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Bronagh climbs to new heights, despite her epilepsy

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Bronagh climbs to new heights, despite her epilepsy

Bronagh Cairns, 31, is a passionate rock climber. She also has epilepsy, but refuses to let it keep her down. This is her story, shared during National Epilepsy Week 2024, as she embodies this year's theme of #PersonalBest.

Hello! I’m Bronagh, and I’m 31 years old. This is my story.

I am a passionate rock climber. I work at climbing walls, compete in climbing competitions, and coach others for these competitions. I also have epilepsy and have been living with it for about 8 or 9 years now. I experience tonic-clonic seizures, but one thing I tell people right away is that flashing lights don’t affect me.

My first seizure happened when I was walking home from the train station after work. My vision started fading in a circle until everything went black. The next thing I knew, I woke up on the floor of my house with my parents and younger brother standing over me. That was the beginning of my journey with epilepsy. Since then, I have experienced many seizures—in awkward situations, at work, and even while climbing.

Bronagh lying in bed, showing facial injuries sustained during a seizure.

I have two consultants working with me to find the right combination of medications to help me gain independence. Currently, I’m on three different types of medication. Sometimes, I feel like a walking pill bottle.

When my seizures first began and worsened, I was told to take a long break from climbing. For several years, I had to stop altogether because my epilepsy made it unsafe for me and others. If I had a seizure while climbing, I could fall and seriously injure myself because my body would stiffen and be unable to break the fall.

Aside from stopping me from training and climbing, epilepsy has also given me a lot of fear. Something as simple as walking down the street terrifies me, let alone going to the gym or climbing with friends. My friends are aware of my epilepsy, and have learnt how to deal with it, but I still have a lot of fear beneath the surface. And that doesn’t go away. 

After my official diagnosis, I started climbing and training more than before. Partly, it was to improve my skills, but it was also an act of rebellion. Climbing is more than a career or hobby for me; it’s a way to remind my epilepsy that I am in control of my destiny. Despite the illness, I’m determined to keep climbing and living my life.

One thing I wish more people had told me about epilepsy is the loss of independence and the feeling of being babysat. During the times I couldn’t climb, I felt like I was under house arrest. I often left jobs after having a seizure, not because I had to, but because I felt less capable. This led to a decline in my fitness and missing out on the fun social aspects of climbing during my 20s.


Bronagh climbing at a climbing wall. Photo creds @johnbanyardphotography
Photo creds @johnbanyardphotography

Occasionally, I manage to gather enough courage to start climbing again. Focusing on climbing and my goals makes me feel like the weight of living with epilepsy is lifted. I work hard, see real progress, and move toward my goals. Then, I have another seizure, another injury, and another reason to stop.

Staying positive about climbing is challenging. I’ve had many serious injuries from seizures and felt embarrassed by them in public or at the climbing walls. At my last appointment, my consultant and I discussed the viability and sensibility of continuing to climb. That conversation helped me realize how much climbing means to me. It is as much a part of me as my epilepsy is.

I’ve been inside for too long, but the weight of my epilepsy won’t stop me from climbing. If you live with epilepsy and have something in your life that it affects, find your way of climbing up. You will cry, it will hurt, but you can keep going up.


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