There are two ways to drive from Amherst, MA to Boston: the southern route, along the Massachusetts Turnpike, and the northern route, along route 2. Since route 2, which takes about an hour and a half, runs right past the inner Boston suburb of Belmont, that was my usual choice during the seven years that I commuted from Belmont to Amherst. [My first wife had been appointed to a professorship at MIT in the Humanities Department, so we moved to the Boston area.] One day, as I was on my way home, I fell asleep at the wheel and drove off the road onto the wide grassy divider. I was jolted awake and got back onto the road without damage to myself or the car, but I was terrified by what had happened and made an appointment at the Sleep Clinic at Peter Bent Brigham, one of the classy Boston hospitals. They wired me up and had me spend all night at the clinic, sleeping while they measured lord knows what. The verdict was that I was not getting enough of the right kind of sleep. The problem, they decided, was that my facial and bodily tics and twitches, with which I have been afflicted since childhood, were jolting me to less restful levels of sleep during the night. The chief specialist [who was, as I recall, about eight months pregnant] said that there were some powerful drugs that could control the tics, but their side effects were rather scary, and she thought that if I had made it to my fifties with the tics, they were probably not a good idea. Instead, she suggested that I stop drinking many cups of regular coffee every day, since the caffeine was almost certainly interfering with my sleep. So over a three or four week period, I weaned myself off caf and onto decaf, and I have been drinking nothing but decaf ever since.
After that wakeup call [as we may perhaps label it], I began to realize that the problem manifested itself in many other ways besides nodding off at the wheel. I had never really thought much about the fact that all my life, I have found my eyelids growing heavy when I read [but not when I write – maybe that is why I write more than I read!] It occurred to me that normal people can probably sit reading a book for an hour without having to shut their eyes and take little naps. When I started playing lots of card games on my computer, I noticed something really odd. Quite often, when I reach that point in a game of FreeCell or Spider Solitaire at which one move remains to win the game, I fall asleep for a few moments. When I wake up and look at the game, I see that it requires one last move, which I then make. The tiny nap is automatic, and I have no awareness until after the fact that I have nodded off.
Is this narcolepsy? Well, the specialist did not use that term, and a little Googling tells me that I do not have many of the standard symptoms of that condition. Some of the stories about people with narcolepsy are really bizarre, like the young newspaper reporter who would fall asleep while interviewing someone or the grade school teacher who had to excuse herself periodically and go to the ladies’ room, where she would sit on the toilet and nod off for a few moments before returning to her class.
The tics and twitches, by the way, are a source of great embarrassment to me. My friends and family say they hardly notice them, but they are just being kind. On the handful of occasions when I have seen myself on television, I have been mortified. In my entire life, only one person has been open and honest enough to comment on the twitches – a little boy in the Northampton Cub Scout Troop of which I was Cubmaster for three years, who came up to me after a meeting once and asked, naively, “Mr. Wolff, why do you make funny faces?”