The other day I had a full-body cataplexy attack in church.
I was feeling ‘off’ before I entered the chapel — I thought maybe I was nauseous, but in retrospect it’s obvious that I was just overly tired — and once as I sat in the pew, folding my hands and beginning to pray, that feeling intensified, and with it came a strong, primal fear, and the desire to escape, like a prey animal. This strange flight response generally precedes my full-body attacks — it’s as if my body realizes before I do that something bad is about to happen.
Breathe, I told myself. You’ll be fine.
In the chapel with me were a few other people my age, members of a church group that met on a weekly basis. I had just started attending their events; today’s was an hour of prayer followed by a ‘book club’. They were going to discuss The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, a riff on Dante’s Divine Comedy — both works that I could dissect in my sleep, and I was hoping to befriend these church people by means of my superior book skills.
Breathe, I repeated to myself. In, out. Deep from the diaphragm, because pulling air from my chest was becoming difficult. I tried to swallow, but my neck muscles weren’t responding right, weren’t strong enough to bring stuff down my throat.
This is not cataplexy, I told myself. This is nausea. You will not have cataplexy here. You will not make a scene. Calm down. Think nothing.
My head was dropping towards my chest. I reached for my copy of The Great Divorce, my arms slow and my hands unresponsive. You hysterical, attention-seeking girl. You will not make a scene. You will not scare off these potential friends by being that weird fainting girl. That cannot be their first impression of you.
The air looked unreal. I could see the hazy, spreading colors separating the different layers of the air, the pew in front of me far away. I was the only real thing, everything else was wavy, insubstantial, a dream.
In general, when things become unreal, my prey-animal fear intensifies, and I know that I have less than a minute to get somewhere safe. Cataplexy is vengeful — the longer you fight it, the stronger it runs through you when you finally give in. It does not like to be kept waiting.
I grabbed my book — it took two tries — and my purse, and stumbled out of the chapel. Luckily, the women’s bathroom was right beside the chapel, and I barely made it to the handicapped stall. I am the master of bathroom cataplexy — I know how to hide in a handicapped stall so that nobody can see me unless they’re looking, my back against the stall’s partition, legs straight out. Back when I truly believed that my ‘fainting spells’ were psychologically-driven maneuvers, unconscious ploys for attention faked by some disordered part of my personality, the bathroom became my go-to cataplexy spot, safe from the humiliation that comes with falling in front of people.
(Side note: How can cataplexy be a ploy for attention if nobody ever sees you having cataplexy? Still, on some level it’s easier to believe that I’m a drama-craving attention whore who pretends to faint than to recognize the truth: I have no control over my body.)
As my eyes closed and my head dropped low to my chest, partially blocking my airway, I felt uneasy. If anyone from the chapel came in, they might see me, and they would freak out, and possibly go get the others for help, and I wouldn’t be able to calm them down and explain. They would check my medical bracelet and know that I have narcolepsy, but they wouldn’t understand what was happening, and I would become the girl who sleeps in bathrooms, and that would be their first impression of me.
I breathed, I let the cataplexy wash over me and I thought of nothing until I felt a little better. I managed to stand up and, with the help of the wall, I left the bathroom and went into a room across the hall, far enough away that nobody from the chapel would see me.
In the room, I laid on the floor, panting as if I was being chased. I closed my eyes. My breathing slowed. I opened my eyes. I couldn’t move. Get up, I told myself. You’ve had your dramatic little fall, get up. I couldn’t. Move your hand. I couldn’t. Swallow, you’re drooling. I couldn’t.
I saw swooping black shapes around me. Not demons, I told myself. Dream intrusions. I heard my mom saying, “Lainey? Lainey!”. A black figure stood, for a moment, by the door, before vanishing.
My eyes were open. I was crying. It’s a strange feeling to have tears coursing down your cheeks while your face remains perfectly still.
I stayed like that, stuck somewhere between dreams and reality, for more than five minutes but less than ten, I think. It’s hard to say. I tried to pray — I was technically still in a church, after all — but all I could think to tell God was “I’m sorry”, because I felt bad for not being in the chapel.
Finally, I could swallow. Then I could sit up. Then I could make my way slowly out of the building and into my car, where I called my mom. I rehearsed in my mind, over and over, what I was going to say to her, so that it would have as little emotional content as possible — so I wouldn’t have more cataplexy. “Can you come get me,” I said. The inflection was all wrong, my frozen face didn’t want to make the words — I sounded like a stroke victim.
“Where are you? At church? What’s wrong?”
“In the parking lot. Car.”
“Are you okay?”
“I had. Um. I had. Cataplexy.”
“I’m on my way,” she said. I hung up and rested my head on the driver’s side window and thought blank thoughts until she picked me up. We went home and she was sad and I was sad and I hoped that God understood that it wasn’t on purpose.