A new epidemic: Restless Legs Syndrome

I used to be able to sleep until four in the afternoon. Ever since I was an infant and slept through the 1971 earthquake in Los Angeles, I have literally slept like a baby.

Ma tells me it’s because she used to belly dance when I was in the womb. Dad insists it was a result of being doped-up on sugar. Pop-psych America told me I was depressed. Whatever the reason, I could sleep anywhere, any time: cars, buses, roller coasters and even – before I developed a fear of flying – on the airplane.

Unfortunately, like most stressed-out adults, I eventually woke up and smelled the coffee. I never thought it would happen to me.

I used to feel so sorry for my mother who would tuck me in at midnight and then go bang around the house in her floral house dress for at least another two hours before heading to bed (which was followed by her regular pee trips down the hall three times per night).

A mere five hours later, I’d be awoken by the clamor of pots and pans – which sounded a lot like a punk band during sound check especially in those wee hours of morning. Even so, once I realized it was only Ma in the kitchen and not nuclear war, I’d fall back into a peaceful slumber.

And in five more hours, she’d appear at my doorway, hands on hips, wearing the same floral dress, as though she never slept at all. She’d scold me behind her tired eyes for sleeping all day, but I know now she wasn’t mad – she was bitter.

“I’m so jealous,” she’d say, much in the same way she’d tell me she was jealous of my ability to make number two. “Constipation and insomnia,” she’d flog, pointing a knowing finger. “Just you wait.”

Still, I never believed her. I just assumed my tendency toward laziness lent me the gift of slumber. Then, about three years ago, I began waking up in the night for at least an hour, and I would never be able to fall, completely and soundly, back to sleep. That spell would last about a month, and ever since it has been a chronic condition occurring at least once per season.

I am currently in my third month, breaking all previous records. It’s bad: I spend countless hours tossing and turning, tormenting myself with all the things I could be in this world if only I had the energy. All the sublimated junk bubbles to the top of the neo-cortex and gets me worrying about the bigger things – like the possibility I might be shallow after all.

Consequently, I am a basket case during the day. I am forgetful, irritable and have to justify why I can’t coordinate my outfits. “I’m better with color when I have slept more than three hours,” I say defensively.

I guess the plus side is I get a lot done. I compose my columns in my head. I’ve got time to finally place that Muzac song I keep hearing at Rainbow Foods that sounds a lot like the Billy Joel song “Honesty.”

I am also getting used to the midnight trip to the kitchen, where I pound a glass of soymilk, or read the silly disclaimers on the bottles of catsup. All the same, it doesn’t add up. I am not that stressed out. My life isn’t that bad. My hair isn’t that difficult. I am no more depressed than the average, neurotic Jew.

Finally, after a few weeks of extremely “fitful” sleep (the kind where you wake up in the middle of the night kicking the mattress as though in a tantrum), I finally self-diagnosed myself with Restless Legs Syndrome.

I know, attractive isn’t it? Many of you probably don’t even know what that is, but why should you? I would have never known myself had I not been surfing freaky sleep-disorder Web sites at 3 a.m. when I stumbled across some poor co-insomniac who blamed the whole thing on his Restless Legs Syndrome.

And as if all this torment wasn’t enough like a Stephen King novel, I now had to add a syndrome? Why is it such awful things also have to have such creepy names, anyway? Restless Legs Syndrome? It conjures up images of the multiple, twitching limbs of a cockroach.

Why couldn’t it be a “disorder”? At least a disorder is kind of sexy. Why not “Runner’s Curse” or “Last Leg Disorder”? I’d even be okay with “Athlete’s Leg.” I also happen to have chronic “Planter Faccitiis,” which boils down to a bum heel, but someone had to get all Latin on me and turn me into a case number. Where are all the politically correct terms when you need them?

In a word or two, Restless Legs Syndrome is similar to caffeine intoxication, except it all takes place in the legs. It’s kind of like claustrophobia; you want to escape either yourself or the place, but the kicker is that while the rest of you is dead asleep, you only feel it in your legs. It just doesn’t work to send your legs secretly out the door without the rest of your body knowing something is going on.

If this sounds crazy, it is. Most commonly, RLS (see? Anything with an acronym is serious business), strikes violently in the night waking the victim because the legs are under the impression it’s time to cancan. What makes it even more twisted is it’s not exactly the entire leg that feels this Mardi Gras peer pressure, but only the very depths of them – the bone as it were.

One might think, because I am a runner I would be OK with jogging around Lake Calhoun at all hours to remedy the thing. Actually, it usually helps to get out of bed and stretch for a while in order to make it go away. But the problem is once I’m up, I’m up.

This can be kind of embarrassing when I have company. “Oh, I’m just gonna get up and walk around a little,” I explain when my boyfriend wants to know why I am getting out of bed at three in the morning.

On the one hand, I’m glad to know there is an explanation and, therefore, a reason why my bed spread is often rung around my neck in the morning. On the other hand, RLS has no cure. While “they” suggest quitting all the regulars like alcohol, caffeine, etc., nothing seems to help. I have tried it all. I took up crochet. I tried origami. I even accepted the fact it’s not a good idea to go to bed famished and wake up to rediscover the joys of Jell-O. Alas, the issue is moot. There is no cure.

My dad – who also has RLS – suggests I drink water. He admits there has to be a reason all these people are carrying around bottles of water all the time. “Maybe they are on to something,” he ponders – as though he is not a doctor, as though he when he tells his patients to drink plenty of fluids, he means wine and beer.

He says he can’t speak personally though, because his “thirst mechanism” doesn’t work. He says this as though I should understand. I get worried, “So you’re not only telling me I have Steven King disease, but now you’re saying I don’t know when I’m thirsty? You’re telling me I could drop dead in the middle of a run because I forgot to drink water during the cold winter?”

Heck, if it meant getting a little shuteye, I’d have no problem pounding the H2O. If all it means is my legs are thirsty, then I’ll lead them to water. The only issue I would have is if this turns out to be a bad case of dehydration, let’s just keep it clean and call it what it is. Though I don’t think I could handle being diagnosed with Reluctant Prune Syndrome.

Roxanne Sadovsky’s column regularly appears alternate Thursdays. She welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]