My Nameless Disease

I have a weird history with dreams.

My first memory was a dream.
It was when I was three, and in it, I fell down an escalator. I guess it’s kind of weird that my first memory wasn’t one of the conscious world. What’s even weirder is that it’s such an incredible metaphor for my life. I can’t say I’d recommend it. 

Then there was that time I learned during an army sleep deprivation exercise that you can dream with your eyes open. I was on sentry duty, in prone position, behind a machine gun. I hadn’t really slept in three days. One of the instructors – who happened to have a black belt in being an asshole – thought I wasn’t looking very guard-like, so he kicked my weapon. I woke up from my dream, but my eyelids didn’t open. There wasn’t any transition between the two worlds – not even a blink. I can’t say I’d recommend it.

And then there was that one time I had a lucid dream. Now this I can recommend. Suddenly realizing that you’re the undisputed autocrat of your own dream universe is a pretty intense feeling. Power corrupts, but absolute power is kind of neat. Still, I was a benevolent and wise ruler in my brief time on the throne. I’m sure the bards sing of me in that world.

Reading all this, you might get the suspicion that I dream more than the average person. You’d be right. Also, all those dreams are ruining my life. My waking life.

In 2017, I went to visit my doctor. I’d wake up from seven or eight hours of sleep feeling like I’d gone the distance with Mike Tyson. I’d wake up feeling like someone took my brain and wrung it out like a wet sponge. And the symptoms weren’t just internal – friends and family wouldn’t stop talking about how exhausted I looked. I was young and only slightly overweight, so sleep apnea didn’t seem likely, but I had some of the symptoms. So, off I went to a sleep clinic.

Going to a sleep clinic is a weird experience. First, you have to force yourself to pull an all-nighter. What came so naturally to me as a freshman year student became impossibly hard when I tried to pull it off on purpose. I watched Jurassic Park or Gladiator or some shit. Anyway, you get to the sleep clinic, and you’re supposed to sleep completely naturally, like you would at home. Except, you know, you’re at a creepy office with beds in it and you have approximately 300 wires attached to your skull to read your brain waves while you doze. I can basically sleep on command so none of this was a problem. I’ve never had any problems going to sleep and staying there.

Anyway, seven hours later I wake up and talk to the sleep doctor dude. It went something like this:

“Your dad’s here to pick you up. We showed him your sleep patterns on the screen. You were dreaming.”

“Oh, neat.”

“Don’t worry, it’s not like he could actually see *what* you were dreaming, just that you *were* dreaming when he came in.”

“I wasn’t concerned about that.”

“Not to worry, we don’t have that sort of technology yet.”

“Can I go now?”

A few weeks later I go back in to go over the results…

“Do you have clinical depression?”

“Yup.”

“Your sleep patterns are consistent with severe depression.”

“That’s depressing. What does that mean?”

(As far as I knew at the time, trouble getting to sleep, trouble staying asleep, and oversleeping are symptoms of depression, none of which I’ve ever had).

“You get a lot more REM sleep than the average person. You start dreaming earlier, and you stay in dreams longer.”

REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep is the fourth and final stage of the sleep cycle. It’s the stage when all of our dreaming happens. While both REM sleep and dreaming aren’t well understood, experts believe they play an important part in consolidating memories. Potheads have the opposite problem I do – they get too little REM sleep. Perhaps not coincidentally, they also have terrible memories. People living with depression tend to get too much REM sleep. Your brain is very active at this stage, so if you’re there too often and you’re staying there too long, you’re gonna have a bad time.

I guess I should have seen this coming. The average person starts dreaming about an hour and a half into sleep. Pretty regularly I’ll wake up from a dream, only to find out I’d only been asleep for a few minutes.

Also, a note on my depression. Aside from this I consider it treated and controlled. On that note, back to my conversation with the friendly sleep doctor…

“So, how do you treat this thing?”

“Are you on antidepressants?”

“No.”

“Well, you could go on those and maybe that would help.”

“What’s this thing called again?”

“It doesn’t really have a name.”

So, there you have it. One treatment option, no name. Actually, I guess there are three treatment options if you count alcohol and weed – both can suppress REM sleep. I’m ashamed to say I’ve experimented with both to no avail. That’s how bad it is now.

Like I said, I’ve never thought of my depression as being particularly severe, so I’ve never seriously thought about going on antidepressants. But at this point this thing is affecting my life to an extent that I’m seriously considering it. It’s worse than it was when I was first diagnosed. I can get a lot of sleep, but I can never get any rest. My sleep is dream hell. I don’t remember most of my dreams, of course, but I know they’re there. I know I’ve had too many of them the same way you know you must have had too many drinks even if you don’t remember the previous night. You can just feel it on your face. Others can see it, too.

And that’s the thing – people haven’t stopped talking about my tired, worn look. I assure them I got my seven or eight hours. As complicated and awkward as it is to communicate any disease or condition, it’s even harder when it’s something nameless.

People misunderstand diseases all the time. Depression is a good example of this. But with depression, cancer, sickle cell anemia, heck, even irritable bowel syndrome, you at least have some common frame of reference. I’ve tried just saying it’s because of depression in spite of my reluctance to talk about my mental health. This just adds to the confusion – people usually ask if I have insomnia. I can’t say I blame them, since that’s a symptom of depression too, and a much more popularly understood one. But the most salient, damaging, and stubborn symptom of my depression is kind of strange and obscure. Excessive REM sleep and dreaming isn’t well understood even by sleep and depression experts.

Now, as much as I hate this too-much-REM-sleep-dreaming-depression-thing-disease I have a confession to make. I would love for it to be named after me. “Raycraft Syndrome” has a certain ring to it, don’t you think? I’m told that seeking to stamp your name on an as yet unnamed disease or condition is considered bad form in the scientific and research communities. But I have narcissistic supply needs that supersede ethics in this case. This thing has taken so much of my conscious life away from me, the least it can do as a courtesy is accept my name.

Anyway, I’m off to bed. Sweet dreams.

SEND CURE IDEAS TO richraycraft@gmail.com

About Richard Raycraft

Journalist and audio nerd. Thrill seeker.