When I was 21, I developed narcolepsy, a rare but not-so-rare neurological disorder thought to affect around 1 in 2500 people. If anyone knows anything about narcolepsy, it’s that it involves pathological levels of sleepiness. But the disorder usually comes with a constellation of other disabling symptoms, including cataplexy (where a strong emotion causes muscles to relax, sometimes resulting in a full-on collapse), sleep paralysis (where you wake but are paralysed), hypnagogic hallucinations (horrifying, hyper-real experiences that ususally accompany sleep paralysis), exceptionally vivid dreams, automatic behaviour and, paradoxically, a sleep so fragmented that you might as well have been awake.
I’ve come to appreciate what good sleep means and how to achieve it.
In around 2014, I began planning a book on narcolepsy. My agent and publisher encouraged me to go further, to cover the whole of sleep and many sleep disorders. I understood their thinking. The bigger, broader book might have bigger, broader appeal. It’s probably safe to say that nobody was thinking that embarking on a more wide-ranging project would improve my own sleep. But it has – immeasurably.
By surveying a wide range of sleep pathologies, I have come to see narcolepsy in a very different light, not as an isolated sleep disorder but one with real and important connections to just about every other sleep problem out there. As I’ve learned about bad sleep in all its many forms, so I’ve come to appreciate what good sleep means and how to achieve it.
This revelation, I believe, has important implications, not just for those with narcolepsy but for everyone who wants to improve their sleep. If you are interested, do go look out a copy of Sleepyhead: Narcolepsy, Neuroscience and the Search for a Good Night (Profile, 2018).
I am a trustee of Narcolepsy UK.