What's Wrong With Me

Everyone Has A Disorder. These Are Mine

My Own Private Ithaca

Living With A Sleep Disorder

When I was a boy, it was evident that my sleep was different from my brothers'. When we were riding in the car and would return home late, my brothers would be sound asleep, but I would still be wide awake. When my father would read to us at night in our cabin in the woods, my brothers would fall asleep long before he was finished reading, but I'd lie awake until he was done. Some nights I would just lie awake in bed for hours and hours, utterly unable to fall asleep. When I reached adolescence my bedtime was 10:00, but each and every night I would still be awake when I heard my parents go up to bed after 11:00. I never really thought much about it. I was different from my brothers in other ways too.

It was in my graduating year of college at age 23 that I remember having my first "sleep attacks." I was taking a senior seminar on Cubist art. Since it was a small group, we met in the Art Department conference room rather than one of the classrooms. It had these chairs around the conference table that leaned way back. The professor would shut the lights out and turn on the slide projector. That was standard fare for art history classes, of which I had taken a great many. But in this class, every day at around the same time, I would be overcome with an insurmountable urge to nod off. I would try to fight it, but short of standing up and slapping myself in the face, there was no way to stave it off. No matter how hard I tried to keep my eyes open and pay attention, my lids would droop down and I would drift off to the nether region of semi-sleep. Then, after about 10 or 15 minutes, the urge would go away, and I'd be back to reality for the rest of the class.

A couple years later after I'd gotten out of school and established myself in a regular 9-5 job, I would often need a power nap in order to make it through the day. I would experience the sleep attacks like I did back in the Art History class. I found that they would subside in 10 or 15 minutes whether I took a nap or not, but I developed a technique where I would spread out a computer listing, put my chin in my hand, and drift off while I looked like I was examining the computer code.

I also found that I was generally fatigued in the office, that I had trouble concentrating, and that I had low motivation. I wanted to work hard and get stuff done, but my brain just wouldn't cooperate. There was one factor that I was pretty much aware of. I hated the job and it caused me untold stress. I would lie awake at night for hours and hours, fretting over stressful situations and endlessly rehearsing fantasy scenarios where I would tell off my obnoxious boss.

There was another factor which I didn't really consider at the time. I was binge drinking pretty heavily at the time. I was living with some of my fraternity brothers, and we'd suck back the beers regularly, and get pretty loaded every weekend. A couple years later I'd taken a job at Cornell, which wasn't particularly stressful at all, and my drinking was relegated pretty much exclusively to weekends. I wouldn't describe myself as a ball of energy, but I wasn't as chronically fatigued as I had been at my old job.

After I'd been at Cornell for a couple of years, I decided to stop drinking altogether. My daytime wakefulness must have improved, although I don't recall being aware of it, and I distinctly remember still suffering sleep attacks in certain situations. If I were in a training class or seminar, I would invariably be stricken with bouts of insurmountable sleepiness, usually after lunch.

During that time, my sleep patterns also changed in a way that I didn't really expect. I would wake up relatively early in the morning, whether I wanted to or not. I was still in the habit of visiting my old fraternity house fairly regularly, and although I wasn't drinking, I would still stay up until all hours of the night. The next morning I'd be awake early even though I'd only gotten a few hours of sleep. I would then have to figure out how to keep myself occupied for the next several hours until everyone else would finally roll out of bed and I'd have people to talk to.

Alas, after five years without alcohol, I wound up relapsing, and started drinking like a college kid again. My drinking was still relegated almost exclusively to weekends, but I still had this pesky habit of waking up early after an all-night drinking binge. And the sleep attacks in the office returned. It was even worse now. There were times when I simply couldn't make it through a day of work without a nap. I developed the practice of going out to my car and curling up in the back seat. I would set my alarm for about 10 or 15 minutes, and would almost instantly drift off to a semi-dream state. Then the alarm would go off, and while I didn't feel like a million bucks, it was enough to get me through the rest of the day.

As I continued binge-drinking year after year, I started to feel worse and worse. My power naps would allow me to make it though the day, but my motivation levels were low, and I was still terribly fatigued. By the end of the day, it was all I could do to drag my sorry ass home. Working late was out of the question. We had begun to employ consultants who would work 12 hour days so they could have 3-day weekends. I didn't know how they could do it. It was inconceivable to me. I could just barely make it through 8 hours, and even that felt like a marathon.

Beyond my lack of endurance, I found that my ability to concentrate was poor, and my cognitive abilities were positively stunted. I could muddle through my standard duties okay, but if I needed to learn something new, a new tool or programming language, my brain just couldn't handle it. It was as if there was no room left for any new knowledge or abilities.

This went on for some time, but I eventually got to the point where enough was enough. By then I think I was at least vaguely aware that my binge drinking was intrinsically involved, but I also knew there was something more going on. Other people were

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