Even though an estimated 65 million people in the world have epilepsy, a neurological condition of the brain that causes seizures, not many people in the spotlight speak openly about it. Below, is an ever growing list of people — writers, athletes, entertainers, etc., that I’m compiling — who lived and some who are still living, with epilepsy.
1. Vincent Van Gogh
‘I am not an adventurer by choice but by fate.’ — Vincent Van Gogh
Doctors believed painter Vincent Van Gogh lived with temporal lobe epilepsy and bipolar disorder, according to the Van Gogh Gallery. “Temporal lobe seizures originate in the temporal lobes of your brain, which process emotions and are important for short-term memory,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
2. Neil Young
Neil Young is a singer and songwriter who lives with epilepsy. He’s also had polio and a brain aneurysm, according to The New York Times. His daughter, Amber Jean, also has epilepsy. Young helped found the Bridge School, where individuals with severe speech and physical impairments can go to learn.
“Epilepsy taught me that we’re not in control of ourselves.” — Neil Young
3. Edgar Allan Poe
“It is happiness to wonder. It is happiness to dream.” — Edgar Allan Poe
“The Raven” poet wrote about his episodic unconsciousness, confusion and paranoia, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. While the cause of his death is still unknown, historians think Poe may have died from alcohol abuse, his epilepsy or heart failure, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.
4. Theodore Roosevelt
“Courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you don’t have the strength.” — Theodore Roosevelt
Both Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, and his lesser known brother, Elliot, had seizures throughout their lives, according to the Theodore Roosevelt Center. Elliot Roosevelt died from a seizure a few days after he attempted suicide. Despite Theodore Roosevelt’s many health conditions, he was active outdoors. He was dedicated to preserving our environment and is considered the “Conservationist President,” according to the National Park Service.
5. Lewis Carroll
“One of the deep secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others.” — Lewis Carroll
Author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, known under the pen name “Lewis Carroll,” recorded two of his seizures in journals, according to the Lewis Carroll Society of North America. Doctors now suspect that Carroll lived with temporal lobe epilepsy, according to The New York Times.
6. Charles Dickens
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” — Charles Dickens
Author Charles Dickens had epilepsy when he was a child but didn’t have seizures as an adult, according to the BC Epilepsy Society. Some prominent characters in Dickens’ books had epilepsy, including Monks in “Oliver Twist” and Bradley Headstone in “Our Mutual Friend,” according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
“Despite everything, no one can dictate who you are to other people.” — Prince
Prince dealt with epilepsy as a child, he told People magazine, but the singer claims his epilepsy was cured after an angel spoke to him. “One day I… said, ‘Mom, I’m not going to be sick anymore,’” he said on PBS’ “Tavis Smiley” show, “and she said, ‘Why?’, and I said, ‘Because an angel told me so.’”
8. Florence Griffith Joyner
“When anyone tells me I can’t do anything… I’m just not listening anymore.” — Florence Griffith Joyner
Florence Griffith Joyner, nicknamed Flo-Jo, was an American Olympian. She died in 1998 from an epileptic seizure, which doctors then tried to contribute to Flo-Jo’s use of performance enhancing drugs, according to The New York Times. Flo-Jo passed every drug test she took and denied ever using drugs, according to CNN. “My wife took the final, ultimate drug test,” Flo-Jo’s husband, Al Joyner, said in a statement after her death.
9. Lil Wayne
Rap superstar Lil Wayne recently came clean about the condition he has dealt with for much of his life. In 2013, he was hospitalized when he had a series of seizures. They occurred after shooting a music video, and it was assumed they were brought on by a busy schedule and lack of sleep. Recalling this frightening time, Wayne said, “No warning, no nothing, I don’t feel sick. I get headaches real bad. And the headaches? I didn’t get no headaches or nothing.”
After recovering, Lil Wayne opened up in an interview about having multiple seizures throughout his life. In talking publicly about his epilepsy and what it feels like to have a seizure, the rapper is helping to shed light on the condition for his millions of fans. He also has made it a point to let his fans know that epilepsy won’t damper his career plans or schedule, saying that his doctor “didn’t tell me to do too much that a human doesn’t do anyway. Sleep and eat right, that’s about it.”
10. Jean Clemens
The youngest daughter of Mark Twain. She had epilepsy from age fifteen, which her father attributed to a childhood head injury. Her epilepsy was not successfully controlled and at one point she was sent to an epilepsy colony in Katonah, New York. She was found dead on Christmas Eve in her bath aged 29. The cause of death was reported as drowning due to epilepsy.
11. Dai Greene
Olympic athlete Dai Greene is an example of how lifestyle habits can make a real difference to your health. The British track and field hurdler has epilepsy, but he hasn’t had a seizure in years. After medications failed to eliminate his seizures, Greene realized that alcohol, stress, and lack of sleep triggered them. He changed his lifestyle, cut out alcohol, and started eating better.
In 2011, Greene told The Guardian how his family was skeptical about these changes at first. He went on: “But they were fine once I discussed it with my specialist, who agreed to me coming off medication because I’d changed my lifestyle dramatically. I was no longer drinking … so I was confident I wouldn’t put myself in a scenario where I’d have another seizure. I very rarely drink alcohol now. I’ve had some nights when I’ve gone drinking at the end of the season, but as long as I spend time in bed the next day I’m fine. Also, my girlfriend doesn’t drink, so that helps.”
While we can give Greene kudos for overcoming these challenges naturally, you shouldn’t stop taking your medications without a serious discussion with your doctor. No one with a medical condition should rely on lifestyle changes alone without consulting a doctor. But Dai’s success shows that healthy living can be a great supplement to professional medical care.
12. Danny Glover
He will forever be known for his role in the popular “Lethal Weapon” movies, but Danny Glover also impacts people when he talks about epilepsy. The Academy Award-winning actor struggled with epilepsy and seizures as a child. Like many people with epilepsy, he outgrew the disorder.
Glover attributes part of his success to being able to recognize the warning signs of seizures after his first one at the age of 15. He said “Eventually, I could recognize it happening … Each time I got a bit stronger and the symptoms began to diminish to the point where I was ready to go on stage.”
Today, Glover works to bring awareness to epilepsy by supporting the Epilepsy Foundation. He contributes to the organization’s programs for children and volunteers his time speaking about epilepsy and bringing awareness to the issue.
13. Jason Snelling
Former Atlanta Falcons running back Jason Snelling is another important supporter of the Epilepsy Foundation. He was diagnosed with epilepsy in college. With treatment, he was able to continue his football career and become a successful professional athlete.
Snelling has been outspoken about his condition — particularly the stigmas and difficulties surrounding diagnosis. In an interview, he said that “It took a long time for the doctors to diagnose me because not all seizures are due to epilepsy; it could have been a seizure disorder that was caused by something else. In my case, it did turn out to be epilepsy.” Furthermore, he offers advice on fear and stigma: “You know, there’s a big fear factor about having seizures in public, of maybe having one in front of other people. And I like to tell people not to worry so much about that. Epilepsy can be managed, and you can go on and do whatever you want to do. I was able to fight my fears and overcome a lot of things; having epilepsy has actually built my character.”
Today, Snelling works with the Epilepsy Foundation to bring awareness to the condition. He reaches out to others by speaking out about his own experiences. He also works with the Foundation’s African American initiative, Know the Difference. Snelling’s outreach is helping to bring awareness and funding to this important cause.
14. Susan Boyle
The woman who made waves on “Britain’s Got Talent” with her lovely voice has also opened up about having epilepsy. The unlikely star struggled with the condition throughout her childhood. In recalling those struggles, she has said: “At school I used to faint a lot. It’s something I’ve never talked about. I had epilepsy. People in the public eye don’t have things like that. All through my childhood they’d say epilepsy is to do with mental function. And now I realize it’s not. I was up against all those barriers. It wasn’t easy.”
Boyle has talked openly about her disability and how it held her back. Adults in her life told her that her seizures were due to a mental defect, and for years she believed them. By talking about her struggles, Boyle helps to shine a light on children who may experience complex emotions because of epilepsy.
15. Rick Harrison
His fans know him as the knowledgeable owner of the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop and the star of “Pawn Stars.” What Rick Harrison’s fans might not know about him is that he lives with epilepsy. Harrison attributes his love of history to the fact that he was forced to spend much of his time as a child inside the house, alone. The Epilepsy Foundation has quoted Harrison as saying, “Because of my seizures, I was forced to spend a lot of time in bed in my room away from the television when I was a kid … The best way to entertain myself was to read, so I became very interested in history books.” He ended up developing a lifelong passion for the subject.
Now, Harrison is giving back by working with the Epilepsy Foundation and helping the organization bring awareness to his home state of Nevada.
16. Chanda Gunn
Athletes with epilepsy are particularly great at inspiring others to succeed in the face of a physical disability. Among some of the most inspiring is Chanda Gunn, the goalie for the 2006 women’s U.S. Olympic ice hockey team. Diagnosed at the age of nine, Chanda was already an avid athlete. When she was forced to give up swimming and surfing, she took up hockey and never looked back.
For Gunn, it’s important to let other people with epilepsy know that the condition won’t hold you back from your dreams. While ice hockey might be considered dangerous for people with epilepsy, Gunn demonstrates that anything is possible. On epilepsy.com she writes: “There’s no reason why a person with epilepsy can’t play sports or pursue their dreams.” Although she was afraid of the sport she’s now famous for playing, she further says, “I’ve learned to live with it, the fear of the unknown, because I want to really live life and for me that means playing ice hockey.”
Today, Gunn is one of the most successful women in U.S. hockey. She’s also a spokeswoman for the Epilepsy Therapy Project.
17. Alan Faneca
Former guard for three NFL teams and a winner of one Super Bowl, Alan Faneca has long been vocal about living with epilepsy. He was diagnosed at the age of 15 and has coped with it ever since. He’s opened up about living in fear (especially as a teenager) with epilepsy, and his early attempts to hide it. He was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “I felt like a freak. You live scared that somebody is going to find out, and they’re going to think less of you. You’re living in the shadows.”
In spite of his condition, Faneca managed to have a 13-year career in professional football that included several Pro Bowl awards. He’s now a spokesperson for the Epilepsy Foundation, spreading awareness and teaching people first aid for seizures.
18. Hugo Weaving
Australian actor Hugo Weaving is best known to Americans for his roles in “The Matrix” and “The Lord of the Rings.” He started his battle with epilepsy as a teenager when he experienced major seizures at least once a year. Weaving says that his disorder never held him back, and that he didn’t let it stop him from doing the things he loved to do.
He’s also been open about his experiences with the condition — including medications. In 2015, he was quoted in The Guardian as saying, “People always thought I was laid back, but I was basically doped for 30 years on epilepsy drugs. I ran out of my meds filming in the desert and went cold turkey. I was on a moderately high dose and it was masking a nervous anxiety I didn’t know I had.”
Weaving always had a positive attitude about his illness and hoped that he would outgrow it. Because of the seizures, he was never able to get a driver’s license. Today, he can say that his hopes came true. He hasn’t experienced a seizure in over 18 years.
19. Elton John
Elton John has struggled with epilepsy for years. It is thought that the epilepsy was induced by the star’s years of drug use. Sir Elton Hercules John CBE is an English singer, songwriter, composer, pianist, record producer, and occasional actor. He has worked with lyricist Bernie Taupin as his songwriter partner since 1967; they have collaborated on more than 30 albums to date. In his five-decade career Elton John has sold more than 300 million records, making him one of the best-selling music artists in the world. He has more than fifty Top 40 hits, including seven consecutive No. 1 US albums, 58 Billboard Top 40 singles, 27 Top 10, four No. 2 and nine No. 1. For 31 consecutive years he had at least one song in the Billboard Hot 100.
20. Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great had epilepsy although at the time is was diagnosed as the “sacred disease.”
Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was a King of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon and a member of the Argead dynasty. Born in Pella in 356 BC, Alexander succeeded his father, Philip II, to the throne at the age of twenty. He spent most of his ruling years on an unprecedented military campaign through Asia and northeast Africa, until by the age of thirty he had created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to Egypt and into northwest India. He was undefeated in battle and is considered one of history’s most successful military commanders.
21. Adam Horovitz
Horovitz was married to actress Ione Skye from 1992 to 1995. They separated in 1995 and divorced in 1999. Since 1997 he has been involved with riot grrrl artist Kathleen Hanna; they married in 2006. Horovitz is featured prominently in The Punk Singer, a 2013 documentary film about Hanna’s life and career; he even shot a scene himself to show Hanna’s distressed reaction to the medication she was taking against Lyme disease. His best friend since childhood is actress Nadia Dajani, whom he met at P.S. 41, a public elementary school in Manhattan.
Horovitz began to wear a medical alert bracelet following the tonic–clonic seizure he experienced in 2003.
22. William Alexander “Bud” Abbott
Famous comedian (half of the “Abbot and Costello” duo) who had epilepsy all his life, but tried to control and hide it. He was an American actor of burlesque, radio, stage, television and film, producer, and comedian. He is best remembered as the “straight man” of the comedy duo Abbott and Costello, along with Lou Costello. Abbott was active for over 30 years, appearing in both television and film roles.
23. Ward Bond
A film actor. His epilepsy led to his exclusion from the draft during World War II. He was an American film character actor whose rugged appearance and easygoing charm were featured in more than 200 films and the NBC television series Wagon Train from 1957 to 1960. Among his best-remembered roles are Bert, the cop, in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Captain Clayton in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956).
By Margaret Lenker
By Mary Ellen Ellis and Kristeen Cherney