Let’s set the Wayback Machine to last year. Specifically, one particular morning.
I awoke, as I often do. On this morning, I awoke to my wife sitting on the end of our bed, looking at me curiously. Not good.
After a brief hesitation, she asked, “Did you know you have sleep apnea?”
The scene buckles here, the camera tilting at a skewed angle to convey the sense of the bottom dropping out of the world for the character in the scene (me). I had, at this moment, a crystalline image pop into my head. It was of the Grim Reaper, hooded cowl and scythed, standing in the little walkway space that decorates my front door, rasing a skeletal hand to knock.
For, you see, my father had sleep apnea. Bad. So bad, in fact, that he would literally rattle the windows when he snored. And, he died in his sleep, at the tender age of 51. It is entirely possible that his condition contributed to his death.
Thus, the creature knocking on my front door was, in my mind, the very same creature who had claimed the life of my father.
[ shudder ]
The Reader’s Digest version of sleep apnea, for those of you not in the know, is that when folks who suffer from it fall asleep, they relax to a point where their breathing passage collapses. Having their breathing cut off is, not surprisingly, dismaying to the sleeper. The body’s response to this is to startle awake. Some folks awake fully, many times per night (torturous, that), and some folks merely awaken enough to re-open their breathing passage. I am, apparently one of the latter, and until my wife had a sleepless night and noticed that I wasn’t breathing while I slept, was completely unaware of the condition.
It did, however, strike fear into my heart. Oh yes.
At the time, I had very little recourse in mind. My primary reaction was to change my diet, in an attempt to lose some weight. As my father had struggled with this condition, I actually knew some things about it(which, as you will read shortly, turned out to be a hinderance of sorts), and one of the things I knew was that it was exacerbated by having a thick neck.
Diet change? Largely successful. Weight loss? Not so much. Startling, I know.
Months passed. I was aware that I was apnea-ic (to coin a phrase), but I spent most of my effort grappling with a sense of desperation about overcoming the disorder. My father had struggled with it, you see, going so far as to having had surgery on his soft palate (to open it up some). Failures, all of his attempts, as far as I understood it. And, I was reluctant to start marching down the path of surgery on this condition at the tender age of 33. Seemed abrupt to me.
However, I did gradually come to believe that this was a much more invasive issue than I had originally understood. It slowly dawned on me that over the past decade I had become tired. Tired in a way that I had originally attributed to aging, and working a lot, and staying up too late playing World of Warcraft (all reasonable assumptions, even in hindsight), but…
God damn I was tired. I had gotten into the habit of taking half-hour naps in my car after going to lunch, before returning to work. My traditional homecoming after work was to collapse on the couch and sleep for 30 minutes. I consistenly woke up sleepy. I started to realize that this whole sleep apnea thing fucking sucked, and that I wasn’t really the same person I remembered being.
I spent a lot of time telling my friends about this crap. Strangely enough, though, the “knowledge” and “previous experience” I had about the condition had the unintended side-effect of delaying my actually researching the condition. Dumb.
My wife, of course, came to my rescue. As she so often does. (As an aside, how to bachelors survive in the wild? I would most certainly have locked myself out of my house and starved to death on some random street corner long ago if my wife didn’t keep an eye on me… it makes me think that bachelors have access to some hidden lore that I can only marvel at.)
She read to me an article in a health magazine (see??? who subscribes to health magazines?!? my wife!) that was talking about my condition! Who’d have thought, that there were actual people out there that knew more about this thing than I did! Get right outta town!
And, in that article, I first heard about my new best friend, the CPAP machine.
CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. It’s a facemask you wear at night that shoves air down your throat, which prevents the airway from collapsing, see. The article described how it worked, and then had a bunch of testimonials from people who’s life had been dramatically changed for the better by this technological marvel. It mentioned that some folks found the device uncomfortable, but fuck that shit. I called my doctor the next day.
Something like two weeks later, I spent a horrible, long, boring night at the Sleep Clinic, where they recorded my brain waves, and watched me sleep with an infrared fucking camera. It was surreal, but very interesting. I couldn’t sleep for shit, but apparently they got the data they needed. I spent half the night “sleeping” normally, and the other half sleeping with the CPAP mask thing on my face. (I found the mask acceptably uncomfortable.)
When I saw the report…
Well, it turns out that when I sleep, I wake myself up at a rate of 29 “events” per hour. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: I wake myself up every two minutes. There was this startling line in the report, that went like this:
Zero. Zip. None. No REM.
For over a decade, I have not dreamed. It’s funny; looking back, I thought it was just that I wasn’t remembering my dreams. It’s a bit horrifying to realize that no, in fact, I wasn’t dreaming at all.
It’s a miracle I’m still sane. Some may feel this is an optimistic evaluation of my current mental state, but be that as it may, holy fucking shit.
I (and my doctor) learned another startling fact from this report: when I slept with the mask on, my snoring events dropped to almost zero. This left room, apparently, for another malevolent demonic force to enter into the picture, as it turns out that I also suffer from a thing called Restless Leg Syndrome. In this wonderful human adapatation to planet earth, the sufferer’s legs twitch as they sleep. This has the same effect as the snoring (although in a less violent procedure): it wakes you up. When not waking myself up with snoring, I wake myself up at almost the same rate with twitching.
When you step back, and take a look at the situation, what you have here is someone who is really unskilled at sleeping. I suck at it. I’m a neophyte, a level 1 sleeper. I couldn’t sleep my way out of a wet paper bag. And, my doctor concurred.
For the sleep apnea, I was given the lovely CPAP machine. For the twitching, I was given a drug that they use to calm Parkinson’s patients (you know, the folks who’s hands tremble constantly) to take at night.
Let me say this: after a single night, the change in my ability to think was nothing short of miraculous. That I now am able to largely take it for granted, and have returned to some version of the dude I was in my late teenage years is sweet beyond reason.
Thank you, western medicine, for giving me my brain back.