We fight to improve the lives
of everyone affected by epilepsy

Martin Brennan

In 2016 I was arguably at the top of my game in terms my chosen career. I had served 26 years in the police service predominantly working within the world of tackling serious and organised crime. I held a senior position within covert policing and had just overseen the merging of a regional collaboration to improve the fight against crime.

I was thriving in this busy environment and to my mind working in the best area of policing. Leading dedicated individuals and teams committed to high risk operations was a privilege. My wife and daughter were fantastic and as ever and continued to support me in my career, which on one occasion included moving to Ireland for two years whilst I was on a work secondment.

My leadership style is one that is very visible. I engage with individuals and teams, listen to experts and I am not shy to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions to get the best out of an individual or a team. I worked ridiculously long hours, was ‘on call’ for the team and often returned to work in the small hours responding to dynamic threats and crimes in action. Fuelled with the love of the job and to a certain degree that next promotion within the organisation work life was good and very satisfying.

On 5 February 2016 I was at work as usual heavily involved in meetings, making decisions, looking after the teams and briefing senior management. My diary was crazy and my ‘on call’ phone was constantly ringing. I was just about to finish another meeting with a colleague when I had a feeling that had occurred a couple of times before. It was a sense of deja-vu, butterflies in my stomach and a distant feeling. My colleague asked if I was OK and I remember stretching my arms open and said “no actually I feel a bit weird.”

Well weird was an understatement. The next thing I remember was gaining consciousness, but now I was in the back of an ambulance, sirens and blue lights flashing with a colleague leaning over me asking for my pin number to unlock my phone so that he could call my wife. What the hell was going on? I felt utterly helpless, lost, confused and very frightened.

That feeling remained for some hours whilst medical staff tried to work out what happened to me and treat the wound on my forehead from the fall I had taken in the office. A parade of friends, colleagues and family started to turn up at the hospital, but to me it was all in slow motion as I did not have a clue what had happened and why.

I was later discharged from hospital and undertook a number of follow up medical tests. I took a week off work, but although now very much conscious I felt that my whole world was still in slow motion.I was present and witnessing what was occurring, but I didn't feel part of it. During this period I was utterly confused, not in control and embarrassed that I had displayed a sign of weakness within my leadership in front of my colleagues family and friends.

In the margins of my medical treatment epilepsy was mentioned, but I immediately discounted this as I had no history of this was healthy with plans and promotions ahead of me. How could I possibly have epilepsy.This internal denial perpetuated and on reflection added to the stress, which spiralled rapidly into depression as I was trying avoid the evidence and did not want to show another sign of personal weakness.

After several months and further numerous medical tests I was eventually diagnosed with focal epilepsy, temporal in origin, triggered by fatigue and prescribed Levetracetam. Although relieved that we had eliminated a number of other possible causes of the seizure, this diagnosis together with the loss of my driving licence and sense of failure added to my depression.

I unilaterally decided to train harder, take the minimal medication, get my driving licence back as soon as possible and prove that this was just a bump in my career. What I actually did was to deny the facts and medical evidence that I had epilepsy and that I had to live with it rather than against it.

Family, friends and colleagues wanted to help me, but I am ashamed to say that I initially shut them all out. I wanted to solve this problem out myself, this is what I was good at right ?…wrong. Yes I could solve problems out and I enjoyed this, but all my successes had come from working collaboratively with others to come up with solutions, yet I couldn't see this obvious trait when it came to my own health.

Whenever I needed to address an organised crime threat I would seek the counsel and advice from experts and collectively we would come up with solutions. I realised that I had forgotten the basic ingredients of decision making, leadership, self awareness and wellbeing. I wanted to become more resilient to the fact that I had epilepsy, but the truth is that this is innate and it was me that had forgotten that I needed to collectively get through this with other, not on my own.

Now with a sense of clarity and realisation that I didn't need to suffer in silence and prove anything the world around me started to move at the normal pace and crucially I felt part of it again. My amazing wife and daughter who I had shut out during the early stages arranged for my to meet with other inspiring people living the condition through Epilepsy Action. This reaffirmed that I was not alone and actually I was very fortunate that my condition was mild and could be controlled unlike some of the group members that shared stories and battles about their condition.

I am aware and saddened that others have faced discrimination from employers when dealing or disclosing that they have epilepsy. Fortunately I did not, but I did sabotage my own mind with negative thoughts believing that my career was now over and I would be wrapped up in cotton wool. For sure I needed to readjust and reflect on my lifestyle and wellbeing, but in all honesty this was a good thing especially as the medical staff believed that my condition was triggered by fatigue.

My initial belief that my employer would shut me out could not have been more wrong. Since identifying my condition and readjusting my working conditions I have actually been promoted and represented UK policing at the United Nations in New York. I have learned to adapt my career and channeled my energy into inspiring and helping others through coaching and mentoring. Sharing my police experiences is important, but the most satisfying feedback I get is when I now openly share my story to promote the power of resilience through leadership, decision-making and wellbeing rather than denying that epilepsy wouldn't effect me.

I have realised that you are rarely alone when coming to terms with a diagnosis of epilepsy. The very people I initially shut out were the ones that I should have embraced to help me come up with solutions on how best to work with the condition. I spoke with colleagues at work who had witnessed my seizure and their unconditional help and love is what I should have tapped into earlier. I am aware that everyone is different, however, I truly believe that with loved ones, friends, colleagues and help groups the support and solutions are out there.

It has taken sometime for me to adapt and embrace my condition.There have been highs and lows as well, but most importantly I have not allowed my condition to control my life. I have learned how to work with it and continued to push myself out of my comfort zone, but within a controlled self awareness manner. On reflection there are many things that I could share about my journey so far, but I am only one of many living with epilepsy, so I have clustered seven key learning points from my journey to unlock the human potential in all of us.

1. Do not ignore any signs-On reflection I had been having many deja-vu and butterflies in the stomach episodes, but I just ploughed on through.
2. Rest and sleep-I was on call for too long, disturbing my rest periods and I should have had the courage to say no more often. Your employers will understand and if not do you really want to work within an organisation that doesn't support your work life balance?
3. Nutrition-Busy meetings and schedules often meant I skipped meals or eat on the move. By exception this is alright, but it had become a habit of mine that I should have addressed sooner.
4. Family and friends-I shut them out initially as I was embarrassed and wanted to prove that this was just a blip. They too will be frightened, but will also want to help you if given the chance.
5. Epilepsy Support-I went to a coffee morning in Birmingham and spoke with some truly amazing people who shared their experiences and reassured me that I was not alone.
6. Medication and routine-Create a regular medication routine and stick to this habit.
7. Pause and Breath-There are 1440 minutes in each day, spare 10 minutes of this valuable time on you to stop, slow down pause and breathe. My daily self reflection, awareness and meditation is free and we have the gift to prescribe this to ourselves.

Martin Brennan
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