Thursday, 30 April 2015

Idiopathic Hypersomnia



Sounds pretty impressive. Doctors — at least in England — are many of them still, I’m afraid, among the worst, or best, of bullshit artists: they bamboozle their patients with long words. I suppose it’s some deep-seated insecurity; a secret fear that perhaps being a doctor isn’t such a big deal after all. (And let me say at once that I for one think being a doctor is a very big deal indeed.)

My uncle — I can talk more freely about this now it’s been a couple of years since he popped his clogs — had a tendency to fall briefly asleep at inappropriate moments. Sometimes it would happen in concerts, and not because, like the Mayor and Corporation hogging the front row because they’re obliged to be there but are bored stiff — Tony loved ‘serious’ music; he was president of one of the better provincial orchestras — and then he would snore, and wake up with a disruptive start. Even as a child, in pre-war working-class Hull, he would fall asleep in class, and the teachers were told not to be cross but to let him sleep on — a surprisingly liberal attitude for the time and place.

Anyway, it continued all his life, and he would see specialists about it. He wanted them to prescribe him various speedy drugs to keep him awake, and they always refused, to his indignation. He didn’t know, hadn’t been told, though it was obvious to anyone who had seen the condition in him and others, that he was hypomanic, so that taking speed could be disastrous.

I would sometimes pop in to see him, especially in the last few years of his life, when he was deaf and his spine had crumbled but he would still totter around with a Zimmer frame. I had my own key — he might be upstairs downloading Rachmaninov, he might be fast asleep over a cold cup of tea in the kitchen, and either way he wouldn’t hear the doorbell and it would be hard for him to get to the door if he did.

One afternoon I found him in very cheerful mood: ‘Oh, Simon, they’ve finally found out what’s wrong with me!’ ‘Oh, yes?’ ‘Yes! It’s called — ’ (and here he fished out a scrap of paper and painstakingly read it aloud) — ‘Idiopathic Hypersomnia!’ ‘Well, well, Tony, that is good news; at last you know what you’ve got!’

Of course I didn’t tell him that ‘Idiopathic Hypersomnia’, translated out of the medical miscegenation of Latin and Greek, means ‘A personal tendency to sleep too much.’

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