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College with Narcolepsy

We invited three college students with narcolepsy to join us during our Denver conference to talk about what it’s like to attend college with narcolepsy.

Meet our participants:

Bradley Methe is completing his last semester at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, FL, where he is majoring in English and anthropology. He is originally from Palm Beach, FL.

Jessica Franklin lives in Harvey, LA. She will receive her bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in business in the spring.

Sarah Beaulieu is from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She recently graduated with a two-year degree in photography. She’s now working full time as a photographer.

Q: Did having narcolepsy affect where you decided to go to school or how you decided to go to school?

Bradley: When I was looking to apply to schools, I hadn’t been diagnosed yet, but up until that point, I hadn’t done very well in school at all just because of all the complications. That kind of left me limited with choices because my GPA was so low so University of North Florida at the time was actually really easy to get in to and was the only school that took me.

Jessica: Narcolepsy 100 percent made me decide to take online classes at Southern New Hampshire University. Directly after graduation from high school I went to college full time even though I knew in my heart it probably wasn’t the best for me at that time because my narcolepsy was not under control. I learned the hard way to be realistic with yourself. I also did not file disability with my college, I just told my teachers, so that was a mistake also.

Jessica: It was really difficult for me in my college because of my major. All of my classes were first thing in the morning and I’m not a morning person. One of my required classes that I could not get out of was at 7 am. So, not only was I missing the class no matter what, it got to the point where I didn’t know if I should even try to go to sleep at night because I knew I was going to miss it, or I’d fall asleep in class. The teacher wasn’t the nicest person so I ended up having problems with that.

Q: Would you say that class time was your biggest challenge?

Jessica: Class timing and also I’m the type of person where if the teacher is not interesting that’s when I will start tired.

Sarah: Teachers play a huge role in your education in general.

Jessica: Exactly.

Sarah: If they’re intriguing people and you want to learn from them you’ll learn from them.

Jessica: So it was that it was in the morning, and I was tired and a lot of the students would actually point out like hey she’s falling asleep, so then the social aspect wasn’t the greatest. And I can honestly say, when I was dorming, my roommate was amazing. If she knew I had class she would try to wake me up, so that part was good. But at the time was difficult and having other people constantly taking pictures and things like that was annoying.

Bradley: I wasn’t diagnosed until my sophomore year of college and I almost wanted to take online classes because as that point I was still extremely embarrassed about my narcolepsy and a lot of waking up in paranoia three or four times in the class was disruptive to the class and the teacher would have to pull me aside and I didn’t have an explanation until I was diagnosed.

I actually didn’t file with the disability resource center at my university until my senior year because there’s not really that many accommodations for people with narcolepsy.

Sarah: Yep. That’s what I found too.

Bradley: So the only reason I did was because I needed a substitute for math. I struggle very hard with math. I’m majoring in English and anthropology. But for some reason, just like being in front of a computer, math and concentrating, puts me to sleep like that (snaps fingers). And they gave me substitute. This is my last semester. They put me in nutrition, which has a lot of math in it. (everyone laughs)

Q: So by substitute, you mean an alternate class?

Bradley: Right. Once you file with the disability resource center, they’ll give you a handful of courses that you can take if you have any kind of disability. I thought nutrition would be really interesting. Which it is. I just wasn’t ready for the math.

Q: Sarah, you mentioned that you worked with your school’s disability office too?

Sarah: Yeah, I filed with them, but I did not use any of the accommodations. I basically just spoke with my teachers. After the first class I always took them aside and was like ‘I have narcolepsy. I’m going to try my best for it not to hinder my class or my schedule or anything, but it might.’ And I apologized in advance for that and the majority of the teachers were just like ‘OK, what do you need from me?’

Bradley: I think it’s important to file with the disability resource center. I was an education major for a while, but I had to do field work at high schools and I couldn’t drive there or get there on time, I couldn’t stay awake in the classes. It’s one thing to fall asleep in you college classes, but when you’re doing fieldwork in a high school and you fall asleep, that looks really bad. So I had to withdraw from the entire education department because of that. The DRC helped me with that transition.

Q; And Jessica, you said you did file?

Jessica: In the beginning I did not file. Now I file. Even with my online school. Even if I’m not using the accommodations, I just want it on file so I don’t run in to the issues that I had in the past. If anything happens and you need to withdraw, at least it’s on file that on file that you have this. I also give them my doctor’s contact information.

Bradley: I think it’s important to file too, for post-graduate studies. They’ll take that into consideration when you’re applying, so it’s important for them to know. It’s on your transcript and it’s in you file. A lot of graduate schools look at how you perform in your major classes, especially in your last two years. If they looked at my entire transcript, no one would take me. I did terrible. I withdrew from a lot of classes or scraped by with Cs. At that point I wasn’t diagnosed so no one understood why.

Q: Do you have any takeaways from living with roommates in a dorm or student housing?

Jessica: Before college, I went to boarding school and I lived with a building full of other girls. One thing that does worry me about high school students and narcolepsy is that some people will take advantage. There was one girl who didn’t like me. At that point I was falling asleep a lot, and she would try and pull pranks on me. So if there’s a high school student who does have narcolepsy, just be careful who you tell things to for that reason.

Sarah: I’m pretty open about it. I joke about it all the time, so it’s not a foreign subject for my teammates. They were awesome about it. They woke me up for practice, made sure I was there on time, because if I wasn’t on time for practice, everyone was running.

Bradley: I move to Jacksonville with a girl I was pretty good friends with. We were from the same place and we were like ‘hey, let’s get a place together.’ We’re both relatively social, but before I was diagnosed, I wouldn’t want to do things. I was too tired. I would be really outgoing when there were people around, but most of the time I was pretty reclusive by choice. It wasn’t depression, it was because I had narcolepsy. It was hard operating outside my own controlled environment. But I moved with such a socialite that it was kind of a bad contrast.

Q: How did you mange your schedule in college?

Sarah: In college we were up for practice at 5 am and off to class by 8 am, and I forced myself to take more meds that I should have or take more caffeine that I should have. I was so caffeine dependent in college it was ridiculous!

In the grand scheme of things I’m happy that I did force myself through these two years because I came out with a degree and I came out with some really good friends and really great experiences, but I don’ think if I hadn’t been playing soccer that I would have made it through college because there would have been no motivation to go to class. If you’re not passing your classes, you’re not playing soccer, so that was my huge motivation.

Bradley: I feel like everyone with narcolepsy, to some degree, has to force themselves to do even just basic daily operations.

Sarah: I feel like if you don’t force yourself to at least do the bare minimum then you’re just giving in to your narcolepsy. Basically you’re going to stay at home and be extra tired from not getting up and doing anything.


Q: Jessica, you mentioned that your first try at college was too much, so how did you regroup?

Jessica: I took two semesters off and then started attending school part time. I also started working at that point because I was scared that I was going to repeat the same accidents again and I didn’t want the burden of financial aid being immediately over my head until I knew I could handle this again. So I worked and paid for school until I felt comfortable enough to attend full time. That’s when I finally got my associate’s, which took forever. I started college, technically, in 2006. So it’s been a learning experience the whole way.

Q: What’s your advice to someone with narcolepsy who is starting college?

Jessica: You know your body and your narcolepsy better than anyone else. If you doubt yourself, you just think within. You know what you can do, you know what you should do, and you know what you should not do.

Bradley: Talk to people as much as you can. In my experience, telling people really helped.

Sarah: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s huge. There are people at colleges who are willing to help you. And that’s what disability is there for.