‘I was a zombie mum who slept for 18 hours a day’
Suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, mum-of-three Cristina Moreira, 46, struggled to get out of bed and could barely keep her eyes open on the school run
‘As I switched off my morning alarm, I muttered “Here we go again” and tried to get up using as little energy as possible. It was 7am. Rubbing my tired eyes – not concerned about making them even more bloodshot – I tried to come to terms with the idea of staying awake for the next few hours.
“Mum, what’s for breakfast?”
“Where’s my PE kit?”
“Can I have some toast?”
My three children, Zhane, then 15, Sienna, 11, and Rio, 10, shouted at me as they bounded into the bedroom.
I was already exhausted, so before tackling the school run, I reached into the bathroom cabinet and swallowed 375mg of Venlafaxine antidepressant pills.
Taking medication wasn’t new to me.
I’d suffered with extreme anxiety, stress and depression since my teens, and I’d been on and off Prozac and Venlafaxine for 15 years. In December 2003, I was involved in a car accident while pregnant with my second daughter, Sienna, and suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder and post-natal depression. Less than two years later, I had my son Rio and started taking Venlafaxine every day.
Despite the medication, I became increasingly weary. “You have a long-term illness called chronic fatigue syndrome,” my psychiatrist said in 2014, as I searched for answers as to why I was constantly fighting sleep.
Triggered by stress
I finally had a clinical diagnosis to explain my zombie-like state, and I was told that stress and anxiety may have triggered the syndrome.
In 2017, my relationship broke down, making me a single mum. My only escape from the tiredness was sleep – the blackness gave me some relief.
With guilt churning through my stomach, I pinched my cheeks to bring some colour to my face and trudged downstairs.
“I have the worst migraine today,” I said, gratefully accepting a cup of tea from Zhane – she knew I had no energy to make my own.
After dropping the kids at school, I counted the minutes until I could be back home asleep, forcing my tired eyes to concentrate on the road.
Was I going to be like this for the rest of my life? Everything was overwhelming – I felt disconnected from my own body and was stuck in my forever-spinning mind.
Locking the door shut, I sighed with relief before climbing into bed and setting my alarm for 3pm, giving myself 15 minutes to get out of the door for school pick-up.
On bad days, I slept for 18 hours. I was in a monotonous pattern of sleeping all night, waking to get the kids to school, sleeping until 3pm, picking them up, doing dinner and being back in bed asleep by 8pm. Those six waking hours were so much effort. It was no life.
I was on more than the highest dose of medication and it wasn’t working; the doctors tried adding other medicines but my brain remained foggy.
“What’s for dinner tonight, Mum?” Rio startled me out of my numb daze as he jumped into the car after school.
“Jacket potatoes with beans and cheese, darling,” I told him with a false smile. I hadn’t had energy to cook a homemade meal for years and relied on the microwave to feed us.
I drove the kids home, angry at myself for wishing they would go to bed early, so I wouldn’t have to cope with being awake for too long. I knew I wasn’t coping.
As I watched them eat their dinners, blissfully unaware of my sleep struggle, my mind wandered to the school parents’ evenings I had missed.
“You were scheduled for 5pm, Miss
Moreira,” I remember the headmaster telling me on the phone.
I winced with embarrassment at the sad memory as my foggy mind recalled the swimming lessons, birthday parties and numerous social events we missed – all because I was asleep.
After begging me to go to extra-curricular clubs, like football, I would take the kids, feeling awful, and end up making them leave early because I was fighting to stay awake. The “mum guilt” was constant.
Socialising was impossible, so friends drifted away and I became severely isolated. Whenever I was awake, I felt sedated or headachey.
“I’m going to go lie down, I want you all in your bedrooms by 8pm,” I’d tell the kids, crawling upstairs.
In the end, a year after my official chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosis, it was my worried mum, Jean, now 71, who said, “This can’t go on, Cristina.”
She herself had suffered from fibromyalgia – a condition that causes widespread pain and extreme tiredness – for years and had been using a portable self-treatment device to soothe her pain and anxiety.
Mum insisted the Alpha-stim cranial electrotherapy device, which you wear inside your ear, had changed her life.
“Just try it out, it won’t do any harm,” she urged, passing the gadget to me.
So I started using it whenever I visited Mum, and noticed my anxiety reducing. I came away feeling more positive.
Zhane helped me order my own device. I read
how it sends an imperceptible microcurrent to the brain helping to produce serotonin.
Since the biggest triggers for my chronic fatigue syndrome were stress and anxiety, wearing the Alpha-stim regularly kept tiredness at bay.
It felt weird, but I started to cope better with day-to-day life and my desperate need to sleep slowly dwindled.
Today, I’m a world away from sleeping 18 hours a day. I still suffer, but I think more logically.
My kids, now 20, 16, and 15, say I’m a different person. They know to “leave me to it” when they see me with the device poking out of my back pocket.
I’ve even had the energy to train as a yoga teacher, learning meditation to help me stay calm. Now I want to help others do the same.
“I’m reducing my medication,” I proudly told the GP last year. My anxiety and stress levels had reduced and I felt less dependent on a high dosage.
I’m calmer. I’m no longer a zombie mum. We all know the importance of getting enough sleep. But needing 18 hours a day was ruining my life.’
‘Swimming lessons, birthday parties and social events were all missed’
When Norma Lopez left her last class and headed off to meet her friends, it was a hot day. The 17-year-old was going to summer school at Valley View High and had just finished a biology lesson. She was a regular teen who enjoyed dancing and fashion. She had a boyfriend and loved spending time with friends during the holidays. But hard-working Norma was going to the extra classes to make sure she stayed on top of her education.
Normally, she walked with her boyfriend but he was running late on the morning of 15 July 2010, so she set off on her own. She headed to a friend’s house, who lived a few blocks from the school in Moreno Valley, California, where she planned to meet her sister and friends.
When Norma didn’t arrive, they grew worried and set off to see if they could meet her on the way, walking her route across a field towards the school. They were horrified when they saw Norma’s purse, a school binder and a broken earring lying on the ground. There were signs of a struggle, but no trace of Norma.
An investigation got under way. If Norma had been kidnapped, there was hope she might still be alive. She had four sisters and two brothers, and her desperate family made pleas for her safe return. The city council offered a $35,000 reward and flyers were handed out as volunteers from the community helped scour the area.
Tragically, five days after her disappearance, Norma’s partially clothed body was discovered in a grove of olive trees around three miles from the route she had been walking.
Due to the intense heat, her body was badly decomposed and authorities could not determine a cause of death. The medical examiner could only speculate that Norma had most likely died from “strangulation or asphyxiation”.
The teen’s death shook the community. Parents were terrified for their children, knowing that the culprit was at large. The city was on edge, fearing someone else could be snatched.
Investigators found DNA on the earring that had been ripped from Norma’s ear but when they checked it against the state’s database, there were no matches. Security camera footage appeared to show a green vehicle speeding away from where Norma was last seen but it couldn’t be traced. Her attacker was still out there.
Second violent attack
Then, in September 2011, a match was found from a new sample that had been added to the database. A man who had been involved in a violent attack earlier that year had been required to provide his DNA – and it linked him to Norma’s murder.
The man was Jesse Torres. He was living in Long Beach in the Golden State but police discovered that at the time Norma was killed, he had been living in Moreno Valley – near her high school. Weeks after the murder, he had returned to his hometown of Long Beach.
Police believed that had to be far more than a coincidence. And as well as the DNA on Norma’s earring, investigators found fibres on her clothing that matched fibres in his
SUV – and carpet at his former home. Torres also owned a green Nissan Xterra, just like the vehicle in the security footage.
In the October, Torres was arrested and charged with Norma’s murder but he denied killing the teenager. At his trial in 2019, the
court heard why Torres’s DNA was on file. An unnamed woman testified that he had attacked her – dragging her into his car at knifepoint and taking her home and raping her. Prosecutors said police found pictures of the naked victim tied up.
The prosecution said Torres had abducted Norma after his wife left him. They argued that he was feeling depressed and was drinking heavily. And they suggested that he had been watching Norma as she’d innocently gone about her day.
“He was looking out the window at teenage girls kissing their boyfriends on the corner,” the prosecution said. “Each and every day he was watching, he was waiting, he was looking through the blinds, he was lusting.” They said Torres had followed Norma in his SUV and dragged her into it. Norma’s fate had been sealed.
The court watched surveillance footage from a house that captured the final images of Norma walking alone. Moments later, with her out of sight, a green SUV could be seen slowly cruising her in direction. Then, five minutes later, the green SUV was seen coming back, speeding away from the scene. The prosecutor looked at Torres and said, “You killed Norma Lopez and you dumped her under that tree like garbage.”
Torres looked at the jury and could be heard saying, “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.”
The defence tried to suggest that the data in the DNA system had been tainted and the crime scene hadn’t been protected from contamination.
They also pointed out Torres was a similar height to Norma and the idea he snatched her alone was implausible. “This was a two-person job,” they said. They also questioned the motive, as Norma’s decomposed body meant sexual assault could not be proved.
They also said the carpet fibre evidence was inconclusive. “Those fibres could have come from any of hundreds of homes in Southern California,” they said. “A million square feet of that carpet is produced every year.”
But the prosecution insisted the fibres were important, saying, “Those carpet fibres were nowhere to be found in Norma’s environment, only the defendant’s environment.” At the end of the monthlong trial, they concluded there was a strong forensic link between Torres and the crime scene. “He left his DNA all over her,” they said. “It all points to the same person.”
In March 2019, nearly nine years after Norma’s death, the jury found Torres,
44, guilty of first-degree murder and confirmed a special circumstance of murder during the commission of a felony
– in this case kidnapping. Torres showed no emotion as he heard the verdict. Jurors began the penalty phase to decide whether he would be executed or serve a life sentence.
The death penalty was supported by the prosecution, who urged the jurors to consider the “unimaginable” final hours of Norma’s life. “He wanted her for his evil sexual gratification,” they said.
“What mercy did he show her? What sympathy? None. Norma is dead and that monster is not. And that’s just wrong.”
The jurors agreed that the death penalty was a fitting punishment.
‘Hatred of women’
In December 2020, Torres’s lawyer said his client was “not normal” and to die in prison was punishment enough. But the prosecution said his “brazen evilness” had shattered Norma’s family and the community. They also pointed out his other victim had given another example of his “hatred of women” and “evil heart”.
Norma’s family provided heartbreaking statements, including the teen’s mum – also named Norma Lopez. “I took Norma to school that day not knowing it was the last time I would ever see her again,” she said. “In my house, there is no happiness, like how it was when Norma was here. Everywhere in the house there was laughter and happiness. It was beautiful. But that all ended the day that Norma did not return home to us.”
Describing the ongoing agony of living without her, Norma’s sister Sonia said, “They say that time heals everything but it doesn’t. We have just had to learn how to go on with our lives and live with the pain, even though it isn’t easy to do.”
The judge formalised the death penalty sentence, saying, “The killing of Norma Lopez and the dumping of her body like a piece of garbage can only be described as disgusting. The defendant displays an utter disregard for human life and is a threat to society. No question about that.”
Norma had her whole life ahead of her when she set off to meet her friends on that sunny day in 2010. Taking it away from her cost Torres his own, as he now awaits his end on death row.
‘You killed Norma and you dumped her under that tree just like garbage’