Dating with narcolepsy

Romance is hard for everyone -- particularly when you have a condition that makes you mysteriously collapse

Topics: Coupling, Life stories,

I have 30 seconds to make it to my couch or I will lose consciousness and crash onto the floor. “Get up, you have to get up,” I tell Nathan, who is currently in my way.

He looks at me. “Huh?”

“It’s this thing I have. It happens all the time. Please get up.”

Nathan stands and I charge through the front door, lumbering through the hallway like Godzilla. I nearly trample my beagle, who squeals like an unsuspecting villager does when the killer lizard comes to town. I consider crawling to my couch, but I am also trying to impress Nathan. If I fall unconscious, I could be out for up to 10 minutes. From my experience, men don’t take it well when you collapse without explanation.

My ears ring loudly. The harder I fight the faint, the more I sweat. I fling myself on the couch, hand thrown over my forehead. I’m not trying to be melodramatic; I’m just trying to keep myself grounded in the moment. The sweat pours off me, drenching my cotton dress. My vision returns enough to see Nathan staring at me in terror.

“Should I call an ambulance?” he asks.

“No, I just have to lie here,” I say.

As far as interactions with the opposite sex go, this one is a little awkward. And it’s not the first time.

You see, I am narcoleptic. It’s bad enough that I suffer from a bizarre neurological condition that hardly anyone considers unless it’s the punch line of a joke. But my narcolepsy gets worse when I’m emotional. My doctor tells me passing out is linked to intense feelings; unfortunately, I am intensely emotional. I cry at strangers’ funerals. I laugh louder and harder than anyone at a good joke. There are few emotions I don’t experience with intensity. Nothing is worse, though, than being around men I am attracted to. I actually swoon, like a modern-day version of the vapors.

I was in sixth grade in Catholic school when I began fainting. I was a lanky, clumsy 12-year-old with a mouthful of braces and big plastic glasses, enamored with an Irish boy named Liam Brady. All the girls had a secret crush on him — brown hair, bright blue eyes and milky skin.

As we stood in line for Communion, inching forward, hands folded, I heard a ringing and my limbs became heavy; it took a Herculean effort to move. A blush flooded my face, and then I couldn’t see. Everything turned black and bright lights shot at me like I was going warp speed on the Starship Enterprise. The next thing I knew I was lying in the lap of Mrs. Tupper, an eighth grade teacher who lived a block away from me. I smelled the hideous burning sulfur of smelling salts.

“What happened?” I asked.

“You fainted right onto Liam Brady.”

I burned with confusion and embarrassment. I fainted? On the cutest boy in class? This was grade-school death. No boy would ever look at me the same. Every girl would relish my humiliation. Lucky for me, it was the last time I fainted on Liam Brady. But it set the stage for a lifetime of strange romance.

I once rushed out of a bar after flirting with a study partner and fainted on the steps of a church. I once passed out in an alley, banging my head on a garage door, waking up in a puddle beside a guy I was dating, who said, “I thought you were dead!”

Tension built between us after that night, and I sensed I was a bit too much work. I wasn’t a drama queen. I wasn’t a jealous girl. I just had this weird thing. He never said anything about it, but I’ve had guys who told me they were too young to deal with a woman with so many problems.

My narcolepsy affects non-dating situations, too. I slumped down the wall of a gallery once, swearing to an editor that I wasn’t drunk. Over and over I repeated, “I am not drunk,” without realizing this is exactly what a drunk 20-something says to her boss. I’ve woken up on the floor of my apartment, wondering why I was lying in the kitchen, like a person who has blacked out without drinking seven cocktails. For 16 years, doctors had no answers until a neurologist had the bright idea to do a narcolepsy test after I complained of constant exhaustion. This phenomenon I call fainting is a combination of cataplexy, loss of muscle control and falling asleep.

But having an answer to why I do this doesn’t make me feel more comfortable, which is why I never told Nathan. I just want to be like everyone else. I don’t want to explain a weird disease. So I hide it, the way everyone tries to hide what they are most embarrassed about. But here is the worst part: The more I want to be normal — the more I try to fit in or be likable — the more prone I am to faint. It’s like my unconscious undermines me.

I just want to be like other women, women who can date men casually without having to explain their mysterious spells. Women who are calm and composed and can actually remain conscious while experiencing strong emotions. Then again, I understand that all women — that all people — come with quirks. And this disease, for its irritations, can be a pretty good barometer of my behavior. When I faint on men, I know that I’m trying too hard. When I started to feel faint around Nathan, I knew I must be falling for him, even though I didn’t want to. He has a girlfriend, and I’m still reeling from a terrible divorce. I tried so hard to act like he was just another friend. But my brain had other ideas.

Nathan gets me a glass of water, and I try to explain my situation. My doctors say if I could feel less, I wouldn’t pass out as much.

“But you can’t feel less,” he says. “That’s not who you are.”

It sounds so simple when he says it. Why can’t I be so straightforward and accepting? The fact that he’s so easygoing about it makes me feel closer to him. It makes my heart beat a little faster. In fact, if I weren’t already reclining, I might faint.

Meghan Holohan (@missmeghanmack) is a freelance writer. She blogs regularly about weird science, sex, and serial killers for

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>