Two friends lounging on a comfortable couch, laughing together as their faces are illuminated by the light of a television show. One of them has narcolepsy

Learning to Laugh Again: My Battle With Cataplexy

It is 2017 and I am a junior in college. I was a pre-med honors student, working part-time and volunteering daily. I piled on one commitment after another, determined to make my medical school application stand out amidst the plethora of similar high-achieving weirdos.

In addition to my long list of extracurriculars, I was taking 18 credit hours, 6 more than is required for a full-time student. I was climbing the academic and social ladder, ready to tackle anything that stood in my way.

A night I would never forget

One night I was sitting next to my roommate in our campus housing, on our campus couch, watching shows on our campus television. We were searching for anything that could take our minds off of the chronic pile of homework that we had hanging over our heads. Our workload was like an artesian well, bubbling to the top of every enjoyable moment we might achieve until it was drowning us again.

This night was different, though. We were zoning out completely in front of a static-filled screen. Our eyes glazed over and our laptops lay forgotten in our laps as we remembered what it was like to lose ourselves in the moment. My roommate at the time always had something funny to say.

Her continuous running dialogue full of sarcasm and mire made me laugh out loud no matter how stressed I was. Then again, I loved laughing. Having my chest fill with joy so deep that it escaped my body in snorts and guffaws was my favorite pastime.

My head was drooping uncontrollably

I specifically remember that her commentary was better than the actual show we were watching. She spat out a string of insults at the television, cursing one character and condemning another. I chuckled along with her tangent like I always did. Except this time, my head drooped uncontrollably. I blinked in surprise.

That was weird, I thought. I convinced myself that it was nothing and continued watching my show. Then upon hearing a new joke and chortling with glee, it happened again. And again. And again. Once it started happening, it never stopped.

Learning my paralysis was cataplexy

Within 2 weeks, I was experiencing full-body paralysis from every giggle that dare escape me. In this span of time, I lost my ability to drive without drifting off. I was falling asleep in organic chemistry and student government meetings.

The parade of nurses and doctors that I begged for help in those weeks had no idea what was wrong with me. After extensive research, I was able to put a name to my temporary physical paralysis: it was cataplexy. Naming it allowed me to hate it with a passion that burned a hole in my chest where my careless joy used to reside.

An obvious diagnosis of narcolepsy type 1

The next 6 months of my life would be filled with brain scans, blood tests, sleep tests, and more. In some messed up way, I am thankful that I have cataplexy. It is a very specific and obvious symptom of type 1 narcolepsy, and it was part of the reason that I was able to be diagnosed and treated so quickly.

My 6 months of waiting for a diagnosis pales in comparison to the years and sometimes lifetimes that people go without one. Cataplexy was my bullhorn. When no physician wanted to listen to me, all I had to do was crack a joke in their sterile office room for them to understand.

Cataplexy stole my laughter

Cataplexy was the tangible evidence of my brain’s inability to regulate my sleep and wake cycles. Over time, it stole the laughter from my life. I went for months experiencing upwards of 40 cataplexy attacks a day. Once I became close to drowning in a bathtub due to an inopportune cataplexy attack.

I began to build a brick wall between myself and the rest of the world. I felt myself give up. I’ve recently found medication and a lifestyle that decreases my cataplexy. However, it still lies in wait for those moments that I allow myself to feel human.

Learning to laugh again

I catch myself dissociating to keep away from the childish side of me that just wants to let go. I am learning to laugh again at the simple things. Like the silly antics of my service dog, and the birds outside that constantly scream their heads off at each other.

Bit by bit, I am learning to allow my heart to smile with laughter again.

Have you learned to laugh again despite cataplexy? Join our community and share in the comments below.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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