Bizarre sleep disorder forces Wraithscape writer to retire after 16 years covering the supernatural

Mike Hallowell
Mike Hallowell

I’ve penned this column for over 16 years, and knew that one day it would reach the end of its literary shelf-life.

Nothing lasts forever. Initially scheduled to run for eight weeks, it passed its original termination point and carried on. I owe a huge debt to the hundreds of readers who’ve sent me their supernatural stories.

The cataplexy makes me fall over whenever I exhibit strong displays of emotion or receive a sudden shock. The sleep apnoea stops me breathing when I’m asleep.

Many were truly disturbing, many touching, all of them intriguing. It’s been a fantastic ride.

The reason this is the last column has nothing to do with a lack of interest on the part of readers. It’s coming to an end because I’m ill.

The irony isn’t lost on me that the condition I’m now lumbered with – narcolepsy – is as bizarre as any story fans of my column have provided me with.

Some years ago, I noticed that I was sleeping less than usual. Eight hours shrunk to seven – then six, five, four and eventually three.

I felt fine otherwise, and assumed it was due to the fact that, with age, we usually need less sleep. Margaret Thatcher ran an entire country on only three hours sleep a night, so it didn’t seem that big a deal that I could pen a column for my local paper given the same amount of snooze time.

But then other symptoms presented themselves. I started dropping off to sleep, without warning, at the most inappropriate times.

I also started to sleepwalk – something I hadn’t done since I was a child – and suffer from episodes of sleep paralysis. This is deeply unpleasant. You wake up, but can’t move a muscle. Fully conscious, you’re unable to twitch a finger or wiggle a toe.

Worse, I began to suffer from “absences”; periods of time when, to others, I appeared to be fully conscious but afterwards I had no recollection of what I’d said or did.

My friends and colleagues would tell me they knew something had been wrong because I’d behaved uncharacteristically.

On one occasion I pontificated obsessively about cricket: A sport which – sorry, fans of the sound of leather on willow – interests me about as much as the number of fleas on a chimpanzee.

Oh, and then there are the hallucinations caused by long periods of sleep deprivation. Seeing a giant bumble-bee buzzing around in a narrow-necked rose vase can focus one’s mind wonderfully, however, so I’m not complaining.

Eventually I was referred to the Sleep Disorder Clinic at the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough.

An extensive series of chemical and neurological tests determined that I had narcolepsy – as well as three associated disorders; cataplexy, sleep apnoea and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder. Woo-hoo! Buy one, get three free!

The cataplexy makes me fall over whenever I exhibit strong displays of emotion or receive a sudden shock. The sleep apnoea stops me breathing when I’m asleep.

The PLMD makes me thrash my legs around in bed like a kick-boxer, which is likely more injurious to the wellbeing of my wife than to myself.

I get twitches and spasms, and my co-ordination and spatial awareness is sometimes akin to that of an inebriated club-goer as they try to insert their key in the door at three o’clock in the morning.

I take a raft of tablets; some to make me sleep, some to keep me awake and others to combat the extreme and ever-present feeling of exhaustion that sticks to people with narcolepsy like glue.

I wear skin patches which leach a chemical into my blood in an effort to suppress my involuntary limb movements. Overall the treatment has had less-than-optimum results, but that’s down to the insidious nature of the disease and no reflection on the efforts of my doctors and specialists to control it.

If I had my way, I’d give all my medics medals and clobber my narcolepsy over the head with the stick I’m now forced to walk with.

My coping mechanism is to treat it with contempt. I joke about it, and actually take comfort from the fact my friends do the same. They didn’t always do that, of course, but I encouraged them: Politically incorrect in the eyes of some, perhaps, but it works for me.

Despite everything I continued writing – one of the weird side-effects of narcolepsy is that it can actually increase one’s creativity – but recently I’ve had increasing problems with my memory.

I was working the same number of hours, but my productivity started to slow down significantly. I had to face reality; I just wasn’t up to muster any more.

My family has been very supportive, as have my friends and colleagues.

Above all, my faith has been a tremendous asset. What does the future hold? I don’t know. It’s in the hands of God. Right now, though, I’m being forced to give my keyboard a well-deserved rest. I’ll miss writing this column...but who knows? Things might change, so watch this space...