I’m the sleepiest person I know.
When my body wants to fall asleep, there’s almost nothing I can do to stop it.
Whether I’m driving, meeting with the vice president of my company, or hanging out with friends.
Love doesn’t make me less sleepy. The first couple fight I had was before my first girlfriend and I got together: we were chatting late at night in a hotel room and I fell asleep. (It wasn’t after sex).
I’m no fun at sleepovers either. Sometimes I get asked to go to bed in the middle of the party — my friends think they’re being kind to me. But really, I want to be there. I want to stay awake. But I can’t.
But that’s OK. It’s just tiredness right? It creates some awkward social situations, but it’s not some life-threatening disorder right?
Yes. Kind of.
* * * * * * * *
The first time I got involved in a car accident, I was 19 years old.
I remember it clearly.
“I’m getting sleepy. Can we switch drivers as soon as we get out of town?”, I asked one of my good friends. Five of us were driving back to uni after lunch at the scenic town of Ipoh.
“Of course,” my friend replied.
A few minutes later I awoke to a thunderous sound: Bang! I had rear-ended a truck at a traffic light stop. Thankfully no one was hurt, because I was driving less than 20 mph. But it cost my dad more than a thousand dollars to get the car fixed.
It was the first time I fell asleep at the wheel and hit something. But not the last.
* * * * * * * *
I think I have narcolepsy. A mild form of it, but narcolepsy nonetheless. It’s a disorder that affects about 1 out of every 2,000 people. Of the four major symptoms, I have one: excessive daytime sleepiness.
I don’t suddenly lose control of my muscles, have sleep paralysis or hallucinations. I’m thankful for that.
But I score “Very Sleepy” on a common narcolepsy test I could find online: the Epworth Sleepiness Scale.
Another common test for diagnosing narcolepsy is called the Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT), where patients are asked to nap (under observation) for twenty minutes every two hours. After a full night of proper rest. I think I would ace it.
There’s no confirmation though. None of the doctors I’ve spoken to have been able to give me a firm diagnosis. And I come from a family of doctors and medical people.
Yes, I’m one of those people whom doctors hate — people who Google their symptoms and self-diagnose themselves.
But I’m not sure what else I can do. The last time I discussed this with my regular (non-family) doctor, she said “You might need to see a psychiatrist.”
I already know I’m a little crazy. It’s being sleepy that troubles me.
* * * * * * * *
My dad falls asleep when he’s watching television. But he’s 70.
My mom is the one I closely watch nowadays. Like me, she falls asleep easily when she’s in a moving vehicle. But on the sleepy scale of slumber, I’d consider myself a few levels worse than her. She doesn’t fall asleep listening to me. But sometimes I doze off when she leads church meetings.
She asks me to pray about it.
It hasn’t always been this way though. I recall being shocked in high school when my classmate got scolded for sleeping in class. I could never fall asleep in high school. Even when I consciously put my head down on the desk and tried.
Dozing off really started in university. Not because of beer, parties, or boring lectures. My professors were a lot more interesting than my high school teachers. I just could never stay awake.
Online research tells me that narcolepsy is linked to genetics. And that patients start showing symptoms around their teens. It usually isn’t diagnosed properly for more than ten years. I think it’s because for many people who have it — the symptoms aren’t dramatic enough for doctors to realize it.
Maybe they just think we’re lazy.
* * * * * * * *
Long-term measures for dealing with sleepiness are really basic health advice: Get consistent sleep; take naps; drink lots of water; eat lots of fruits and vegetables; reduce refined carbohydrates and sugar; and exercise three times a week. I wouldn’t say I’m perfect — but I generally do all of the above. Sleepiness is a contained problem, but sometimes I think it’s getting worse.
In my early twenties, I still dared to drive long distances at night alone. Not now. Not even when I’m praying.
I’ve tried the short-term solutions too. Coffee and tea don’t work on me. Neither does the staple of corporate meeting rooms: mints. A few years ago an extremely sour sweet called “Hi-sour” came on the market. I thought it might help. But after the initial kick, it doesn’t do anything for me. Chewing gum just makes me wonder why I have rubber in my mouth when I wake up.
I try not to drive long distances any more. If I get a good night’s rest, I’m probably OK for an hour plus while the sun is up. At night, 20 to 30 minutes is safer for me. Which is a problem, because my girlfriend stays 45 minutes away. Sometimes I stay over when I’m too sleepy, but I do a lot of late night drives home.
The only thing that keeps me awake now is Hot BBQ chips. I’ve experimented too: corn chips work best. Potato chips are less effective. And it’s not the salt that keeps me awake. It’s the hot flavor. I’m awake for as long as I eat the chips. So I ration the 65 gram packets like a shipwreck survivor — it needs to last until the last street before I’m home. I usually fall asleep immediately after I park my car.
But it’s saved my life for now.
* * * * * * * *
Last week, I bought my first batch of generic Modafinil online. I can’t buy it from a local pharmacy; it’s not available in Malaysia yet. Modafinil has existed since the eighties, but has gained fame on the Internet in recent years: Wall Street executives and tech entrepreneurs use it to improve their focus and work longer hours. I would have never heard of it otherwise.
Its actual approved medical use? To treat wakefulness disorders like narcolepsy.
I’m not sure if it’ll help but I’m hopeful.
Until then, I’ll continue eating BBQ Twisties on my long drives home. Try to sleep well. Eat, drink and work out like how they say I should.
But if I fall asleep the next time we’re together, I hope you won’t be offended.
It’s really not you. It’s me.
I wrote this back in October, frustrated with a problem that not many people understand. If you have similar symptoms, I hope you realize that you’re not alone. Someday I’ll write about my experiences with Modafinil, but if you’d like to find out more in the meantime — you can click here.
Picture at Pexels.