Republishing this today (October 9th, 2023) after realizing it was backdated when originally published.
This year has been a rollercoaster ride. The AI revolution has threatened my business and put a big dent in my finances. This sent me back to school for a master’s degree in tech. Meanwhile, my health has taken a turn for the not-so-great. After lots of testing, prodding, poking, and two biopsies, the doctors finally have several diagnoses. One of the more minor of the bunch is that I have chronic and unexplained anemia.
This isn’t new information for me. Ironically, the last time I battled with it was in college then, too. This was about 12 years ago, in Jamaica. It was so bad, the school clinic recommended hospitalization for further testing. I asked if I could take lunch first and never went back.
I hate hospitals!
Fast-forward to more than a decade later and anemia is back to bite me in the butt.
Women of child-bearing age are predisposed to anemia for the obvious reason. People who know me also point to the fact that I don’t eat “land meat” as a possible contributor. But, in my family, anemia just seems to be hereditary. My meat-eating boy cousin has also had bouts of anemia. Nevertheless, of everyone in the family, I seem to have the worst case — even with supplements.
This time around comes with occasional vertigo and persistent lethargy. But it’s nothing compared to the terrifying semi-conscious episodes I had in college more than a decade ago.
I’ve often wondered if this is what it feels like to be in a coma.
In the month or so leading up to my diagnosis, I developed a very strange sleeping issue. As an exhausted college student, I fell asleep easy enough and even stayed asleep. The problem was waking up. I don’t mean that I was awake and couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed. The issue was that I was stuck between a state of knowing I was asleep but not being able to bring myself to full consciousness.
The worst part is that, my brain, unable to make sense of what was happening, decided to dramatize the entire experience. So, I would fall into a lucid dream where I would look for people I know. I would stop them in buildings and on the street and tell them:
“Find my body! I can’t wake up!”
As the dream persisted, the apprehension would build and build. I would run out of people to send in search of my body and then realize how absolutely ridiculous it was to think that their “dream selves” would be connected with them in person. I then worked myself up to a state of unbearable panic.
Then, I would burst out of sleep like a drowning person finally resurfacing after being dragged underwater.
It happened often.
It didn’t happen every time I went to sleep, but it happened at least once per week. Sometimes more.
Every instance seemed no less hopeless than the other and the feeling was always the same. Sometimes, my brain didn’t bother with the useless, recurring dream. Instead, I would lie there, thinking, willing myself to wake up.
It was on one of these mornings that I woke up with a start and a prickly pain in my finger. The pressure point was ridiculously sensitive and when I touched that tip of my finger again, I almost teleported into the ceiling, the way I shot off the bed.
In true college student fashion, it was this, rather than the terrifying inability to wake up, that sent me to the on-campus clinic. The nurse took one look at the purple ink-like point on my finger and said, “You have anemia, but let’s run some tests.”
I think being a lucid dreamer makes it worse.
Lucid dreamers are people who can recognize when we are asleep and take over our imaginary dream worlds to do as we please. We have, in some ways, mastered the art of having some degree of consciousness while sleeping. You can’t control your dreams without that pinch of consciousness.
With anemia, I think it worsened the effect.
I didn’t choose the semi-conscious state this time. It was induced by low iron levels. And instead of passing through it with no conscious thought that it was happening, I was made to suffer through the ordeal.
But, it does beg the question. If I wasn’t aware that I was asleep against my will, would I be able to wake up?
Running out of anemia medications gave me a glimpse.
After my diagnosis, I practically lived on these special iron and Vitamin B12 capsules. While taking them, I escaped that sleeping problem, lost the painful prickly point on my finger, and mostly returned to normal. During finals, however, the pharmacist told me that my medication had been discontinued and was no longer available.
I went home and counted off how many I had left. I had just enough to last me until the second-to-last day of exams. At this point, I had been taking the capsules for several months and I felt pretty sure that I had enough internal iron reserves to tide me over until the pharmacy or my doctor recommended a replacement.
By the last day of exams, I was exhausted.
My final exam routine involved taking only one nap that lasted two to four hours per day so that I could have all the rest for studying. I had been doing it for six years (this was my second degree) and my body was used to it. So much so, that after most final exam seasons, I would come home on the last day and play video games instead of go to sleep.
This day was no different.
Finally free to do as I pleased, I made dinner and sat down to play The Sims for several hours. One yawn finally came and then another followed. I showered, brushed my teeth, and hopped into bed. I looked at my BlackBerry. It was only 8 p.m. Oh well, I was going to bed anyway.
I woke up feeling incredibly rested.
It was still dark outside. I checked my phone. “Only 9 p.m.??” The battery blinked red and then the phone shut down. I plugged it in to charge and stretched. I couldn’t believe I had only slept for an hour. Look at that! All I needed was a nap!
After a few minutes of charge, I turned the phone back on and all my notifications started coming in. There were dozens of them. Friends asking how the exam had gone and mom asking why on Earth I hadn’t answered my phone in two days.
I started checking the dates on the messages. I hadn’t taken a one-hour nap. I had slept like the dead for 25 hours. I didn’t sleep at all that night. First thing in the morning, I headed to the pharmacy to find what they had. I was just in time. The shipment of a replacement medication had just come in.
I haven’t had the anemia zombie sleep recently.
The intense lethargy was what finally sent me back to the doctor this year. Hilariously, it wasn’t the vertigo or my eyebrows falling out. It was the fear that I was going to have another round of the zombie-like, half-awake sleep of my college years.
In the end it, it turned out to be the least of my new health problems. In addition to the four heart conditions I have been diagnosed with over the years, I can now add an auto-immune condition to the list. I go in for treatment tomorrow and will likely have to take whatever stupid medication I get for the rest of my life.
You can find me on Substack.
Needless to say, going to school full-time, while working full-time, and managing a chronic health condition, doesn’t leave a lot of time for fun. Consequently, this year, I had to choose one platform to focus on. Subscriptions from Substack help pay my bills, so it won that round. I do, however, have a free version to the newsletter. So, if you’d like weekly updates, that’s where you’ll find it. I’ll continue to check in here from time to time, and will get back to more writing when my schedule is less hectic and I am out of college debt.
All the best!
(Don’t get anemia!)