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Alaskan Narcoleptics Hope to Awaken Understanding

Published On: Apr 22 2014 08:03:28 PM AKDT   Updated On: Apr 22 2014 08:03:44 PM AKDT

Reporter Abby Hancock/Photographer Rick Schleyer


Alaskans who have narcolepsy, a sleep disorder which affects both how and how well they sleep, say they spend time fighting both the condition as well as people's misconceptions about it.

Heather Wolcoff wages a daily war against her own body. In the 14 years since she was diagnosed with narcolepsy, she has had to make some life-altering adjustments.

"I'm supposed to be taking two naps a day -- but I still have to uphold a house, and being a mother and being a wife, and be able to function like everybody else," Wolcoff said.

Wolcoff plans her day around her nap schedule, which means she isn't able to work a full-time job any more. On top of that, she says it's difficult for people to understand.

"People always have the running joke of I'm going to fall asleep when they're talking to me, or something like that," Wolcoff said.

That's just one of the myths of narcolepsy according to Dr. Robert Lada, medical director of the Providence Sleep Disorders Clinic.

"It's definitely misunderstood -- the term "narcolepsy" is oftentimes misused," Lada said. "About 1 in 2,000 people will have it, but a lot of people inappropriately use the term 'narcolepsy' for someone who's really sleepy."

To be precise, narcolepsy is a disorder of rapid eye movement, or REM sleep. The brain will typically cycle through REM sleep and non-REM sleep, but a narcoleptic's brain cannot control the cycles.

Wolcoff says she can fall asleep very quickly. A short nap feels rejuvenating, but not for very long. At nighttime, she wakes up often.

She recently became involved with the Narcolepsy Not Alone awareness campaign, representing the faces of narcolepsy around the world. She says it has helped her connect with other narcoleptics.

"If nothing else it has brought (those of) us with narcolepsy to be able to be more open with it," Wolcoff said.