The Real Sex Life of a Narcoleptic
I have sex with men, but I never sleep with them.
I had fallen asleep on a fainting couch in the library of the monastery when a slight rustling causes me to open my eyes. An elderly woman near the stacks starts floating toward me. It appears that she has long, bloody fangs—I realize immediately that she’s a vampire.
I try to move, but my limbs are paralyzed. My heart thuds a rapid beat, echoing in my ears. I start hyperventilating. In between gasping for air, I scream, “Help me, somebody, help me.” She floats closer, hovering above me before she lunges at my neck.
I can’t move. I’m going to die.
“Help me, somebody, help me.”
The shouting wakes me from my dream and I realize that I am the one shrieking. I am in my own bedroom, not some creepy monastery, but I can’t stop screaming.
And, I can’t move. No matter how much I want to, my arms and legs will not budge.
My chest heaves as I struggle for breath and my heart races so quickly I fear I’m having a heart attack. As I slowly become aware of my surroundings, I understand that the elderly vampire and monastery are just a part of my usual, vivid dreams. While the rational part of my brain knows that nightmares and sleep paralysis are because of my narcolepsy, it takes five tense, sweaty minutes before that part overrides my hyperactive fight-or-flight response.
When I can finally move, I flick on the light. My dogs are pacing and yipping and I am relieved that I am alone.
One of the symptoms of narcolepsy is hypnagogic hallucinations—feeling and seeing things during dreams. While I sleep, I am tripping my face off. The truly horrifying part is the sleep paralysis. When I dream that I see a man dressed in black standing outside my bedroom door with a knife I can’t even shake myself out of the dream by moving.
Because I can be scary to sleep with, I rarely sleep with men. Oh, I have sex with men; but I try not to fall asleep while I am with them. While most people worry about snoring or drooling with a new partner, I fear that I might accidentally punch him in the face because I think I am protecting myself from an attacker. Sleeping with someone feels like the more intimate thing I can do because it means that I have to share with him.
Telling someone about this medical condition feels almost as terrifying as my dreams. I would have to share with him the hopelessness that I feel about having this disorder. For 16 years, I lost consciousness, felt excessive sleepiness, and suffered from crazy dreams before doctors finally diagnosed it. Even though I know what is wrong, I am still confused.
If I experience extreme emotion (including a terrific orgasm) I could lose consciousness—but it’s random. I’ve never passed out at a funeral of a loved one, for example. Though, I did faint on the USS Constitution while walking the Freedom Trail by myself (what a fun way to scare tourists). The terrible dreams happen inconsistently and create powerful emotions. I’m still kind of mad at my best friend who refused to let me take one of my dogs in a post-apocalyptic nightmare I had where we were fleeing the city.
Even if I don’t awake shrieking, crying, and hyperventilating, I am not fun to sleep with. I thrash around wildly, kicking and punching my mate.
My body betrays me. When I want to enjoy my time with someone, my body has different ideas, making me faint and klutzy. After spending an entire night flirting with a study partner in college, my muscles weakened and my head became heavy, sure signs that I would soon pass out. I made an awkward excuse and bolted out of the bar, terrified that if I lost consciousness inside a bar, I’d be arrested. As I pushed myself to walk home, I realized my vision was darkening and I rushed up the stairs of a church and leaned against the doors to pass out. Simple flirting resulted in a short public nap, which is more dangerous than losing consciousness in a public place in front of a crush.
Instead of letting someone see me lose consciousness, I decided to remain guarded. I worried that if I tell a man, he’ll think that he has to take care of me and he’ll stop returning my calls. I’m the first to suggest that a new boyfriend might prefer to sleep at home or I rush out in the middle of the night with a lame excuse.
For a year, I hooked up with a man who in some ways was like a boyfriend. After sex, I curled on my side, his arm around my waist, and stared at the swirls of plaster on his walls instead of sleeping. I’d doze off, but soon wake, fearful if I started dreaming that I would twitch or scream. With his gentle snoring in the background, I would study the tapestry covering his window, wondering why a grown man didn’t have proper blinds.
Occasionally, he’d wake up and realize I was still up. Instead of talking about narcolepsy—or really anything that involved my feelings—I’d initiate foreplay. My inability to sleep and share anything meant we had marathon sex, but at the expense of creating actual intimacy. If we weren’t filling the time with sex, we were gossiping or talking about sports (not a great interest of mine), but I knew it was a way to keep him chatting without sharing my feelings. Part of it had to do with being fresh from a divorce, but the other part of me feared being rejected for something out of my control.
Keeping this secret meant I did not share other things, including when I started developing feelings for him. Remaining guarded made me seem cold and uninterested. When I drunkenly confronted him at a party about hitting on someone else, he looked at me exasperatedly and said, “But what are we even?” I could not answer. It soon fizzled.
But, I tried something new recently. I told a guy I was dating I was narcoleptic—over gchat. I held my breath as I waited for the rejection, and I braced myself for him to tell me that this is too much. I wouldn’t blame him, who wants to deal with a girl with a health problem? Finally, the screen flashed. His response: “Does that mean when you pass out, I can pose you in funny positions and take photos?” I laughed. “Yes.”
Instead of acting standoffish, I was honest. The narcolepsy never became an issue, and I was more intimate with him than others. That still didn’t mean I slept well. It only meant that I felt less afraid if I did fall asleep. (If someone realizes I’m awake, I still fill the space with sex, but this probably has more to do with me enjoying it than being afraid of talking.)
One evening as we were tangled in the sheets after a particularly rousing romp, I lied with my head on his chest. When I felt a dull weight in my head, I realized I only saw shooting stars, not the streetlight shining through the window of my bedroom. I had all the signs that I’d lose consciousness.
It’s only polite to warn a person when I’m going to faint, but for a moment, I paused, worrying that this announcement might freak him out. And, I wondered if he’d live up to his promise of posing and photographing me.
Instead of kicking him out, I turned my head toward him and simply said, “Wow, I think I am going to faint.”
“That good, eh?”
Image via Veer.