He lives in a small Central Valley town where he can get around by bike. He doesn't feel safe to drive and uses his license as identification only. He takes other precautions, too. If he meets someone for the first time, Nelson may not make direct eye contact. Sometimes, that kind of look can trigger a seizure. He had wanted to be a teacher, but he cannot trust that he will not have a seizure in front of a classroom of students.
Each seizure is unique and comes with its own emotional overlay and visual expression. A seizure "can start as a bright light flashing in the center of my vision," he said. "From there, things start to swirl around, a lot of swirling colors, like a galaxy."
Sometimes, a bright white light suffuses whatever is before him. Then the objects fracture until everything jumbles up like a do-it-yourself kaleidoscope. Once, he said, "I honestly could describe what I saw as angels. I felt like I was almost lifted out of my body. There were three angelic figures. They were just hovering. Normally in a seizure, I get an unpleasant feeling, a fear. This time I had a real joyous feeling. I felt very much at peace and didn't want it to stop."
In other seizures, things go black and he sees a ball with colors emanating off it. "This ball feels like it's moving through my brain," he said. "It's a grinding feeling. I almost have this sense that it's grinding my brain."
He experimented with painting after college. "I just kind of did it to see what it was like," he said. When epilepsy derailed his plans, he had time on his hands, so he picked up brush and canvas again. At first, he painted only what he saw in his seizures. "I call this my therapy period," he said, "because what I was doing was getting out a whole lot of this stuff that was inside my head, what was going on with me, the direction of my life."
He is painting more than his seizures now, as a way to nourish his interest in art. He has learned, he said, to take satisfaction in simple things in life–like riding his bike. "I sometimes push myself a little bit, to find my limitations," he said. "It doesn't mean I don't get frustrated, but I'm also happy with what I'm able to accomplish."
The joy he feels in painting is something to balance his obvious frustration with a disease that limits his ability to be with people. "It's socially crippling," he said. "People who know me are aware of my seizures and are okay with it. It probably bothers me more than it bothers them. When it comes to making new friends, I've got a lot at stake. Do I tell somebody right off the bat or do I wait?"
He is eager to see what his tests reveal about his epilepsy, to see if enough new information might be visible to outline new treatment for him. "But I consider myself blessed," he said. "So many people have it a million times worse than I do."
Additional photos available on Flickr