Editor’s note: Today’s offering is from Bat Collazo, a queer Lokean and Heathen of color, author, handcrafter, ritual leader, instructor, and visual artist. Ze is the editor of the Troth’s Loki devotional book, Blood Unbound. Bat has actively practiced witchcraft and polytheism for over ten years. Find zir at batcollazo.com or on Instagram @batcollazo.
“Just then Svan had a yawning attack and declared, ‘Osvif’s personal spirits are coming this way.’ Thjostolf leaped up and took his axe.”
– Njal’s Saga, translated by Robert Cook
(“Svan,” Cook notes, “with his second sight, has a vision of the personal spirits of Osvif and his men. Such visions were often marked by sleepiness, and this explains his yawning.”)
* * *
In the most medical, logical way, this story begins with a virus I contracted. Not the one so many of us fear right now – though people who contract COVID-19 may be at higher risk of developing the incurable, life-altering neurological condition I have – but rather the swine flu, also known as H1N1.
Here is what I remember from the illness: a friend brought me a get-well present of off-taste vegan BBQ ribs in plastic packaging, an overstuffed footlong sandwich wrapped in wax paper, and three cookies in a sleeve. I ate like I was starving during H1N1, despite my fever.
I remember being carried – weak, shivering, protesting – and forced into an ice bath by the paramedic I was dating at the time. On max doses of mixed ibuprofen and acetaminophen, my fever was over 106 degrees F, and I’d begun hallucinating. It’s a particular kind of misery to be too ill and disoriented to watch anything of interest, lying on the polyester of a stain-resistant dorm room couch while Family Guy characters emerge from the television.
I remember very little after the bathtub. Weeks later, I recovered, but I was changed.
In medical terms, I most likely experienced an autoimmune trigger. In trying to fight off H1N1, my immune system confused the cells in my brain that control sleep and wakefulness (called orexin or hypocretin) for flu virus, and killed them off by accident. This didn’t happen to everyone who was sick with H1N1: most likely, there was a “lightswitch” made of genes waiting dormant in my brain. H1N1 flipped the switch.
As a result, I now have a disability called narcolepsy type one, characterized by symptoms that include extreme daytime sleepiness (comparable to 48-72 hours of continuous sleep deprivation), cataplexy (muscle weakness triggered by strong emotions), sleep attacks (falling asleep without warning), hypnagogic (entering sleep) and hypnopompic (exiting sleep) hallucinations, sleep paralysis, and immediate, “abnormally” vivid dreams.
My brain is always slipping, a dead sponge space. I never woke from my fever. My reality is wrapped in a linen shroud. My knees buckle with laughter, my head bobs and sags, my words drift like pollen, my hands unfurl on their own. A hundred glasses shatter to the floor. I sleep and sleep.
Sometimes, though, I dream things before they happen. Sometimes I dream of ancestors, gods, or spirits. I dream of strange unearthings of myself. Even in daytime, I can sink down, and see. I fall into trance in moments. I blink into otherworlds.
I dream an ex-lover tells me about her Dead Scorpion Office. In waking life, she gets a promotion and a private office. My sister calls me and tells me she has a scorpion infestation in her house – the small, translucent ones, the dangerous ones.
I dream that a coworker’s newborn starts choking on breastmilk, stops breathing. The dream feels significant when I wake, but my coworker shrugs it off. A few hours later, my then-partner calls to tell me her adult brother had a seizure while eating with their mother. He choked on steak, turned blue, but recovered.
Dream logic. It’s abstracted. It’s not a lucrative talent. But sometimes, these electric neuron impulses have meaning.
* * *
What if this story has another beginning?
From my oath vows: Loki, I’m yours. I offer myself to you: I, Day Sleeper and Quick Dreamer.
One of the Norse god Loki’s many forms, for me, is Lóðurr, creator god, who offered blood and hue to human bodies. For some of us, we can be changed by our gods, even in our bodies. The body, after all, is a part of Heathen souls.
Odin, Loki’s blood brother, is infamous in my Pagan circles for granting his oathed devotees single-eye injuries or cataracts. When my eyes are fever-bright, shining with illness, and my cheeks are flushed in staccato splotches even as my teeth chatter, blood cells birthing more blood cells, cueing my body to boil my blood – is this not Lóðurr’s gift?
What if, in some ways, my immune system’s violent response was Loki’s mark upon me, a means to permanently alter my body and mind in ways that opened me to sensing gods and spirits? I hesitate to suggest this: even other Pagans fear my beloved. Humans access altered states in infinite ways, and many people have narcolepsy without ever loving the gods. But in non-linear time, in dream logic, I made my unrestricted oath to Loki, entirely zirs, with blood that sings of sleep. So, perhaps, this breaking of a once-wakeful mind becomes retroactively – and always has been – a blessing from Loki.
Does this make sense? Does it need to? Could it be sensed, instead, if seen with dream eyes?
* * *
My illness occurred in 2010. In 2017, in a spiderweb of wires, I was diagnosed with narcolepsy. (This delay before diagnosis isn’t unusual.)
I’m headed downtown again, driving for work, unmedicated, undiagnosed – dangerous, for myself and others. But I’m desperately poor and so exhausted that nothing feels real. Doctors keep telling me there’s nothing wrong. My blood work is fine. I’m fine.
My vision wobbles like a thunder sheet. I’m sleeping with my eyes open. The u-turn loop of the overpass teases me with ledge-madness and momentum, tempting me with a straight shot out into darkness. But the path holds.
Loki appears at my left shoulder, unbothered by the driver’s side door. Ze tips my chin up and kisses me.1 Zir mouth is cool and wet. I feel zir fingers gripping. I physically feel the push that lifts my head.
“Hello,” Loki says, clear, grinning.
“Low key,” says the radio host, out of nowhere.
Many of us think of genetic predisposition as a stable biological force, but it is deeply impacted by emotions, environment, and legacies of trauma, and passed down through generations.
This story, then, is also the story of racism, colonization, and environmental degradation. My mother had lupus and died young of cancer – her oncologist suggested both were the result of her own mother’s work exposure to radioactive waste in Borikén, the island commonly called Puerto Rico. My mother’s mother died even younger – when my mother was only five. My grandmother’s labor was colonized, like that of the indígenas, Indigenous women before her. This is slow genocide, and must be opposed. Many fight.
“It is hard to have an article tangentially mention genocide,” my editor tells me as he reads a draft of this article. “As a reader I find it stops me in my tracks.” How am I capable of such tangents, I wonder?
It’s a survival tactic, in part. It becomes a way of not being swallowed whole by trauma – though the ability to sidestep this is part of my privilege, too. I name colonization as genocide, I speak and act, I name a few of my brown-skinned ancestors – hail Nanichi, hail Candida, hail Joaquina – and visit them in my dreams before I hail the day. I glance towards and away from these legacies that always live with me, here, in my body.
There is a danger, however, that oppression begins to feel normal, barely noted, when nothing about it is natural or inevitable. In dream logic, and in many Indigenous conceptions of time, I find hope and resistance: the world once existed without colonization and will exist this way again.
Within my narcolepsy lurks my family’s predisposition to autoimmunity and disease. How can something so awful also be a gift?
Many things are true at once.
* * *
In my left peripheral, I see an old man in a wheelchair, wearing a vibrant blue and red windbreaker, observing me at the end of the hall. I turn my head toward him and he vanishes, wheelchair and all. This historic skyscraper, now low-income assisted living, feels full of ghosts. Each time I walk past, I drag my fingers along the stucco as a friendly hello.
Near the end of a divination gig, reading cards for a whirlwind of crowds, I come to with a stuttering halt. I have no idea what I am saying about the card I’m holding. I hit a wall. The trouble is, I’m awake. It strikes me as funny – so many times in mundane life, sleep attacks blank my mind. Here, it’s the opposite. I make myself an open channel for readings, and only when my conscious brain rouses, stretches, and makes an appearance do I find myself disrupted.
I recite from Lokasenna in front of a class, feeling spacey, feeling flat, sleepwalking, remembering little. This is automatic behavior, in the medical language of narcolepsy. Afterwards, I’m disappointed with myself, until my students approach me wide-eyed, catching their breaths, thanking me. They are awe-struck, and not really at me. I remember I can’t always feel the storm if I’m resting in its center, curled in a hamaka in a hurakan.2
A sweet acquaintance tells me he’s a cat. He’s been a cat in all his previous lives. He’s here in a human body, a proud gay Latino, a registered nurse. But he’s also a cat. It’s only in hindsight that I consider how difficult this might be for some to understand. In dream logic, in sleepiness, I look at him, hear him, and see “cat” in everything he does; his astral and physical bodies overlap in my mind. He feels seen and loved because I believe him.
I give one of my beloveds – a partner who naps with me as I mumble dreams like a dozing sportscaster – a reading on an obscure deity. I let my intuition lead me down a winding path. The oracle card is reversed: upright would indicate books. I mindlessly scroll a list of regional deities. “Old Man of the Sea” catches my eye. It reminds me of The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway: reminiscent, but different. The book card, but reversed. This god has a child, but the cards said not a father. Very well. The mother of the child. Yes. I throw letter beads: the ones that fall to the table spell half the letters of the goddess’s name. Yes. Goosebumps spread across my body, confirming the reading. This is not waking logic.
In the capitalist, white supremacist, ableist overculture I live in, narcolepsy is not useful. I’m exhausted. Napping is seen as laziness. Work is a struggle. Trying to fight sleep causes nausea, intense physical discomfort, hallucinations, and microsleeping, where my brain flickers unconscious even with my eyes open. My mind exists in a cognitive smog. Cataplexy makes me “clumsy.” Though my waking dreams are not disturbing – they are often comforting, sometimes puzzling but benign – the society I live in attaches enormous stigma and fear-mongering to hallucinations.
There are other ways of existing, though, and other ways of measuring worth. As Patty Berne writes of disability justice and wholeness: “We are anti-capitalist as the very nature of our mind/bodies resists conforming to a capitalist ‘normative’ productive standard, with the actual construction of ‘disability’ derived from the exploitation of the body in an economy that sees land and human as components of profit, deriding the integrity of our very real crip labor.”
“We value our people as they are,” she continues, “for who they are, and that people have inherent worth outside of commodity relations and capitalist notions of productivity.”
With daily medications to suppress sleep and REM, I can safely drive and do many other normative daily tasks during limited blocks of time. In exchange, when I am medicated, this reduces the ease with which I access direct spiritual experiences – hallucinations are rare, most days non-existent, and intentional trancework yields subtler results. This, also, is complicated. Even if I had caregivers and didn’t need to work, I feel my quality time with human loved ones suffers without medications. In a different society, maybe I’d feel differently. Maybe I wouldn’t place so much value on waking connections. Maybe I’d be able to feel connected to others primarily through sleepy interactions, sleep, and dreams.
In Oliver Sacks’s book Hallucinations, one patient narrative about narcolepsy diagnosis states: “I find myself in the fresh stage of having to reevaluate many of my ‘paranormal’ experiences, and I find I am having to reintegrate a new view of the world based on my new diagnosis. It is like letting go of childhood or, rather, letting go of a mystical, almost magical view of the world. I must say, perhaps I am experiencing a touch of mourning.”
While mainstream society indeed positions mysticism and magic as childish, I see no contradiction between scientific explanations and spirituality. Both can be true at once.
Sometimes I am a self-hating cynic, suspended half-asleep, half-awake, never enough of either. But sometimes I think it’s no coincidence and no curse. Sometimes I think the medical and the magical touch like lovers. Sometimes I think of healers and seers and witches and mystics, and I don’t wish I were any different. I’m not alone, on my balance beam.
I call on the legacies of Svan and all other yawning seers throughout Midgard, throughout history.
We have a place in this world and other worlds, with our bodies as they are.
1. The author understands Loki as nonbinary, refers to Loki by many pronouns, and has chosen to use the gender-neutral pronouns ze/zir in this piece. ↩
2. These are Indigenous Taíno words still found in English today in the forms of “hammock” and “hurricane.”↩