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John couldn’t hold down a job. It wasn’t that he wasn’t a hard, willing worker. He was. But John suffered from a strange, mystifying condition that caused him to suddenly and involuntarily lapse into a sleep. It didn’t matter where he was--on the factory floor, driving to work, conversing in the lunch room--because the condition would strike without warning. Other symptoms that affected John were sudden muscle weakness, sleep paralysis, and hallucinations. For his employers, John was too much of a liability.

John is just one of thousands of people who suffer from narcolepsy. Long seen as a psychological illness, researchers have recently concluded that narcolepsy is, in fact, physical in nature. According to the American Journal of Psychiatry , “At the present time, narcolepsy is considered primarily to be an organic neurologic (brain) disorder rather than a psychogenic (originating in the mind) disorder.”

So, just what causes narcolepsy? After 75 minutes of falling asleep, the average person will fall into the REM stage of sleep, which is also known as the dream state. During REM, a person’s muscles go perfectly limp. A person suffering from narcolepsy, however, plunges into the dream state immediately when he/she falls asleep. During the day, he/she will get uncontrollable urges to sleep and will again be transported directly into the REM stage of sleep. Narcolepsy can also manipulate the normal functioning of REM to the degree that upon waking, the REM physical changes are still operative. Therefore, the patient's body is still in a limp state. He/she may not even be able to move any of his/her muscles. The REM state can also be triggered by emotional stimulus: laughing, becoming angry, stress. Any of these things can cause a sufferer to collapse in a heap, as the muscles suddenly become weak and limp.

How can a sufferer find relief? Firstly, it is important to recognize and accept that you do have this condition. Too many people explain away the problem by saying that they are just affected by fatigue or chronic tiredness. They, therefore, fail to seek medical assistance. Even when they do, narcolepsy is not easily diagnosed, especially in its early stages. Amazingly, the average sufferer has lived with the condition for 15 years before getting a correct diagnosis. If you are diagnosed with narcolepsy, what help is available? While the condition is at present incurable, there are several medications that your physician is able to prescribe to alleviate the symptoms. Central nervous system stimulants will help you stay awake during the daytime. Anti-depressants have also been found useful in countering the problems of muscle weakness.

Meanwhile, ongoing research attempts to provide further relief. Experiments with codeine suggest that the drowsy effects it normally induces are reversed with narcoleptics. In the meantime, it is wise to avoid any activity that could lead to danger if you have had a narcolepsy attack. This may mean driving, certain work activities, and even swimming.

Narcolepsy is a serious condition. Coping with it will draw on your innermost reserves. You will need the love and support of your family and the understanding of your friends and associates. By drawing on this combined strength, you will be able to cope with this strange condition.