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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

What Is a Coelacanth Fish?

June 2023

What Is a coelacanth fish? I love coelacanths. I don’t know how I learned of them, but I immediately liked them. I jokingly say I fell in love for the tenth or fifteenth time. It was no teenage crush on a boy or an adult desire. No, this was different—I loved a fish. an ancient fish, maybe the most ancient of us all.

The coelacanth is considered to be the missing link between fish and tetrapods. In its environment, this two-meter fish is a beautiful irredescent blue.

The coelacanth is considered to be the missing link between fish and tetrapods. In its environment, this two-meter fish is a beautiful irredescent blue.
Credit: Hoberman Collection/UIG via Getty Images

We are quite different, this fish and I, but we have something in common. We both stayed hidden for a long time, the fish for 420,000,000 years. I and my epilepsy hid for a mere 73. Until 1978, people thought the fish extinct. I, on the other hand, just had some behaviors that were strange.

Why welcome the coelacanth into my life? Is this some reptilian part of my brain that clings to ancestral links?

He survived the Chicxulub Asteroid that left a crater 93 miles wide, twelve miles deep, and caused tsunamis a mile high. How did these coelacenths survive? They lived in their usual spots in caves in the bottom of the ocean. They were not affected by the debris and the three-year darkness that killed three-quarters of the world’s plants and animals. Their world was dark anyway. They stayed well hidden.

I survived my strange thoughts, auras, hallucinations, and out-of-body experiences in two ways. I never told anyone about them and I behaved as normally as possible when they occurred. I tucked them away in the darkness of my closet, the coelacanths’ caves, and writing such works as Nikolin, a historical novel about a monk who had himself bricked into a cave in Kyiv. I survived by keeping my inner life very private in my own bricked up cave.

I fell in love with coelacanths because they were analogous to my strange moments of thoughts and behaviors. These moments were my own magic for decades. My reptilian brain—my brainstem and cerebellum—nests inside me and all humans, although not all of us have seizures or even auras. In a way, I feel fortunate. Sometimes, I have a feeling of how did I get so lucky to feel my descendancy from the first fish to crawl out of the sea? This fish could well have been a lungfish or a coelacanth. Lungfish have the ability to breathe air and also have a simple internal skeleton. Some lived on land for brief periods. These two fish may be the link to animals and humans on Earth.

I have blocked my emotions about epilepsy since that first time I frightened my mother. She did not know everything. She did not know, as I did, the feeling of death or the experience of heaven. She felt only the sheer terror of losing me. Losing a daughter as had happened to her mother-in-law. In that instant I learned my mother, and, therefore, my father also, did not know everything. She lacked knowledge I had just learned. What if it had been my father there with us instead of him being on a business trip to New Orleans? He would have burst into tears. I would not have known what to do with seeing one parent cry as the other one crumbled against the wall. Perhaps I would have thought that because he lost his three sisters he would have known. No. That moment would have been the instant of his experiencing what had stained his mother’s life. That left me to take care of my parents’ emotions by burying, as best I could, my own emotions and moments of seizures.

What are these emotions I so long ignored? Terror when an aura starts. Will I come out of this? Die? Injure myself again? I seek safety during those three to ten seconds of terror. Terror beyond control till I lose consciousness. The safety of a floor. Yes, a few seizures have happened in bed and I pass out into a long sleep. Most often, though, I feel gratitude for the safety of the floor, if I can make it in time. But too often I pass out first and injure myself. I once fell out of bed. Hit my head and hand on the wall and didn’t know where I was. Then, I lie on the floor till I regain consciousness enough to know whether I’m in a bathroom, under a table, on the floor in my dining room, living room, or a bedroom. It’s always at night and in the dark. But when I come to, the dark warms me, cuddles me. I am alive. Suddenly, the terror turns to ecstasy. Leaving my conscious mind, I go into a place similar to deepest meditation.

I feel sad that I have this affliction which confuses me. I now have medication which has changed everything. There is deep sadness now that a part of me that had been with me for almost as long as I can remember, is now missing. I am, now, incomplete. Sadness to learn that I need eight to nine hours of sleep at night when, since a teenager, I've been used to five or six. How do I get in my exercise routine, five-mile walks, three to five hours writing? Talk to friends? I cannot.

I no longer recognize a creative idea when I have it. The inside chill of needing to write it immediately. Gone. I know it is the medication and I have to learn a new way to spot a creative writing idea. I now read books on creativity, for I am not someone who will play around with and alter the medication. No, not after 73 years of pretending. I must learn a new way to discern that an idea is creative, new, important for the story or project.

Most people think of epilepsy as the tonic clonic seizure; until 1982, called grand mal seizures. That’s when the person falls to the floor, is unconscious, shakes, drools, and loses bladder control. I’d seen them, but they were not mine.

After decades of living with odd behaviors, and never telling anyone, I was fortunate enough to land in the office of an epileptologist who happened to be the medical director of a neurology clinic.  After an EEG (electroencephalogram), an MRI (magnetic resonance imagery), and an hour and a half in his office, he told me I had epilepsy. Such gratitude I felt toward him. He asked all the right questions and prescribed medication to control my seizures. I am grateful.

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