Since my late teens, I have been gifted with a neurochemical disorder called cataplexy. A rare disease affecting fewer than 5 people in 10,000, cataplexy commonly accompanies narcolepsy. People with cataplexy experience a sudden and involuntary loss of muscle tone; visible effects range from a slight slackening of facial muscles to total collapse. Cataplexy is triggered by strong emotions such as humor, surprise, anger or irritation. The simplest explanation for cataplexy: it’s like temporary paralysis.
Thankfully, my attacks are very minor, never lasting more than a few seconds. However, because of the disorienting, disabling nature of cataplexy, I have become conditioned to avoid certain emotions. Strangely, I may still act as if I am experiencing these emotions: I raise my voice when I should be angry, my facial muscles contract at moments of surprise, or I laugh at a joke or humorous situation, but my brain effectively blocks or inhibits the neurochemical processes that you associate with the emotion. As a result, I don’t always experience these emotions, even though I seem to do so.
As terrible as this may seem to a normal, functioning brain like yours, I’m quite okay with it. Cataplexy is only triggered by very specific, very strong emotions. I’m still able to enjoy many normal emotions like joy, sadness, love and fear, without worrying about falling over or dropping things. And although that funny joke you heard last week may not get the reaction you’re expecting, I still thought it was funny, and I still enjoyed it.