Synaptic Journey by Diane Payne

“All the most acute, most powerful, and most deadly diseases, and those most difficult to be understood … fall upon the brain.” Hippocrates


It’s dark outside. The grass is cool. I crawl inside the sleeping bag, then put a blanket over Max and me. It’s weird. It’s almost like sleeping with a child. Or a man. I’ve slept alone too long.

Max is exhausted. His brain has betrayed him. I pat his head like I do my daughter’s when she’s not feeling well. I’m exhausted. Too damn tired to cry.            Some people have suggested that I put him down. They don’t know Max. If he recovers, he’ll return to being a relatively healthy dog.


New Year’s Eve marked the beginning of cluster seizures. New Year’s Day we drove one hundred miles to an animal clinic, the closet vet available on a holiday. The drive was hell. Seizure. Piss. Vomit. Shit. No place for Max to pace but over everyone in the car. The howling. The crying. The claustrophobia.

After all the tests came out normal, the vet assumed he was epileptic. Max didn’t seizure at the clinic, so he didn’t get a shot of Valium. We left with a handful of Phenobarbital, which he wasn’t supposed to start taking until we made it home again.             One hundred more miles of seizures. Stop car. Let disoriented dog pace. Whine. Howl. I wanted Valium for me.

After a few days, those seizures stopped and I started researching canine epilepsy. Avoid pine needles. We have ten pine trees in the yard. I ordered Max an all cotton bed because the polyester filling in his old bed may cause seizures. I moved the TV up higher, hoping any strobe type lights that may emerge from the screen wouldn’t reach Max and cause a seizure. I removed the blinking lights still hanging in the kitchen from Christmas. I started making Max home cooked meals because even the most expensive brand sold in our town was supposedly not healthy enough. I started giving him Breyer’s All Natural Vanilla ice cream before bed to help calm him down and boost his sugar level for some reason or another. I bought herbal remedies. There are so many reasons. So many possibilities. According to the books, everything could provoke Max into having a seizure.

I e-mailed people from a support group for epileptic dogs. Someone wrote me long, detailed instructions on how to inject Valium in his rectum when he seizures. My vet thought taking Valium during an emergency while he was taking such a large dosage of Phenobarbital on a daily basis would kill him. Others suggested I stop the Phenobarbital and just keep Valium on hand for emergencies. Everyone had a suggestion. Everyone could point out something wrong about our regular routine. I grew weary with the research, depressed with the responses.

Eventually Max returned to his old mischievous self. We went on long walks. I quit worrying about seizures. Against all the warning in the books, Max went swimming. I kept the What To Do During a Seizure note posted on the refrigerator. I made sure there was always a bag of ice available because the ice was supposed to distract him from seizuring or cool him down or something miraculous.


Long ago, walking along the Lake Michigan shoreline with the men who lived in the group home, I remember when Jim fell and had a seizure next to the shore. At eighteen, I was the group home mama.   I was younger than every resident. Jim liked to call me his daughter, the daughter he never had because long ago when he was a teenager, he was shipped off to a mental institution for being epileptic and suffering from “fits.” Like with Max, every day I made sure to remind him to take his Phenobarbital. He also took Dilatin. After Michigan closed down the institutions, the people moved into group homes. Jim deserved a real home. He was a great gardener. Loved to cook. There was no reason for him to be around men who banged their heads on walls for no apparent reason, other than pure frustration for being forced to live a life in a group home, a life filled with restrictions, a shoddy job at a sheltered workshop, and no connections to the people who once were their true family. Jim banged his head on the ground because he had no other choice.

Before Jim, I don’t remember ever watching anyone have a seizure. Jim was a tall man who had a bad back, so he was always stiff. I knew Jim was an epileptic and suffered from occasional seizures. But Paul, a much larger man than Jim with no history of epilepsy, fell on the ground next to Jim, and either mimicked Jim’s seizure so keenly that it seemed real, or he suddenly became a victim of seizures.

Supposedly there are three phases to seizures. The aura, which lasts from a couple of minutes to several days, is the phase where a dog or human appears agitated and anxious. Paul was always agitated. I could hear him upstairs in his bedroom, howling to the same Linda Ronstadt record, over and over. Once I made the mistake of running upstairs to check on him and discovered he was masturbating. Jim, on the other hand, rarely appeared agitated, unless someone erroneously killed one of his plants or didn’t clean up the kitchen.

The men and I gathered around Jim and Paul, pulling them away from the shore, and watched their bodies contort and shake, until Jim slowly regained consciousness, and became apologetic, embarrassed, then frustrated that his “damn body” let him down again.   Paul had a confused look, rather similar to the look on his face after I walked in on him while he was ejaculating on the album cover.

We helped the men stand up and continued walking along the shore, both men a bit wobbly, but both eager to return to normalcy.

When I called Paul’s physician about the seizure, he assumed Paul was faking it and instructed me to ignore him. How do you ignore a 300-pound man writhing on the beach, joining his friend in that strange world where the brain shoots off rapid-fire synapses, all bound for the wrong direction? Fortunately Jim didn’t have that many seizures.


Max’s aura phase seems to last about seven seconds prior to the seizure. He becomes disoriented a few seconds before he collapses. Every now and then, I’ve been able to yell “No seizure,” and he’ll look at me and lie down. What do I know about this mysterious aura? He may have woken confused.   A fleabite may have irritated him. I don’t know if he was really going to seizure, but I want to believe I’m helping him prevent a seizure, anything to relieve some guilt for all those things I may be doing wrong.

Long before Max started his seizures, I came home from work one day and noticed Max had eaten about twenty azaleas. I kept wondering what would happen to him after eating so many toxic plants. He didn’t get sick, at least not that I noticed.   Max may have been having petite mal seizures all along, and I just assumed he was twitching, experiencing a myoclonic jerk while sleeping.


I remember watching a girl have petite mal seizures in class and on the playground when I was an elementary school teacher. Sometimes she’d start shaking, then fall asleep at her desk. I never saw her entire body convulse or her jaw clamp down.

Sometimes, she’d sit up afterwards and ask, “Did I just do that?”

I’d shake my head yes, and she’d look depressed. Fortunately her classmates were sympathetic, and probably somewhat awed by this unexpected reflexive behavior.

Kids would ask her what it felt like, and she’d try to explain, but it’s not easy articulating how one feels after their brain takes off like a pinball machine. In my childhood home, we had an old refrigerator in our leaky Michigan basement. If I opened the door without stepping on the rubber mat and wearing rubber soled shoes, I’d get a terrible shock. I suspect a seizure starts out similar to that initial shock, and then reaches that fatal electric chair state before the brain finally gets its act together, and frees a person from death. The power of the brain.


After eight seizure-free months, I hear Max roll over near my bed and seize. Ania must have fallen right to sleep and didn’t hear him banging on the floor in my room. I run and grab a bag of ice, then start my militant approach of trying to make him stop. “No seizure! No seizure, Max!” I sound like a desperate coach screaming during a losing football game. The cold ice bag I place on his haunches distracts Max more than my incessant pleading.

For a while.

It doesn’t take long, and Max enters the world of cluster seizures.

Within minutes of one stopping, another begins. No longer can I run and grab ice. I keep a cold washcloth on his fur, wiping away the foam and piss. Once the seizures hit cluster mode, I can only make a feeble attempt to protect his body from slamming against the wall and floor, and assure him he isn’t alone.

Eventually, Max struggles to get up off the floor and stumbles into Ania’s room. I curl up next to him, trying to coax him out of her room before the next seizure begins, hoping to spare Ania from any more epileptic grief.

Ania wakes. Bursts into another round of tears. I try to dole out tasks so we both feel less helpless. She breaks a pill in half and puts it in a dog treat. Then she sprinkles Bach Rescue Remedy on his head. The label on the bottle says it promotes natural stress relief. I wonder if Ania and I should be drinking it instead of sprinkling it on Max’s head. He’s way over and beyond the stress stage. With a name like Rescue Remedy, one can only hope it will work.

It’s one in the morning. A school night. Ania helps me lead Max outside, which is no easy task since he’s whining, banging into everything, unable to walk straight, think clearly. I follow Max around the yard. Ania crawls into my bed. That last seizure has drained all comfort from her room.

After a seizure, dogs, and probably humans also, tend to lose their vision temporarily. I turn the porch light on so I can follow Max in the yard. He’s regained the strength to walk. But he doesn’t walk. He paces frantically, banging into everything. Whining. Delirium. The cats have moved into the porch, keeping a watchful eye on Max. Barto, our older dog, feels a sense of loyalty and stays outside near us, but not too close. No one, not even spectators, can handle one seizure after another for hours on end. I doubt Max will be handle it much longer. He’s a large dog and I wonder what I’ll do with his body if he dies.

I’m worn out. Vets have told me he may die during cluster seizures. Or he may live. It depends how strong he is, how much more his body can handle. Sitting outside in the yard with Max, I remember being a teenaged girl with my dying mother, getting up throughout the night to see if she was still breathing, still alive, still suffering. I’d sit by her bed and listen to her wheezy breathing. Just like with Max, I had reached the point where I could only put a wet washcloth on her forehead. What more could I possibly do? Nothing but wait.

Max collapses on the grass. Every time he twitches, I fear he’s going to seizure again. I’m tired. It’s two in the morning. I’ve never slept in this yard. The last time I remember dragging a sleeping bag outside to the yard late at night was to sneak outside for sex with a lover while my daughter slept soundly in the house. I didn’t want her to wake and find a lover in my bed. She’s possessive. She’s manipulative. It has always been the two of us. A third person would shift our foundation. She’s smart. She knows lovers are clingy, have needs, would want to put their heads on my lap and have their heads rubbed. My lap is hers. A lover would be cataclysmic.

At first the sleeping bag lover probably found it somewhat romantic lying beneath a full moon in the desert. But the romantic aspect diminished when I made him disappear before the sun emerged. Barto was the only witness of this romantic escapade, and he didn’t seem to mind. He has a foot fetish. It was a bit like a game for him.   The lover wasn’t thrilled by Barto licking his feet. Oddly enough, if I had licked his feet, he’d probably go way over the edge into that exotic land of intense pleasure. How a lover responds to the critters is how I predict the odds of a romance surviving. Needless to say, it has been a long time since I’ve slept with a man.

Max moans in his sleep. The grass is cool on his belly. Keeping him beneath the blanket makes me feel maternal.   I have him in this safe cocoon so he knows he’s not alone. I do this for me. But then I worry the same way I do about my daughter. Is it starve a cold, feed a fever? I know Max’s body has been overheated. The books say the seizures make a dog feel like he’s just ran a marathon. It’s September in Arkansas. It’s probably in the 50’s. I wonder if I should remove the blanket. At this point in the seizures, it feels like nothing I do is right, nothing is helping.

I know Max may moan throughout the night, and then simply be dead. I don’t want him to die alone. I have to live with my conscience. I’m already enduring enough guilt for things I’d rather forget.

If I were dying, I’d want to be outside. When I don’t feel well, I like being outside. When I feel well, I want to be outside. I always want to be outside. I found Max burrowed beneath a tunnel of weeds and shrubs near a baseball field. One by one I removed the entire litter and took them home.

Tonight the outside world calls Max out of his screwed up synaptic state. A couple of yards over, cats struggle in a fight, and Max turns his head. His energy slowly returns. The Bassett hounds do their nocturnal barking and Max stops moaning and listens. As morning approaches, it’s the noisy birds that bring Max back to life. They are loud.   Max pulls his body up from the ground. I watch him cross the yard to pee. This is an optimistic move. Then he returns to look at me, uncertain why I’m outside at his hour. He walks to the door and barks. He wants me to let him inside. Be normal. He eats a bit of his food, drinks some water, then walks into my bedroom and plops down on his bed. Barto and the cats follow behind. Everyone is ready for bed.

I push Ania over so I can crawl into bed. The alarm will go off in an hour. She’ll probably wake wondering why she’s in my bed. Eventually she’ll remember. Just like Max will remember. Then he’ll go through the crying stage. He’ll stand by the spot he had his worst seizures and bark, whine, bark, and there’s nothing I’ll be able to do to explain why his brain betrays him in such a painful way.

In a week, Max will be back to his old self.   I’ll think about Barto worrying about losing his friend. How I’ve gauged so many lovers. How a broken dog disturbs my daughter’s sense of routine and hope.   How this epilepsy is a test of compassion. How it’s such a confusing state of isolation for Max. How Jim always got up, brushed himself off, and carried on with so much dignity. And how Paul developed such a deep form of compassion, deeper than empathy, and went down with Jim into the land of shock so that Jim was never truly alone. And then, after enough time passes, I’ll finally trust that life has returned to normal, whatever that may be.


About the Author: Diane Payne is the MFA Director of UAM’s creative writing program and lives in a small town with a house filled with dogs and cats, and her daughter when she’s home from college.  She is the author of Burning Tulips and Freedom Is Just Another Word. “Synaptic Journey” originally appeared in Fiction International, Winter 2007.