It Sneaks Up On You – A Few Words About Sleep Apnea

At least as far back as I can remember, I was known for being a snorer. Not just a snorer, but a house-shaking snorer. This always surprised me a bit, because when I was snoring, I was asleep and unaware of it. In fact, when I was married, the topic would come up occasionally with friends, and my ex-wife would go on about how I would wake up the children, and could be heard all the way downstairs, even with the bedroom door closed and the television blaring. I joked that the strange thing was, I never snored when I slept alone!

I did have this occasional strange sleep event: I’d wake from a sound sleep because I couldn’t breathe. Not only could I not breathe, but I was suffocating! And I would spring from sleep, often clear out of bed, in a panic, to expel whatever was in my lungs, with a life-saving explosion that opened my sealed throat. You would think that this might generate some concern, but I didn’t think too much about it. I just thought it came from eating ice cream before bed, which caused the insides of my mouth to stick together (even after brushing :-).

There was the exhaustion thing. I loved to take naps, but they were never very refreshing. Yet if I had a moment to lie down somewhere, I’d be inclined to close my eyes. I had a minimum one hour commute on I-95 when I stayed at my girlfiend’s house in Philadelphia, and frequently had a hard time keeping my eyes open and on the road either driving there at night, or heading to work in the morning. And there was the time my son made a poster for his elementary school class. A collage of photos “About My Family”, I was portrayed in the series “My Dad likes to sleep. A lot!” A cluster of photos featuring yours truly taking naps at various locations around the house and yard.

The poking got to me – My girlfriend poked me when I slept with her. My perception—I was annoyingly roused from sleep because I was snoring. And not just from sleep, but from finally just starting to fall into a restful sleep. It seemed like this happened continuously throughout the night. She was harassing me because my snoring bothered her. By morning I’d be full of resentment, unrested, unrefreshed, looking at a long commute, and completely oblivious to her explanation that, “You stopped breathing.” It seems like years, maybe it was years, before it sank in that she was saying, “You stopped breathing. I couldn’t sleep because I’d be lying next to you and I’d be waiting for your next breath, and it wouldn’t come.” You know, (I’d think), I’m a very healthy person. This is ridiculous. Why can’t she just ignore the snoring? Denial is a powerful thing. The poking was one of at least two times Kate saved my life. (Thanks, Kate. I’m sorry I didn’t get it sooner.) It amazes me now how long it took me to realize that I had a real problem.

Headaches – I’ve had headaches most of my life, including occasional migraines. I think they are a learned response to stress. My mom had migraines. Usually 2-3 day events, which miraculously went away when the last of her four children moved out of the house. But I was waking up every morning with a headache. In fact the pattern was: very poor quality sleep, opening my eyes with the absolute certainty that I had been cheated, though I couldn’t explain in what way, a throbbing pain at the base of my skull, the wish that I could go back to sleep and feel better, and the knowledge that the only thing I could do was get up and move around, because that usually seemed to alleviate the pain a bit. For years I’d tried prescriptions for various pain killers for the migraines, but these, and regular aspirin, were usually ineffective for this morning headache. And then, every month or two, one of these morning headaches evolved into a full-blown migraine, complete with vomiting, rolling around on the floor in agony, all that stuff.

Thank You NPR This had gone on for at least a couple years. Chronic pain, sleeplessness, exhaustion, and so on. By this time, my girlfriend had told me quite directly, “I think you have sleep apnea.” And I still did not want to hear it. I think we had even gotten to the point of talking about CPAP, some kind of screwy contraption where you wear a breathing mask to bed. How absurd! Besides, I had more important issues to solve, such as my migraines, and a newly evolving chronic back pain. However, the seed was planted, and I am thankful I had the radio on one morning during a long tiring commute. I wasn’t paying that much attention at first, but I reached to turn the volume up when I realized that whoever was speaking, was describing exact symptoms in precise detail that matched my own. Everything. And the story was about how this person after years of pain, had gone to a sleep clinic, been diagnosed with sleep apnea, prescribed a CPAP machine, and after a few weeks on CPAP, ALL of his symptoms had gone away. All gone away. I don’t even recall if they spoke about the lethal aspects of Apnea—it can kill you after all—because all that mattered to me was that this guy made his pain go away.

I looked into my insurance, discovered the process to get into a sleep clinic, got a referral from my General Practitioner, and was on my way. That could be another blob, but let’s just say, I tried the CPAP. CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. Basically, you wear a mask that blows air at your nose and mouth. Somehow this keeps the soft tissue inside your mouth from closing off your throat.

Within days, had dreams! One thing I haven’t mentioned, and hadn’t really noticed at the time, is that people who don’t have a healthy sleep cycle don’t dream (or not much, or don’t ever remember their dreams, whatever…) Suddenly my brain was exploding with vivid, memorable, colorful dreams. And, I was feeling rested. And, I almost never had a morning headache! Within a few weeks, I had more energy and my backaches had evaporated. And there were improvements that can’t be measured – I was thinking more clearly. I’ve been on the CPAP now for over 6 years. It is a little hard to get used to; you have to figure out what kind of mask works for you. It’s not perfect. If your partner wants you to live s/he’ll understand and support you putting on this screwy thing before you fall asleep. You can work it out. It is so worth it.

Written on my iPad

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