Idiopathic Narcolepsy

We don’t think of it as a compulsion, because breathing, eating, sleeping, stuff like that isn’t optional except if you feel like you have to do it more than necessary. Or inappropriately, like recreational hyperventilating or eating the entire package of Oreos along with five bananas, and a loaf of stale bread.

Sleeping can’t generally be indulged in beyond a certain point, but possibly in order to counteract aggressive parental expectations, I began dozing off in high school classes. Not just some classes, but all of them. I couldn't wake up in the morning and was constantly tardy; my detentions were shared by contemptuous delinquents and grafitti artists. My grades weren’t commensurate with my test scores, so I barely gained admittance to an experimental college with an unfortunately high faculty-student ratio, where falling asleep in lectures was so embarrassingly noticeable that I stopped showing up and shortly became an attrition statistic.

The next few years were a haze of low-end jobs and sleeping most of the time. I fell asleep at friends’ houses, at my own house in a room full of people, at movies, at parties, while driving. I fell asleep in bars and woke with my cheek in a puddle of saliva on the sticky counter. I slept through a Mothers of Invention concert we’d traveled three hours to see, and I slept all the way there and back. Sporadic pot smoking had no effect at all.

Eventually reentering academia at a Midwestern university, I’d nod off as soon as class began, and rouse instantly as the bell rang. Desperate not to fail again, I tried enlisting volunteer prodders. I read science-fiction during lectures. I took up knitting in class. Nothing worked. I eventually got a prescription for a low dosage of amphetamines back in those more unrestrained days, after a sleep study found no abnormalities.

As I got older (and attended lectures less frequently) I fell asleep less—fortunately, as the restrictions on prescribing amphetamines tightened prohibitively. Then, during pregnancies, I began to experience insomnia. At night I wandered the dark house while others slept, waiting for my body to surrender to a somnolence that should have been familiar, but was no longer accessible, like a husband who returns from prison a stranger, after many years during which you have learned to live alone.

©2006 F.J. Bergmann

Idiopathic Narcolepsy appeared in 400 Words #2: Compulsions.

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