Exclusive: Beauty Entrepreneur Karen Murrell on Living With Epilepsy – “You Shouldn’t Let Anything Limit You”

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Her beauty brand is an international success story but Karen Murrell has had to work with the extreme migraines and seizures that are a result of her epilepsy. Here, she talks to Capsule about her journey to diagnosis, her therapy pet Lucy and why Uber Pet was a game-changer for helping her keep herself – and her business – as healthy as possible.

As the founder and CEO of her eponymous line of lipsticks, Karen Murrell is enthusiastic about sharing her life-long journey of living with epilepsy. However, she jokes that she doesn’t want to be considered a guide on managing work/life balance with a disorder, because it’s something she’s still very much working on.

“I’m not perfect at all, because I’m always having migraines and seizures, so don’t look at me,” she laughs, over a Zoom from her Auckland office. “People are always saying to me, ‘Stop, slow down,’ so I’m not a good role model.”

While she may be someone who does occasionally let her work ethic outweigh her need for rest, Karen says it’s extremely important to show just what is possible when it comes to working around a neurological disorder like epilepsy.

“The biggest thing is that you must set goals and achieve them, because if you don’t you’re going to be very ‘woe is me.’ You have to live your life but at some stage you also have to rest, have to get some sleep ins.” 

“The biggest thing is that you must set goals and achieve them, because if you don’t you’re going to be very ‘woe is me.’”

Karen, 48, was born with epilepsy, after an injury that occurred during her birth, but she says her journey with epilepsy has been a life-long process, due to the leaps and bounds in knowledge about the brain. “Even the name of my epilepsy has changed from Grand Mal to Tonic-Clonic Seizures,” she says. But the diagnosis and the heavy medications she was put on from a young age – when Valium was considered an appropriate drug of choice for kids with epilepsy – have never placed any limits on her life. “I have been very fortunate as I have come from a family that pushed me forward and was extremely encouraging rather than trying to wrap me in cotton wool, as the saying goes.”

In her late 30s, Karen was given a fuller diagnosis of her epilepsy – including learning that she had had it since birth – and also learned about the important role that stress can play in managing the symptoms of this neurological disorder. “I know that I need two hours of sleep on top of what other people need, and if I don’t get this, I’ll have a seizure. If I experience high-impact stress, I’ll have a seizure.” Karen also suffers from extreme migraines, and things like a film that features a lot of flickering lights can trigger either a migraine or a seizure.

The signs that a seizure is coming include getting an aura effect in her vision and smelling a particular smell. When those signs start, it’s a warning that a seizure is incoming and she has to lie down immediately. “If I don’t lie down, I’ll fall down.” This is one of the most serious parts of the entire process and can lead to injury and concussion if not adhered to. “I’ve spent a few nights lying on the bathroom floor by myself because I’ve fallen there and I haven’t been able to get up, so when I bought a house, I made sure there was nothing around that I could fall and hit my head on,” she says. “You become very good at learning where there are obstacles and you learn what to look for. You learn how to fall. You learn self-protection, very fast.”

“You become very good at learning where there are obstacles and you learn what to look for. You learn how to fall. You learn self-protection, very fast”

It’s a lot to think about but it is nothing to fear, she says. “There are lots of types of Epilepsy, some people have many seizures, and some people only have one seizure. It is something that can be well managed.”

But there are two relatively recent introductions that have improved Karen’s quality of life to a huge degree. One of the consequences of having a seizure is that you can’t drive for a while, so when you have epilepsy and regular seizures are a part of life, your transport options are severely limited.  When Karen was starting her brand, she says she had to spend an inordinate amount of time on buses or on her bike, often feeling sick from the after-effects of concussion at the time. Uber arriving in Aotearoa was a total game-changer, she says. “My accountant ran the numbers on whether or not it was cheaper to run a car and pay for parking or just solely use Uber. For me it was cheaper to use Uber. It was the luxury I never knew I needed and it’s a habit I’ve never changed.” 

But then along came game-changer #2, her therapy dog Lucy. A Scottish-cross Schnauzer, Karen says that four-year-old Lucy is a total joy and brings her so much happiness. “If I am sick or close to having a migraine or seizure, she won’t leave me,” Karen says. “She sits by my head and stays with me – not even leaving to go to the bathroom – until I’m better.” 

However, there weren’t many pet-friendly ways to get Lucy to work with her, so the advent of Uber Pet (where your animals can travel with you in the car) suddenly streamlined everything. “She is so well-trained, she sits perfectly on my lap the entire time,” Karen says. “When you have an illness, you have a lot that you have to deal with, every day. Having services like Uber Pet removes an issue for you.”

“When you have an illness, you have a lot that you have to deal with, every day.”

Even though living with epilepsy requires more management to stay healthy, Karen says that at no point has it affected what she is able to achieve either at home or in business. “You shouldn’t let anything limit you,” she says. Having children and running a household was hard, due to the lack of sleep and the fact that it occurred during a growth period of the business, she says, but she made it work on all sides. She has a happy family and the Karen Murrell brand is an international success story. With age, Karen says she’s learned to be a bit more careful with herself and prioritise rest when she can.  

It’s also about having a community of friends and loved ones who support you. “I don’t associate with people that are not good for me; that is a big thing. Surround yourself with good people who make life easier and more enjoyable. For me it comes down to managing stress, seeking quality connection and down time, a flexible working environment and having a great trusted team around me.”

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