‘It’s so hard’: Teen’s rare brain disorder makes her collapse every time she laughs

A teenage girl who collapses every time she laughs due to a rare brain condition says she has to avoid her funny friends since getting the life-changing diagnosis.

Billie Hodgson, 17, suffers from cataplexy meaning that any strong emotion, particularly laughter, causes her to pass out.

The condition makes her life understandably difficult at times as Ms Hodgson is forced to steer clear of certain joker friends at times to avoid collapsing when she sees them.

“I’m a bubbly person so to go from that to feeling like I can’t laugh is really strange,” the student, from Sheffield in the UK, says.

“I feel like I can’t be me.

“My friends try not to be funny and if they make me laugh they feel like they have to apologise.”

Student Billie Hodgson, 17, suffers from cataplexy meaning that any strong emotion, particularly laughter, causes her to pass out. Source: Caters

The unusual ailment is a complication of narcolepsy, in which strong emotions makes sufferers become paralysed. As well as laughter, it can also be triggered by excitement, anger or even surprise.

"When I'm with them, I tend not to be as involved in funny situations to avoid cataplexy and especially in front of those who are not as familiar with it.” 

“We joke about it like friends do because it’s a funny thing in itself, and I have to make light of it.

"If we’re eating and everyone is laughing around the table, everyone tries to stop but then the silence makes you laugh.”

Cataplexy is the second most common symptom of narcolepsy, behind excessive daytime sleepiness which characterises the condition. Narcolepsy affects about one in every 2,000 Australians, according to the Sleep Health Foundation, and is often diagnosed as people enter early adulthood.

It is thought that as much as 70 per cent of those with narcolepsy suffer from symptoms of cataplexy.

‘No control over your body’

While Ms Hodgson tries to take it in her stride, it can be scary losing control of your muscles.

"It’s so hard to explain how it feels when I collapse, it's like you have no control over your body - I don’t have any control over what’s happening.

"I can’t speak or respond to anything - but the most frustrating thing is that I’m conscious. 

"General excitement triggers it, and since I was diagnosed the triggers have become more sensitive."

Because she shakes, it means she often won’t hold precious things and had limited career paths. 

Ms Hodgson, who lives at home with her mum Sharon, 49, and sister Harley, 14, was only diagnosed with cataplexy in March last year despite finding herself on the floor every time she laughed throughout her school years.

She says her first memory of cataplexy is collapsing in the dinner hall at high school when she was around 14. 

There is no cure for cataplexy and the condition's only available treatment involves taking daily medication to try and control it. 

“I remember once walking through school with a friend and we were laughing, then I just fell to my knees,” she recalled.

“Everyone thought I’d tripped but I knew something wasn’t right.

“At first we didn’t think it was that serious and the doctor told me everyone shakes when they laugh.

When she was officially diagnosed, she had mixed emotions.  

“I was relieved that I finally knew what it was and could then start treatment, but at the same time scared because I didn't know how much it would affect my life.

“It's also a lifelong illness which meant it was quite a big thing to accept.”

The condition makes things understandably difficult at times. Source: Caters

As well as forcing her to avoid social situations, her dream of becoming a midwife have been thwarted by the rare illness. She now wants to speak out to bust myths around the unusual disorder.

“My dream was to be a midwife but I can’t do that because I lose control in my hands. 

"It’s stopping me from doing what I really want to do and now I don’t know what to apply for at university.

“I’m anxious about going out and I’m not allowed to drive,” she added.

“But I want to speak out and raise awareness because it's not something that many people know about.

“I want to show cataplexy isn't like what people stereotypically think - it can have a major impact on someone's life.”

- Caters

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