Friday, June 27, 2008

On Narcolepsy: The Pistons Draft a Sleeper

I didn't pay much attention to last night's NBA draft. Unless the Pistons have a pick in the top 15, I rarely ever do. Last night they didn't pick until #29 and that pick they immediately traded to Seattle for a pair of second rounders (who won't get guaranteed contracts). But I still found their first pick (at #32) interesting.

The guy's name is Walter Sharpe, a 6' 9" small forward from UAB (University of Alabama-Birmingham). If you've never heard of him, you're not alone. The guy played in a total of 40 college games, and only 18 in the last three years. That was due to transfers, academic ineligibility, an arrest for disorderly conduct and once getting shot in the stomach (reportedly, as an innocent bystander). Interesting postscript to the latter, one story I read indicated he tried not to let on to police and medical personal at the scene that he had been shot.

Let me restate that.

The dude tried to cover up having been shot in the gut. Recklessly stupid? Yeah, sure. But that takes the sort of seriously brass balls that you almost have to respect. It's like when your potty-training three year old is standing in front of you with shit dripping down his legs insisting that he's still dry. (I have some recent experience with this.)

Oh yeah, one more thing. Sharpe was diagnosed as a narcoleptic about five months ago. This was immediately interesting to me because, well, I am a narcoleptic. It's not something I get into very much since it's usually viewed -thanks in large part to TV and movies- as that condition where you fall asleep in the middle of jogging or mowing the lawn or some such nonsense.

In reality, it's basically a condition where you don't go through the stages of sleep properly, the result being that your sleep isn't nearly as restorative as it should be. Eight hours of sleep to you feels like about four or five hours of sleep to me. Imagine feeling severely sleep deprived every single day, regardless of how much sleep you actually get. That, in a nutshell, is narcolepsy. It doesn't make you pass out while in the middle of being active, like bowling or feeding the cat. That's a myth as far as I'm concerned. There's a subsymptom that some narcoleptics have, called cataplexy, that causes the appearance of passing out. It's a temporary loss of muscle control that -in severe forms- can result in you dropping like a sack of bricks, concious but unable to move. I'm grateful not to suffer from cataplexy.

What narcolepsy does do is make you very susceptible to falling asleep while passive. Reading a book, watching TV, sitting in a meeting or presentation are all recipes for a ticket to sleepy town. Usually, it's something you can fight off, at least to the extent that you can stay -technically- awake. Sometimes there's just nothing to be done. I once had an 8am college course in which I moved to the front row, five feet form my professor, in an effort to avoid falling asleep during his two hour class. I think I got through the entire class four times the entire semester, including test days. Ouch. (I still got a BA in the class, thanks to the fact that I'd already had the subject matter in high school the year before.)

For me the drowsiness while reading part is particularly intrusive, what with my occupation being an editor of extremely long and often boring tech books and all. On bad days I'll go into full bore head-bob mode in the hours following lunch, which is the second most difficult part of the day for me to get through. The worst is first thing in the morning. Just waking up and finding the will to move, let alone get out of bed is... difficult. I could wake up to find the house on fire and I'd have to talk myself out of sleeping for just five more minutes. That said, it's a condition you have to manage. You have accept the fact that you need more rest than the average bear and that sometimes it's necessary to find an out of the way place for a 20-minute nap.

So how big of an excuse is narcolepsy for Walter Sharpe's behavior? Not much, at least where being shot or being arrested for disorderly conduct are concerned. Frankly, having narcolepsy ought to keep you out of that sort of trouble. What narcoleptic has the energy for a night on the town? That said, the academically ineligible part is believable... to an extent. Don't get me wrong, you can feel exhausted all the time and still take care of your shit. It's just harder to do things like stay awake and focused when you're in class (especially if the prof is fond of showing movies). Staying up late to study also produces less than stellar results. (And in some cases oversleeping for and missing a final... not that I would know about that.)

It's a matter of degrees, though, because I definitely feel that I did worse in school than I otherwise would have if I didn't have the condition. For me, it was probably the difference between being a 3.5 student and 3.0 student. There's no doubt that my grades got better when my classes moved from a largely lecture-driven environment to one of frenetic activity (video and film production). For Sharpe, it's completely believable that it could be the difference between eligibility and ineligibility.

Pistons GM Joe Dumars says they talked to just about everybody connected to Sharpe and that he thinks, now that he's getting treatment for narcolepsy, that his struggles are behind him. I'm not gonna get into Sharpe's basketball skills -that's way out of my league- but if Sharpe thinks his newfound magic narco pills are going to completely change his life, he's got another thing coming. The pills you can take for narcolepsy do not knock the condition out of the park. They're masking agents. Your body and mind are still just as tired as they always were, you just don't feel it... as much. (At least, that's been my experience.)

When I was first diagnosed I was prescribed a drug called Modafinil (trade name Provigil). It felt like a whole new world. I was awake. I had energy. I could split the atom with a pair of tweesers. Didn't last. Your body adjusts and after a while (months, maybe a year) you have to adjust the dosage and keep adjusting it or move on to some other drug. For me, taking a pill every single day wasn't what I wanted and as prescription drug co-pays have gone up I really didn't want to keep paying for it. After a couple years I quit taking it or any other narcosleepy drug, aside from a couple of experimental meds I've taken while participating in various sleep studies. (Getting paid to take this crap is far better than paying to take it.) Today I just manage the fatigue as best I can. In the grand scheme of things that can go wrong with your body, I'd take this over about a million and one other conditions any day of the week.

The point is, the drugs can help. But they're not gonna change your life for you. You have to do that yourself. So, it'll be interesting to see where Sharpe goes from here. I'm sure whatever drugs he's taking right now will help him out in the short term. But as his body adjusts to the meds and he starts really bouncing back and forth between time zones (assuming he makes the team) on NBA road trips, it's gonna be a whole new test. If the Pistons are smart they'll have a doctor watching him very closely, one that can help monitor what he's taking, how much he's taking and when he should be taking it.

Hopefully the kid can make the most of the opportunity he's getting right now. I know I'll be rooting for him.