In the early to mid nineties something profoundly bad happened to me. The worst aspect of it was that i was never there to see it and it’s effect on me was so gradual that it was undetectable. I started snoring loudly in the early to mid 90’s. I worked at a semiconductor company at the time and there were days when i simply fell asleep while staring in the microscope that i was stationed at. At the time i thought it was because i was living in a house with no air conditioning and that heat was the reason i was constantly tired.
In a larger context, i was falling asleep.
It would be 15 years later, and i would be 41 years old before i woke up.
What i tell you next, i say as a warning to anyone that would heed it. I find evangelism of any sort distasteful because ultimately that sort of proselytizing is usually an indicator of someones own insecurity and lack of faith (think: Ted Haggard). I want to share this experience because of the dire effect sleep apnea had on my quality of life, my relationships during that time and my cognitive skills; specifically the lack thereof.
At best, snoring is treated as a novelty. As an annoyance, it’s enough of a distraction that couples sleep in different rooms. For me, it was much, much worse. I wasn’t just snoring- it was that i would stop breathing. By the time i decided it was time to address it medically, i had been in a fog for more than a decade, i hadn’t dated in 6 years (granted the reasons are more complicated than just snoring but my embarrassment about my snoring was a component), i was waking up several times a night to either put water in my mouth (due to painful dryness) and in the weeks before i had my sleep study, i found myself instantly waking up and sitting up just to breathe for a few minutes at random times. I didn’t know why but i would basically realize i was awake and sitting up and just breathing. Eventually i’d just fall over and go back to sleep.
I had my sleep study done in February 2008. It was supposed to be a baseline study of 8 hours of unassisted sleep. I had so many wires on me that i looked like a Borg. There were wires on my skull (for the EEG), my torso and my legs (to detect Restless Leg Syndrome). I had a monitor on one of my fingertips to measure my blood/oxygen level- hypoxia. Four hours into the study, the technician comes in abruptly, scares the shit out of me and tells me, “You have to wake up! I can’t let you sleep like this.”
What i learned is that i stopped breathing more than a hundred times an hour (120) Some stoppages lasted more than 15 seconds. This was causing a profound shortage of REM sleep as well as Delta sleep; two of the most vital components of sleep. I spent years at jobs where i had trouble understanding new information, maintaining focus and many of my days were characterized by trying to stay awake by jamming pens or pencils into my arms or legs in hopes of creating enough stimulus that i could focus for a while. Caffeine had no effect on me. I lost more than one job because of my inability to wake up and think. Again, it was gradual; i thought what i was living with was normal for everyone else too.
But the one that was going to kill me, and by all accounts SHOULD have killed me years ago, was the level of oxygen in my blood. During my study, i was at 53% and falling. Anything below 90% is bad. At the point i was at, your body is trying to supply oxygen to the most basic components to survive- the heart and brain. I wasn’t even getting enough to keep those going properly (as evidenced by the way i was waking up just to breathe in the middle of the night). When the doctor submitted his evaluation notes for my study, the usual clinical detachment that doctors keep was absent. I think he was amazed and possibly thought, “There’s no way anyone’s results are this bad.” They were.
As a side, i do suggest Northwest Sleep Health if you’re in the PDX/ Clackamas/ Milwaukie area.
The 2nd half of my sleep study was with a BiPAP (Bidirectional Positive Air Pressure) and having the technician adjust the pressure remotely while watching my EEG and other metrics.
With the four hours of assisted sleep i had, i came out of that building a new person.
It was a crisp February morning. I distinctly remember seeing the colors of the conifers for the first time. The air had a brightness to it that i’d never registered even though i’d breathed it hundreds of times before. I’d seen the sky before but i’d never seen blue like this. In the days to follow i realized i was tearing the rotten husk of a skin that i’d worn for years. It was being reborn. It was the first time i’d felt alive in fifteen years.
In six months, i would shed about 40#, quit being hungry all the time (lack of sleep manufactures Leptin, which increases hunger) but more than anything else, i would feel cognitive process’ that i’d not felt since i was in my 20’s.
I have to live with the fact that i lost fifteen years of my life. I have to acknowledge the times i had shortcomings as a man in my relations, in my professional life and in my personal growth. Ultimately those failings rest on me and even with my sleep apnea accounted for, i’m responsible for the myriad of bad decisions i made, the pain i caused others and the fact that even after being awake for a bit more than a year now, i’m still not where and who i should be.
So i’m writing this as a cautionary tale to anyone that knows something is wrong with their sleep but doesn’t fully understand the impact it might be having on their life. It might be that you have obstructive sleep apnea, you might have restless leg syndrome, you could have any one of a number of things that are keeping you from getting a solid night of sleep. But as i can tell you with experiences that no one should endure, do whatever it takes to get a sleep study. Not only might your life depend on it, but you could well be asleep, in a manner, and not even know it.