Narcolepsy and Imposter Syndrome in the Outdoors

I recently joined a group for female writers who – like me – thoroughly enjoy the outdoors. We are a ragtag group of backpackers, trail runners, mountain bikers, hikers, campers, and more.

As a fellow outdoor enthusiast, I am inspired by hearing about my friends’ tales of travel – many have the ability to pick up their everyday lives, pack them into a van and a reliable backpack, and set sail through the winding roads of these United States.

As a person with narcolepsy, a condition that causes uncontrollable bouts of sleep constantly, I struggle to drive even short distances. Trips to the grocery store have to be meticulously planned, for example, to ensure that I do not fall asleep behind the wheel.

I begin to fall asleep after 20 minutes of driving

I’d moved away from the city to escape the heat, which worsened my symptoms, and to decrease my errand driving times. Small towns are more accessible for me in that everything is closer together, which makes my driving trips shorter.

But now I’m land-locked, with all of these dreams to hike the Appalachian Trail or stand in reverence at the sight of Yellowstone National Park, and even a car to do so in – yet I begin to fall asleep behind the wheel after 20 minutes of driving. And sometimes earlier, especially if I have exerted myself in any way before hopping in the driver’s seat.

A difficult drive home from a camping trip

I learned this the hard way when I found myself falling asleep on the way home from a camping trip. I figured that camping would give me a chance to be outside without having to drive after hiking (which is dangerous for me).

It worked in theory. However, on the day I packed up camp to leave, I tried to drive without taking a nap since it was still early morning. Taking down the tent had depleted my energy reserves more than I initially thought. I made it home safely – after swerving through a fog of sleep a few times – but ever since then, I’ve doubted my ability to participate in the world of the outdoors.

Planning around my symptoms doesn't always work

It is disheartening to have to plan around my symptoms to this degree and still not have things work out in my favor.

When I’m in nature, I really feel like I belong there – it’s one of the very few places that I do. This makes it especially frustrating that I have so many barriers to getting there.

The result is that as soon as I step off the beaten dirt of the trail, I feel like I don’t measure up to the expectations of what it means to be an “outdoorsy” person. I don’t go on long road trips to find the trails of my dreams – I stick to those in my town. I limit myself to shorter hikes because I have to avoid overexerting myself in order to safely drive myself home. I don’t hike more than once a week because I end up burning myself out, becoming unable to find the energy to shop for groceries or do my laundry.

Being an "outdoorsy" person with narcolepsy is possible

I hope I can continue to find ways to live my dreams as an “outdoorsy” person by being flexible, learning from things that don’t work, and having the spiritual stamina to continuously brainstorm and pursue new options. I am sure I will make it to Yellowstone one of these days.

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