Many college students relish opportunities to take a nap, but imagine not being able to control when those naps occur. Imagine attending a movie, suddenly falling asleep without knowing it and waking up to find most of the movie has passed. Welcome to the life of senior Toben “Little Foot” Archer.
Archer was diagnosed at age 16 with a condition known as narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a neurological condition that occurs when the brain cannot normally regulate cycles of sleeping and waking. This causes daytime sleepiness that results in episodes of falling asleep suddenly.
Although Archer wasn’t diagnosed until age 16, he says he began to show symptoms of narcolepsy around age 12. He noticed that although he was well- rested, he would randomly fall asleep at times and places he didn’t want to.
“I’d fall asleep in the middle of reading anything,” Archer said. “I’d even fall asleep in band practice.”
Surprisingly, none of Archer’s friends at school noticed his narcolepsy until he was a junior in high school. Archer said he was thankful nobody made a big deal out of it.
The fact that Archer’s friends didn’t notice his narcolepsy for so long speaks to the fact that he hasn’t let his condition hold him back in any way. Archer is a computer science major who participates in just about everything aside from sports.
Archer’s favorite activities are band and theater. Some people have wondered how someone with narcolepsy would have the courage to get on stage knowing that there is the possibility they could fall asleep.
“My narcolepsy can be negated by adrenaline,” Archer said. “So it won’t happen to me while I am performing. I fall asleep when I am not interacting.”
This means that Archer will never fall asleep mid-conversation. He also said that when he falls asleep he doesn’t change body positions. If he falls asleep while standing, he won’t fall over.
He was once writing a paper when he suddenly fell asleep with his finger on the “E” key. He awoke 10 minutes later to find a very long string of “E’s” on his computer screen.
Narcolepsy affects not only where and when Archer falls asleep but also how he sleeps. A normal sleeper’s sleep pattern consists of rapid-eye- movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye- movement (NREM) sleep, which is made up of four stages.
When a normal sleeper falls asleep he or she initially enters a light stage of sleep and then progresses into increasingly deeper stages. These stages are a part of NREM sleep. The stages of NREM sleep alternate with stages of REM sleep. REM sleep is when dreaming occurs. When someone with narcolepsy falls asleep, the body completely skips the first stage of NREM sleep and goes directly into REM sleep.
“Because my body goes directly into REM sleep, I am dreaming the entire time I sleep,” Archer said. “It gives me the feeling that I am almost conscious when sleeping, like I am always on the edge of waking up.”
Archer said he is grateful for his specific case of narcolepsy because he can feel when the sleeping attacks are coming on 10 to 15 minutes before they occur. This means he is able to drive without the fear of falling asleep at the wheel. If he feels sleep coming on, he can simply pull over and take a nap.
An ironic thing about narcolepsy is that what normally stimulates people to stay awake puts a narcoleptic to sleep. Archer tries to avoid caffeine and sugar.
“5- Hour Energy would put me to sleep,” Archer said.
Archer and his friends and family have been able to find the humor in his condition. Archer said his three older brothers, older sister, younger brother, mom and dad have many jokes about it, but they are all done in good fun. Archer even uses the online name “narcilapser.”
Archer encourages those with questions about his condition to come talk to him instead of jumping to conclusions. But be sure not to act like an expert on the topic of narcolepsy or sleep.
“Most narcoleptics are going to know more about sleep than you do,” Archer said. “It’s the world we live in. Literally.”