Athletics & epilepsy: Beth Dobbin
Meet Olympian Beth Dobbin from Scotland, she struggled with epilepsy as a teenager and has now been medication free for eight years. Read her story.
How did you get into athletics?
I was always a sporty child, in primary school I did a lot of long distance running. My dad played football and I'd go for runs with him. Then I went to our local athletics club and was put in the sprinting group.
Learn more: Can you exercise with epilepsy?
Tell us about your Olympics experience
It was amazing! I'm 27, and the Olympics is something I've always dreamed of. I remember watching Kelly Holmes win her gold medals in Athens 2004, and have been obsessed ever since. It constantly felt like my dream had come true, I had to keep pinching myself.
My stand-out moment was when I was on the track and there was no crowd, but it still felt special without anyone there. Throughout COVID-19 athletes have had to deal with a lot; will the Olympics go ahead or not, and the same with all other events.
It's weird as an athlete because your goal posts always shift, all I wanted was to represent Great Britain. Initially it was to do the World Championships, once that was done - then what's next? You always want to do more. I’m aiming to qualify for Paris 2024, it feels exciting that it's only 3 years away.
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The epilepsy journey so far
My journey began aged twelve, I was doing some school exams and started having uncontrollable movements with my hands. Teachers put it down to low blood sugar. One morning, I was putting on my mascara, but I couldn’t due to the shaking. I was annoyed, because as a teenage girl not having my mascara on was ‘such a big deal’. I was more worried about not wearing mascara than about my hand.
My hand kept moving uncontrollably, then I started to feel my eyes roll back. I looked at my best friend and she looked terrified - still to this day I remember the look on her face! I remember thinking I was going to die. I was out for about 10 to 15 minutes. I couldn't move the left side of my body or speak. The paramedics were asking me questions but I couldn’t respond. My dad was at the hospital, I could recognize him but I didn't know where from. The medics thought I had a stroke, however, after several tests I was diagnosed with epilepsy. Thankfully, my speech and memory came back, but even to this day my memory has little moments.
Freedom from medication
Medication completely controlled my seizures, but this came with lots of side effects. I was very tired and had to take 3/4 months off from athletics. When I started back I kept losing my races. Fast forward a few years and I came off my meds, this was when I started doing better. However, my safety net was now gone and my mental health deteriorated. I’ve now been medication free for 8 years, and I've struggled with it more since coming off due to the worry. Recently I was at the gym and I got light headed, then I panicked about having a seizure. It's mad how much it can impact your mind.
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Training after diagnosis
It came with so many side effects, such as balance issues - not ideal for a runner! Every day I was just so tired, rushing to train and go to school, once home I’d just go straight to sleep. It wasn't much of a life for a teen. I was scared to do stuff on my own, I wouldn't have a bath alone - my sister would stay with me.
During training I didn't have the coordination or balance, my left side is much less reactive. I also wonder what impact that has had. I went from winning all my races, to being so far behind. I remember crying in public on my mum's knee about my medications. My doctor said I could come off which felt like a risk worth taking.
Raising epilepsy awareness
Biggest thing for me was struggling with the mental health side of things. When I came off my meds I had anxiety, PTSD and several phobias. My life became like an obsession of being scared of having a seizure. Like if I don’t get ten hours of sleep - I’ll have a seizure, or an insulin spike will cause one. I lost a few years of my athletics career to it. I got help from a CBT therapist for this.
I had previously never spoken about my epilepsy, but a journalist from the BBC contacted me and I decided to help others with my story. I had so many people contact me with their stories. From that I realized I could make a difference. I work with Epilepsy Society and Young Epilepsy, at the moment I’m campaigning to get mental health support packages for children with epilepsy. If I had it as a child, it might not have ruined my teen years.
Advice to others
The best advice is to speak to people about it. I was suffering and worrying about it for two years before talking about it. Back then I had no idea what was going on, so I didn't know how to talk about it. Once I told my friend and she said 'that makes sense. If I had a seizure, I'd be worried about it happening again too'. Which really put things into perspective for me, as previously I had felt stupid for having these feelings. Also, reach out to medical professionals and charities because that's what they are there for. Everyone's going through the same thing. Even during an appointment with your epileptologist, mention that you're struggling with things.
You are not alone: Epilepsy and depression, let’s talk about it