Eyes Wide Shut: Students Suffering from Sleep Disorders

Eyes Wide Shut: Students Suffering from Sleep Disorders

Photo illustration by Alena Rubin

When Lucas Perez ’16 finally starts to fall asleep, he hears a siren blare.

Its chaotic, high pitch mingles with a shrieking wail. The sounds grows louder, and the chaos builds until it’s all he hears. A migraine develops, pulsating in his brain to the beat of his racing heart. He tries to move his arms, but they stay frozen.

“Oh shit, this is happening,” he thinks, recognizing the all-too-familiar feeling of waking up to “a full-on nightmare” while his body is paralyzed.

While still struggling to combat the pulsing migraine, Perez sees a ghost-like silhouette looming over him. It begins to scream at him. He tries to call out for help, but his vocal chords freeze. As the figure reaches out to touch him, he snaps out of the episode.

Perez regularly experiences sleep paralysis, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a temporary inability to move or speak while falling asleep or waking up, despite being conscious. According to The Huffington Post, those affected by sleep paralysis commonly experience hallucinations, typically of a ghost-like presence, as well as strange sounds.

This incident occurred less than a year ago, when Perez was experiencing sleep paralysis at least once a week. Now the episodes occur less frequently, about once or twice a month, he said.

He cited this episode as being particularly intense, because he usually does not have hallucinations. He said that during an episode of sleep paralysis, he feels frightened and helpless.

“I feel very vulnerable,” Perez said. “That’s what makes it very scary. You can’t do anything for yourself.”

However, he does not believe that his sleep paralysis disorder significantly affects his grades or daily life, and has not sought professional treatment.

“If it really became a case where I was getting traumatic experiences that affected me down the line even when I was awake, and if it was something that affected my psyche or made it so I couldn’t study in my classes or I couldn’t go out and see friends then I would for sure go see a doctor,” Perez said.

Isabel Wiatt ’18 said she also suffers from sleep problems. Although she has never been formally diagnosed by a doctor, Wiatt believes that her symptoms are in line with those of insomnia. Like Perez, Wiatt said she remains high-functioning besides her sleep disorder, which causes her to sleep three or four hours per night.

Wiatt said that she used to try for hours to fall asleep, but once she found that she couldn’t sleep before 3 a.m., she started using the time before bed to practice guitar and do homework. Although it doesn’t affect her much during the day, Wiatt said that at night her sleeping condition makes her feel frustrated knowing she is unable to fall sleep.

“My mom will text me sometimes if she ever wakes up and says ‘Don’t you want to go to bed?’ and I’m like ‘[Of course] I want to go to bed’,” Wiatt said.

Besides the frustration that accompanies her night-time restlessness, Wiatt is also prone to illness due to her lack of sleep. She said that she had a case of strep throat that lasted continuously through her sophomore year.

“It was so bad that I could not function at all,” Wiatt said. “I would be in bed for days and days and days. It would be so painful to get up. So I guess that was just really frustrating.”

Counselor and humanities teacher Luba Bek said that it is common for students to be more susceptible to sickness after not getting enough sleep.

“Lack of sleep and prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to weakening of the immune system,” Bek said. “You can see kids sniffling and getting colds and mono and what not.”

Julia MacCary ’19 suffered from a circadian rhythm disorder last spring and summer, which, according to the American Sleep Association, inhibits someone from sleeping and waking up at the appropriate times.

MacCary said that her health was at risk because she was often sleeping through two meals per day. In addition, the condition made her feel lethargic when she was awake.

“Even when I woke up I wouldn’t feel like I had any energy even though in the middle of the day is when you should have the most energy,” MacCary said.

Besides the negative impact on her health and energy, her condition also affected her emotionally, making her feel subdued after waking up late.

“It sounds sort of stupid, but it’s sad when you miss all of daylight,” MacCary said.

Bek said that an adverse effect of sleeping disorders is their ability to impair students’ driving abilities, posing a threat to their safety.

“Driving while tired is as dangerous as driving under the influence, because while you’re under the influence, you’re impaired but your eyes are still open,” Bek said. “We’ve had, unfortunately, examples over the years of accidents, even really tragic accidents, that resulted from lack of sleep and students falling asleep at the wheel.”

While MacCary said that her circadian rhythm disorder was due to “a bad habit that developed over time into a sleeping disorder,” Wiatt and Perez think that their conditions may be genetic.

Perez also believes that the disorder may be linked, in part, to his anxiety levels, noting that he experienced sleep paralysis more frequently during his junior and senior years.

“I definitely felt more stressed out because of senior year and then college apps,” Perez said. “And also high school itself, not just senior year but all of high school, you gotta do really well so you can get into college. I don’t know, possibly once I got to college I was more relaxed about stuff, so maybe that’s why it doesn’t happen here.

However, MacCary consulted a physician and treated her condition by following a strict sleep schedule and is now fully recovered, she said. After turning her electronics off at 8 p.m., she said she goes to bed at 10 p.m. and wakes up at 7 a.m. Although adjusting to the new schedule was straining, she said that after a month it worked.

“It was hard because as you can imagine I wasn’t tired at all, so that was a really hard process,” MacCary said.

Wiatt began taking melatonin to help her fall asleep after her mom consulted a doctor. She said that it helps her fall asleep a couple hours earlier when she takes a high dosage, but it still hasn’t solved the problem.

“It’s still a frustrating feeling to need melatonin to fall asleep,” Wiatt said. “I hope it will get better. Maybe after taking melatonin a lot my body will get used to going to bed early, but I don’t know.”

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