Nodding Off

The Cast: My Health (apparently not what I thought it was).

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
  And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
  Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
  Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
  As you rock in the misty sea
  Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:—
            Wynken,
            Blynken,
            And Nod.

That is the last stanza from the poem Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, published March 9th, 1889, written by Eugene Field. As a young boy, I had it read to me—and read it—often. Little did I suspect then how much Wynken, Blynken, and Nod would become my life-long friends.

A few years ago, a friend of my family collapsed while teaching. He was perfectly healthy (he thought). The next thing he knew, he was on the floor of his classroom unable to speak. Unable to move. Watching the students panic while his perfectly alert mind desperately raced, trying to understand what was going on and why.

Several months—and tests—later, he was diagnosed with three illnesses that when combined, may have unique results. These three illnesses don’t always affect their victims in the same way, but usually do. So, his life was turned upside-down. Fortunately, due to his skills and abilities, he was able to continue to work. He just teaches online now and has adjusted his lifestyle to make it work.

One day, as he and I were talking I learned something about myself. And what I write next, you just need to understand that I meant no malice or hatred toward my friend, or that I am some sort of psychotic nut-job that wishes the worst on humanity (although I do have my days…). But, as my friend was telling about how they diagnosed one of his new afflictions, all I could think of was: Oh my gosh! That’s me! That is so totally me!

Now after he was all done explaining it to me, I looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Dude, now, don’t take offense, but I’m kinda glad this happened to you… Well not to you, but… It finally explains so many things about me.”

His response, “No, I get it. I know.”

See, there’s this thing, narcolepsy, and it’s a sneaky little bugger.

nar·co·lep·sy
/ˈnärkəˌlepsē/
1. a condition characterized by an extreme tendency to fall asleep whenever in relaxing surroundings.

Narcolepsy. As a child, I had heard of it, and it was comically connected to instant sleep. Like Rowan Atkinson’s performance in the 2001 movie, Rat Race. In Rat Race, Atkinson’s character would be going along and then just sleep. Standing up, unlocking a locker, or whatever. That’s the kind of thing I knew narcolepsy to be. I didn’t know it could be anything else. Apparently, however, that is the extreme case, not the common one. The common scenario is the one I have: The-one-most-people-that-have-it-but-don’t-know-they-have-it case. (if you need to, re-read that last part, go ahead, I’ll wait—I could use a quick nap)

Yeah, that’s right, most people that have narcolepsy don’t know they have it. There are certain symptoms that need to be diagnosed by a medical professional because otherwise, they can just be subject to layman speculation, and while you might be correct, a doctor may be able to provide more information about your particular situation.

Some symptoms of narcolepsy are being able to continue activities while ‘asleep’. I have done that many times. I once drew, inked, and colored a picture while ‘asleep’. My friend just watched in amazement and wonder as I completed the image. I only remember starting it. She said my eyes were closed and that she tried to get me to just go to bed but I wouldn’t listen, supposedly I just kept telling her, “I’m fine. I need to finish it. I’m almost done.”

Once, after a long shift working in a kitchen, I had an important meeting to be to, it was late, and I was already exhausted before work. I knew I would fall asleep and that it probably would have dire consequences. Sure enough, I dozed off. My boss ‘woke me’—I say ‘woke me’ because I lied and said I wasn’t asleep (I knew I had fallen asleep because I had been fighting it for 20 minutes already), I was just trying to bluff my way out of trouble—and asked, “Am I boring you?” My response, “I wasn’t sleeping. My eyes are just really dry. I’m awake. See, I’ve been taking notes.” And I pointed to my notepad, which he could see I had been writing on, and had written down the last thing he had said before he ‘woke me’. Now, I had a vivid recollection of the last notes I had taken before I fell asleep—those weren’t them. During my nap, I had doubled that previous amount—and they were good notes. My boss apologized and we finished up the meeting. Whew!

There are more moments like that, one was in U.S.M.C. Boot Camp—you can guess how that went over and you’d be wrong (it was worse, way, way worse). And all of them, all of them, I just chalked up to exhaustion. Something I couldn’t control. I was half right. It’s not exhaustion, and I can’t control it. But I can manage it.

One of the worse symptoms is sleep paralysis. Yup. Sleep. Pa. Ral. Y. Sis. Sleep paralysis is when, while you are sleeping, you wake, only to find you can’t move. Anything. You are 100% aware of what is going on around you, but you have no control over yourself. One of the first times this happened to me I was laying in bed, face-down in my pillow, arms at my side, suffocating. I was suffocating because I was face-down in my pillow! I was suffocating myself!?! (would that be considered suicide if I was asleep when it started…?) It was morning, and my wife was awake and lying in bed right next to me, I could hear her turning the pages of the book she was reading. At first, I was just panicked, but that quickly changed to what I would later call ‘unjustified anger’ as my lovely wife just let me die. I kept pushing my mind to regain control over my body and move. After a while, I put all my energy into just my voice. Just need to make a noise, any noise. She has to hear me, I need her to hear me make a sound. Anything! She has to know! I’m suffocating here! Right next to her!

Eventually, I didn’t die (as you may have already suspected). Eventually, I regained self-control and began to berate my wife for not helping me. To which she correctly corrected me be letting me know, “How was I supposed to know? You were asleep.” Okay, that’s fair. She couldn’t have known—we didn’t know I had health issues at that time, so she wasn’t watching for them. Still, absolutely terrifying. Sleep paralysis is like those moments in horror movies when the bad guy looks into the open eyes of the hero and says, “Nice of you to join us. Oh, there’s no use in struggling, you can’t move. I’ve given you (name of drug here), you can’t move a muscle. But, you will be perfectly aware of what I’m about to do to you.” And then they grab a saw (or something) and right before they begin to cut up the hero (or whatever) something happens to stop the bad guy from succeeding. It’s like that. Except, in real life nobody comes to the rescue.

Narcolepsy usually starts to manifest itself when you’re in your teens. It occurs more often in boys than girls—but not enough of a difference to be significant. To finally know all this answered so many questions that I had had throughout my life. It helped relieve the depression of “Why can’t I just stay awake?!?!” All the self-hatred over not being able to just keep alert. As G.I. Joe so accurately taught us, “Knowing is half the battle.Yo, Joe!

How do I cope with it? The exact same way everyone else does: I do what works for me, which may not be what works for someone else.

I know, I know. That’s about as clear as mud. But it’s true. Each person is affected differently and as such, has to do what works for them. So, once Cindy (my wife—for those who didn’t know) and I understood what we were dealing with, I made some lifestyle changes. We. We made lifestyle changes—she’s in this with me. We’re a team.

This would make a great tee-shirt

When an episode comes (that’s what we call them, “episodes”) I don’t fight it if I don’t have to. Like at home, if I feel the narcoleptic tendrils working their way into my ‘awake state’, I tell my wife and then lay down on our bed and take a quick nap, and she doesn’t blame me for ‘being tired’ anymore. That allows me to reset my mind and I’m good. If at work, I just have to ‘power through’. 6th-graders can’t pause class while teacher naps. But, if I can keep to a regular sleep pattern, it usually doesn’t happen at work.

Caffeine? Nope. Energy drink? Yup—but with a terrible cost. Besides all the long-term bad effects energy drinks can have on a person anyway, for me, the cost is sleep. Yeah, I’m trying to stay alert, that’s why I drink them in the first place, but if I drink them then my sleep is off at night, which then makes me tired the next day, in which I drink an energy drink to stay awake, which throws my sleep off, which then requires another energy drink the next day, to stay awake, which sets my sleep off again, which requires an energy drink the next day so I can function, which in turn ruins my sleep, then the next morning I need to energy drink once more… Groundhog Day much? And, by day three my stomach wants to rip itself outta my body to find relief from the drinks. And then there’s my colon… Well, let’s not go there.

Somedays I’m only Wynken. Other days I’m Blynken. The rough ones are when I’m Nod.

I guess my point to all this is this: If you suspect you may have some rest/sleep issues, do a little research. See your doctor, tell them your concerns. Find solutions to your specific needs. Read. Read a lot. There are lots of people out there that have shared what they do to be ‘a normal person’. Know that you are not alone, that it’s not your fault, really helps. And while it is not always debilitating, it can be. So, get some help. Usually, the solution is a few simple lifestyle changes and soon you’re actually resting when you sleep and you can be an alert human being when you want to be.

Just For Fun: I found this clip of Mr. Bean, which isn’t far off from what I myself have actually done a time or two (also whilst at church—yeah, I used ‘whilst’, get over yourself).

If the video doesn’t play, click here to go to the YouTube channel.

For more information on narcolepsy you can begin your help-search here:
More than tired
Recognizing the Symptoms of Narcolepsy
Mayo Clinic: Narcolepsy
Wikipedia: Narcolepsy
NIH: Narcolepsy Fact Sheet

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod
Eugene Field, 1850–1895

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
  Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—
Sailed on a river of crystal light
  Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
  The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring-fish
  That live in this beautiful sea;
  Nets of silver and gold have we,”
            Said Wynken,
            Blynken,
            And Nod.

The old moon laughed and sang a song,
  As they rocked in the wooden shoe;
And the wind that sped them all night long
  Ruffled the waves of dew;
The little stars were the herring-fish
  That lived in the beautiful sea.
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish,—
  Never afraid are we!”
  So cried the stars to the fishermen three,
            Wynken,
            Blynken,
            And Nod.

All night long their nets they threw
  To the stars in the twinkling foam,—
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
  Bringing the fishermen home:
‘Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed
  As if it could not be;
And some folk thought ’twas a dream they’d dreamed
  Of sailing that beautiful sea;
  But I shall name you the fishermen three:
            Wynken,
            Blynken,
            And Nod.

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
  And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
  Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
  Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
  As you rock in the misty sea
  Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:—
            Wynken,
            Blynken,
            And Nod.

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