Cataplexy is a fascinating symptom of narcolepsy – a sudden loss of muscle tone, without loss of consciousness, often triggered by emotions. I experience minor cataplexy daily – knees buckling, jaw slackening, eyes fluttering or hands trembling. With medication, my full-body attacks are once every couple weeks.

It’s not always strong or positive emotions that cause my cataplexy. Here are some of my biggest triggers. Please share yours in the comments.

1. Killing a bug – An itsy-bitsy ant crawled on my stove as I boiled water for pasta. I grabbed a paper-towel to squash it, but when I re-focused on the ant to kill it, I began teetering like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  My body was frozen like a dear in headlights while I watched the ant successfully cross the counter. Bugger!

I cannot make direct contact with an insect. However, I can kill a bug from a distance, spraying a cleaning spray in its direction. It’s something about the direct contact that’s too social/personal – “the bug versus me”. Cricket-spiders are the worst.

2. Strangers – “Please do not ask for money. Please do not speak to me.” I don’t know why but interacting with strangers on the street is a HUGE trigger. I may seem insensitive to ignore a homeless person asking for money, but muttering “Sorry” would cause terrible cataplexy.

3. Heat and Humidity – Extreme heat triggers my cataplexy, especially going from air-conditioned environments into extreme heat – i.e. leaving the movie theater or mall in the summertime.

4. Winning – I checked my email on my phone: “Congratulations – You are a Winner!!!”  Reading this subject heading, I dropped my phone into my purse. After composing myself, I reached for my phone again and read “You are a Winner of the 2011 FotoWeek DC International Awards Competition! Please check Winners’ PDF to see the list of winning work.” Dropped phone again. Collapsed with jaw unhinged, eyes closed. It took about 5 minutes to communicate to my friend through fits of cataplexy to take my phone and open PDF to find out what place I won – my photo won first place!

5. Gummy Bears – I am a gummy bear addict, so when my boyfriend gave me a pack of HARIBO one evening, I felt pure bliss. I tried opening the pack but my body became a gummy bear momentarily, slumping onto the floor. Once I regained muscle tone, I ate the package in one sitting.

6. I’m SO funny! When I think I’m funny, watch out. Communicating my joke with the anticipation of others laughing = worst cataplexy ever. Last week, my brother sent me a funny greeting card that made me giggle but WITHOUT cataplexy, until I tried to show the card to my boyfriend.  The anticipation of Alex thinking my brother’s card was funny hit the cataplexy button.

7. Lying – “Sorry I forgot to take out the trash,” my roommate said. I responded “Oh, no problem.” but really I’m thinking “It’s NOT okay! Get with it.” – my body crumbles. I cannot hide annoyance.  I cannot say one thing while thinking another.

This is the only trigger I’ve somewhat found a way around. While studying in the library one evening, students at a nearby table were talking WAY too loudly. It was obnoxious and many people glared their way. I wanted to tell them to be quiet, but feared cataplexy. Interestingly, I decided that these students were innocent, that they didn’t realize their wrong-doing. With this new mind-set, I successfully approached and communicated just fine. Without the double-layer of judgement, it was easy. This had to come from a genuine place of non-judgement, it couldn’t be faked. Channelling my inner Buddha!

8. Opulence – A few years ago, I lived in an apartment building in Washington DC that had been a fancy hotel in the 1920’s. The lobby had high ceilings, marble columns, a fountain, a fireplace and a piano that played itself. Walking into this building at night made me dizzy and wobbly. I loved this place but something about me being somewhere sofancy-schmancy caused cataplexy.

9. Sexual excitement – Before medication, sexual excitement caused my cataplexy. Thankfully, this hasn’t happened since treatment, but it ruined many intimate nights. How cataplexic!

10. New visual stimulus – Standing in the check-out line at the grocery store one day, I glanced at the magazine rack to find a new cover girl on Marie Claire magazine. I felt no attachment or emotion about either cover, but I suppose my mind had already filled in the cover with my expectation and now my eyes showed something different. This small dichotomy caused cataplexy. It can take my brain a few seconds to process new spaces, colors and shapes.


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