The Simpsons very rarely shakes up the status quo. The residents of Springfield are, for the most part, exactly the same as they were back in 1989 — a mind-boggling 27 seasons ago — right on down to age, appearance and outfits.
But last night’s headline-grabbing premiere was a game-changer: Homer was diagnosed with narcolepsy, the neurological disorder that causes sufferers to feel overwhelmingly drowsy. The diagnosis caused such a strain on Homer and Marge’s marriage that it led to their separation, with both of them choosing to date other people.
Spoiler alert? The “separation” was actually just a dream. But Homer’s narcolepsy is still very real. (Well, you know what we mean.) And though Homer and Marge’s marriage is safe, for now, marital strain is one of the disorder’s unfortunate but accurate side effects.
Dr. Michael Thorpy, an international expert on narcolepsy and director of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York, praised the show for raising awareness of the issue. “I think it’s going to be very helpful, and maybe it will help some people get an earlier diagnosis,” he told Van Winkle’s.
We chatted with Thorpy about some of the other things the show gets right (and wrong) about the disorder that affects approximately 250,000 Americans.
1. It can lead to marital and family problems.
Narcolepsy stresses the patient and also the entire family. Homer and Marge were able to stay together, but many spouses have trouble accepting their narcoleptic partner’s extreme sleepiness, forgetfulness, difficulty maintaining alertness and lack of energy. Cherished family moments are often ruined by the person’s incessant sleepiness. For Homer’s part, he was conked out on every family vacation.
“Once the person gets the diagnosis, then the spouse can be educated on what’s going on and understand the condition better,” Thorpy said. “Education to close family members is very important, because once they understand, they can be compassionate and empathize with the person who has it and be able to help them.”
2. People with narcolepsy are often perceived as “lazy.”
Homer’s defining character traits have always lazy, drunk and stupid. But his new diagnosis suggests that the laziness we’ve come to know for 27 years might’ve just been an indicator of his condition.
In fact, many undiagnosed individuals are often misclassified as lazy by people who don’t understand narcolepsy, Thorpy said.
3. Cataplexy is a symptom of narcolepsy.
Cataplexy is an emotionally induced muscle weakness that can be triggered by strong emotions, such as laughter or anger. People with the condition often fall to the ground or have difficulty holding objects. Some people with narcolepsy experience cataplexy more frequently than others.
In the episode, Homer displays signs of cataplexy when he passes out during a particularly stressful moment in line at the pharmacy.
It’s impossible for people to avoid having emotions entirely, which is why Thorpy says medication can help patients manage the effects of cataplexy.
4. People who have it sometimes (but not always) sleep through loud noises.
Homer finds out about his narcolepsy after sleeping through a fire at work, despite the fact that there were loud sirens blasting in his ear. Could narcoleptic people really sleep through an incident like that?
They could, Thorpy said, but narcoleptic sleep tends to be disrupted, rather than deep sleep.
“They tend to awaken more easily than most people, so in fact it’s not entirely realistic,” he said “but certainly narcoleptic people can fall asleep at inappropriate times.”
5. If you have narcolepsy, you can live a happy life.
Dr. Hibbert informs Homer that despite being diagnosed with the disorder, he can still go on living a normal life. And he’s right: Plenty of successful people, such as Jimmy Kimmel, have had narcolepsy.
But it takes a lot of work to keep the symptoms under control, Thorpy acknowledged. He recommends patients regularly take brief, 20-minute naps and avoid certain activities when they’re sleepy, such as driving. Those with narcolepsy should get treatment and maintain a relationship with their physician.