistics prove the point – ‘Forty percent of people on the autistic spectrum experience at least one anxiety disorder at any time’ (The Autistic Society); ‘lifetime prevalence of depression with people with epilepsy could be as high as 55%’ (Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry) and ‘adolescents with ADHD are 10 times more likely to develop depression than those without ADHD’ (University of Chicago Medicine). But it’s also intuitive – if you feel different but don’t know why and you try time after time, and fail time after time, to be like everyone else, it is almost inevitable that you are going to get depressed.
Yet even though the evidence is there to see most therapists and, in my experience, most psychiatrists just aren’t trained to recognise atypical processing, memory or communication skills. No more so than for therapists – it’s not their bag – they deal with the psychological. But the impaired or atypical neurology impacts hugely on the psychological and I believe that those in the profession should become more aware of that. Although most psychiatrists should up their game and find out more about these conditions, many depressed people might not see a psychiatrist, or only rarely. Therefore other mental health professionals such as therapists and social workers (and even GPs) should also be trained to recognise symptoms. It doesn’t mean that they should diagnose or treat these people – they should just be trained to recognise symptoms and then, if appropriate, refer them to a suitable professional for assessment.
I still have a significant journey to go on. Epilepsy is not an easy or straight forward condition to treat. But I am convinced now that I need to find an effective treatment plan for my epilepsy and if I find that then my mood will improve. I don’t need to see a therapist, even though I am depressed. My case is complex – but shouldn’t have taken me 20 years to get this far – but without appropriate changes to the system others, with far less complicated conditions, will be doing the same thing.
Sharon Ross blogs at https://sharonrossblog.wordpress.com/
This article can been seen at http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/sharon-ross/why-mental-health-profess_b_17793906.html
The research quoted in this article can be found at the following websites
Epilepsy – http://jnnp.bmj.com/content/76/suppl_1/i45