Narcolepsy in Literature: 'Hallucinations' by Oliver Sacks

Last updated: January 2022

In my “Narcolepsy in Literature” series, I have been reviewing a number of books in which the authors have depicted narcolepsy. Each book has been given a rating of 1 to 5 SLEEPY STARS based on how accurately I feel the experience of narcolepsy is represented.

That being said, no 2 experiences of narcolepsy are exactly the same. Ultimately my ratings will be based on my knowledge and experience of narcolepsy.

'Hallucinations' gets 5 sleepy stars

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks has been awarded 5 SLEEPY STARS for its depiction of narcolepsy. This book was written by a professor of neurology teaching at the New York University School of Medicine. He utilizes a variety of primary literature sources, as well as documented depictions of narcolepsy hallucinations by people with the disease.1

The author also includes details about the neurological processes that are happening during narcoleptic hallucinations and what makes them so terrifying. For these reasons, I found this book to be helpful in understanding narcolepsy as a condition.

Depications of hallucinations

To be honest, it was difficult at times to read through the various depictions of hallucinations in this book. I have experienced quite a bit of sleep paralysis hallucinations and waking hallucinations from my narcolepsy. These experiences used to be quite terrible and would happen all the time.

My symptoms have gotten better with treatment, but I still carry those past images and experiences with me. Sometimes my hallucinations happen so infrequently now that they catch me off guard when they do appear. Moving past these experiences has been difficult. I sometimes wonder if other people with narcolepsy feel the same.

Differences in narcolepsy severity

In his book, Sacks discusses the differences between what he describes as “full-blown narcolepsy,” which he says is “incapacitating if untreated, but is mercifully rare, affecting perhaps one person in two thousand.”1

He goes on to explain that mild cases of narcolepsy are much more common. I found this information to be extremely helpful. I can feel inadequate when I see other people with narcolepsy running marathons, competing in Olympic-level sports, and practicing medicine.

Accepting our different degrees of ability

I am not able to work a full-time job, even being treated for my symptoms. They are so severe that they still impact my daily life and prevent me from doing simple tasks. I used to be ashamed of this – now I am working on accepting it.

When my narcolepsy onset in college, it was a night-and-day difference for me. Life has never been the same. Knowing that other people with narcolepsy have different degrees of ability has helped me accept where I’m at today.

The effects of shallow REM breathing

I also learned from this book that one of the reasons why sleep paralysis is so scary is because the terror and doom are heightened by shallow REM breathing, combined with a rapid or irregular heartbeat due to REM.1

He says that for many people, episodes of sleep paralysis are accompanied by a “sense of absolute helplessness and abject terror.” He includes many descriptions of narcoleptic hallucinations from patients, and I found these to be validating.1

Do you experience hallucinations due to narcolepsy? What are they like for you?

Looking for more book reviews? Check out Tatiana's review of "The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict" by Trenton Lee Stewart.

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