'I used to have 70 fits a day – but thankfully never on live TV': Lawyer who represented Julian Assange has had epilepsy for 41 years but refuses to let it rule his life
21:00 GMT, 1 September 2012
He is a giant in a profession where verbal agility and sharp mental skills are essential. Yet human rights lawyer Mark Stephens – who until recently represented WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange – has suffered epilepsy for most of his life.
His career success is an even greater achievement given that Mark, who counts comedian Jack Dee, presenter Anthea Turner and politician Arthur Scargill among his high-profile clients, admits he once suffered up to 70 small seizures a day. ‘I would lose consciousness for up to a minute,’ he says.
As one of Mark’s clients during those days – he represented me in a legal wrangle with Arnold Schwarzenegger – I was warned by his assistant before my initial consultation with him that he might have one of these episodes, known as a petit mal.
I soon became accustomed to him occasionally tailing off mid-sentence.
Life in the spotlight: Mark Stephens, who has epilepsy, in front of the cameras during an interviews
‘My clients were spectacularly supportive,’ says Mark, 55. ‘I remember being in a telephone conference with Anthea Turner and having a petit mal. She recognised what was happening and just waited patiently.’
Epilepsy usually begins during childhood – and Mark had been ‘blanking out’ since the first episode when he was 14. It was only when he began taking the drug levetiracetam, also known by its brand name Keppra, that he was able to live without the daily petits mals.
Epilepsy is an illness that affects the brain and causes repeated seizures, also known as fits. There are about 456,000 British sufferers – one in 130 people. During a seizure the electrical impulses between brain cells, known as neurons, are disrupted, which can cause the brain and body to behave strangely. Some sufferers simply experience a ‘trance-like’ state for a few seconds or minutes – a petit mal – while others have convulsions.
‘Mark suffered mainly with petits mals, which usually involves an abrupt and short halt of consciousness,’ says Professor Tony Marson, consultant neurologist at the The Walton Centre in Liverpool, which specialises in neurological conditions.
Mark with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange
‘During this time, the body may
twitch, the eyelids may flutter and the individual usually looks vacant.
A petit mal can occur occasionally or up to 100 times a day and usually
a patient has no memory of the episode. Luckily, there is no long-term
With serious fits,
the main concern is that the patient will injure themselves during
convulsions. The seizures risk brain damage only if they are prolonged
(usually more than 20 minutes is considered a medical emergency).
Recalling his only major fit at the age of 18, when he had just passed his driving test, Mark says: ‘I was playing drums with friends, had a fit and fell down. I don’t remember much more about it except that afterwards I felt very tired, and also very tingly – fits affect your nerves, which causes this to happen. I was up the next morning and life carried on as usual.’
Mark visited his GP, who referred him to a neurologist. Epilepsy can be difficult to diagnose because conditions such as migraines and panic attacks can cause similar symptoms. Alongside a detailed medical history – epileptic seizures have characteristics including noticing a strange smell or taste, and a feeling of dj vu – brain scans are also commonly used.
Mark says: ‘I was diagnosed, and told I would have to stop driving [due to risk of a seizure at the wheel], but no one explained my condition to me. It wasn’t a sexy disease. My first reaction was to ask, “Why me” In those days, the treatment was sleeping pills. Consequently, when I took my A-levels, I wasn’t alert and got lower than predicted grades.’
Fortunately for Mark, a compassionate admissions tutor at the North East London Polytechnic, now the University of East London, offered him a place. There, Mark met his wife Donna, now 49, with whom he has three children, Eleanor, 26, Olivia, 23, and Sheridan, 19.
After starting to practise law in 1982, then founding his own firm, Stephens Innocent, Mark became a spokesman on all aspects of media. ‘Strangely enough, I never had a petit mal while on TV, only immediately after. I’ve never experienced one in court, either. It’s almost as if the adrenaline rush blocks the onset of one,’ he says. In 2001, he took part in tests of Keppra at the National Hospital For Nervous Diseases. ‘The petits mals went almost overnight. Five years after I went on Keppra, I got my driving licence back.’
Although there is no cure for epilepsy, today the outlook is very good. Symptoms can usually be controlled using drugs, though it can take time to find the right type and dose.
‘It took years for a drug to be invented that would control my epilepsy, and I hope other sufferers will take heart from my experience and not give up,’ says Mark.
‘As my story proves, epileptics can still succeed in their ambitions.’