When I went for the initial consult at the sleep clinic in mid-2015, after struggling with terrible insomnia at night for years, and worsening attacks of drowsiness during the day, one of the things the nurse practitioner was very interested in was if I was prone to vivid imagery, or hearing sounds or music, or even smelling strange smells, before going to sleep, or as I was waking up. The answer was yes to all those, but I didn’t know where she was going with that, or what it had to do with my trouble sleeping.
After the sleep study, when she dropped the narcolepsy bomb on me (at least that’s what it felt like at the time) she explained that the diagnosis was based in part on my reporting those experiences, as they describe what are known as hypnagogic hallucinations, which, along with sleep paralysis, and excessive daytime sleepiness, are considered characteristics of narcolepsy.
Technically, if the hallucinations happen as you are falling asleep, they are called hypnagogic, but if they happen as you are waking up, they are called hypnopompic. Both describe a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep. The words are derived from the name of the Greek god of sleep. You don’t have to have narcolepsy to have had these experiences, by the way.
Anyway, that’s more than everyone probably wanted to know about hypnagogic hallucinations, but there’s a reason for the backstory…
So, as I touched on the other day, I tend to have an annoying drowsiness response to situations where I have to make a lot of eye contact, and since I was so horribly sleep deprived around the time I was diagnosed with narcolepsy, I struggled very hard in meetings at work. We were working on a big project that involved weekly meetings in a conference room with about a half dozen people present in the room, plus a conference bridge with another three or four people representing two different vendors. The ongoing discussions involved things that I needed to be peripherally aware of, but was not directly involved with or responsible for, in fact they were completely outside my skill set. So (a) I was stressed by all of the eye contact, all of the social interaction, and trying to look engaged when what I was really doing was trying not to doze off and (b) I was bored to death and it was all I could do not to have my mind wander.
One day, I was listening to two engineers on the conference call who were explaining their strategy for moving one of the fiber optic connections coming into the building to the other side of the building, going into tedious detail about conduit and cabling and dig locations. I was fiddling with my pens, picking at my cuticles and making them bleed, and periodically glancing at my manager and the director, to appear that I was paying attention and not dozing off as the construction project manager was explaining where they were going to plant the blueberry bushes —
It was then that I realized with a jolt that my brain (at least part of it, anyway) had wandered off on its own and started substituting its own dialog. I was a bit spooked by this because I was sitting upright, my eyes were wide open, and I was looking around the room, yet unquestionably I had also at least partially fallen asleep, and had no idea what had actually been said and what part I hallucinated, except for the blueberry bushes part, which was obviously not part of the construction plan. I was used to dealing with hypnagogic episodes but had never had one insert itself so seamlessly into my reality before, so that really shook me up.
It was kind of funny, though. And seriously, that hillside where the construction was going on could have benefited from some creative landscaping. Maybe I should have suggested planting blueberry bushes… 😉
Featured Image: Rainbow colors cast onto a textured wall by a window crystal. Filter called ‘dream’ applied, which seemed appropriate for the post.