4 Things Everyone With Sleep Apnea Should Understand
I have sleep apnea. You' ve probably heard of it before, and are maybe aware of what it means. I snore. That's what most people think apnea consists of. It also ensures that I get no more than about three hours of sleep in a row on any given night, and I also have extremely high blood pressure and a host of other complications. My doctor once took my blood pressure five times in a row with three different machines, before calling in a second doctor to check with yet another machine. The reason, I was told after, was that they'd never seen a living person with blood pressure like mine who wasn't experiencing a severe cardiac episode. My blood pressure is that high. Every day.
Needless to say, I don't enjoy this, so I've endeavored to help myself out. It's a bit of a process, but the prize for success is not dying, so I'm motivated.
There's A Laundry List Of Problems
Ever since my doctor's encouraging diagnosis that I was a living heart attack, I've been trying to find ways to fix myself. In order to be diagnosed with sleep apnea, however, you need to do a sleep study and then have your doctor prescribe one of these preposterously expensive machines that force you to breathe at night. Sounds easy enough at first, but getting into a sleep study, at least for me, took ages.
Or, if you work for Cracked, you just have one of the unpaid interns give you mouth-to-mouth all night.
In the meantime, I was enjoying the insane list of complications one gets to experience with sleep apnea and high blood pressure. For instance, I can't sleep. Pretty much ever. So if I sit still for too long during the day, I tend to find myself suddenly waking up 20 minutes later with a trail of drool running from my face to my shirt. That's the funny side effect. It also means I need to do twice as much laundry, because I have to change my shirts all the time so that I don't have to come up with an excuse for the big off-color spot on my left shoulder.
Hypertension also puts me at risk of heart attack and stroke, and the apnea itself can help me get fatty liver disease, heart disease, coronary artery disease, heart failure, diabetes, weight gain, irritability, memory loss, and acute lycanthropy. It's basically a nightmare -- except not, because you can't sleep long enough to have really decent nightmares, as you keep waking up and peeing and swearing and whatnot. It's a wakemare. A shitty, fully-conscious experience wherein you realize that having too much salt or a couple more chicken wings could cause you to collapse in a spasming heap. All because you can't fuckin' sleep right.
And there are no training montages for your thalmus.
You can get medications to manage the various symptoms, but none of them will make you feel more rested during the day. So basically, you need to address the apnea. And there's really only one decent way to do that.
You Need Machinery
The sleep apnea machine is the closest science has come to recreating the experience of trying to nap with an alien facehugger porking your throat with a pressurized air dong. My particular machine comes with a mask that includes a stabilizing foot on my forehead, a spider's web of elastic headbands, and a nose cone. Once I have it affixed over my nose in an airtight fashion, I can turn the machine on and it literally just shoots air at my beak. The idea is that it forces my airway to stay open so it doesn't collapse while I breathe, which is essentially the problem with sleep apnea.
Tom Hardy voice modulator sold separately.
Shooting wind down your snout is a weird thing to get used to, as is finding a way to breathe upstream. Breathing out against resistance is not a normal part of life, so trying to relax while forcing air out of your nose is not particularly restful. At the same time, at least if you're me, once you hit that semi-conscious state between sleep and wakefulness when you're not sure if you're dreaming or not, having a pressurized air mask on your face is basically fodder for a million and one comedy routines. I've woken up convinced a cat was eating my face, that someone was sitting on me and farting right up my nose, that a spider was trying to merge with my head, and a variety of other ridiculous things that ended with me ripping the mask off and throwing it away.
And no chestbursters! Yet!
If you fit everything on correctly, it's not entirely obtrusive. When the sound is barely noticeable and the hose hangs off to one side, then you're good. Unless you roll the wrong way and dislodge the nose piece just a bit. At that point, every breath sounds like a high-pitched fart aimed at your eyeballs. You'll be forced to adjust the mask at least a dozen times, in the dark, until you get it lined up again.
You Can't Do This Yourself
For a while, I tried to figure out a way to deal with this myself, because sleep apnea sounds like baby shit. I can't sleep properly? Fuck that. Sleep is so easy that it's literally the only thing you can do when you're not awake. If I can fuck up sleeping, how can anyone trust me with money, cars, or pointy objects? So it was a shot in the pride to suggest that I'd somehow bunged up my ability to lay still for eight hours.
"I'm gonna go take a nap, babe."
"OH, JUST RUB IT IN MY FACE!"
Initially, because the biggest complaint anyone had registered against my sleeping was snoring, I bought one of those dumbass plastic mouth pieces that make you look like you plan to box the Sandman. I had to put it in boiling water and then insert it into my face so it could mold itself to my shame and always be there for me.
The mouth guard succeeded in making me dream about nachos constantly. Every night, I was sure I was eating nachos, and I'd wake up chewing this stupid piece of plastic before spitting it out then sleeping again. I'd then wake up in the morning with a damp, gnarled mouth bit between my legs or on the floor. Eventually my dog got to it and chewed it up completely. I assume he was also thinking of nachos.
That's really just a safe assumption for any dog at any time.
My next effort was to slightly adjust my pillow. If I slept with my head just so, perhaps that would alleviate the strain on my windpipe, and I'd be breathing like a champ and sleeping like the dead. At least, that's what about a half-dozen websites assured me. Just prop that pillow up, Felix. Easy-peasy!
I don't know what you do at night when you're sleeping, but for me it's a constant battle between reality and the forces of inane bullshittery in my head. More than once, I have come awake mid-sentence calling someone a shitheel or a douche wagon and ready to fight. Other times, I'm just on the opposite side of the bed I went to sleep on, semi-cocooned in sheets and sweating profusely. Whatever I do at night, it's busy shit. I'm a man on the go all the time. So no, positioning my pillow just so won't work if midway through the night I need to use that pillow to muffle a dream-gunshot when I'm trying to dream-kill some spies in my villa.
"Don't you mean 'dream-spies in your dream-villa?'"
"You heard what I said."
Fact is, home remedies for this kind of shit don't work, unless you're already dead.
You Need To Not Panic
If you don't have sleep apnea, you probably don't take it very seriously. I didn't either, because as we've established, it sounds lame. I can sleep just fine, thanks. Then one day, at about 4 a.m., I woke up like I'd just been shot. It was one of those movie scenes when someone panics awake from a nightmare, just sitting bolt upright, eyes wide, mouth open screaming. Except I didn't have a nightmare and I wasn't screaming. I couldn't scream. My throat had closed completely, and I was totally unable to breathe in or out. So I was caught there, half dazed from being completely asleep a second before, in a pitch-black room, alone and effectively dying. I tried very hard to breathe. I remember the feeling of trying to force it, to suck in and feel my throat like thin rubber sucking down against the pressure but not giving in.
Another pull and something fluttered, like the end of a balloon when you're trying to make fart sounds -- just a bit of air. It squeaked past the seal, but the effort to get it in there seemed to be costing me more than I was getting in.
Why is there never a middle-school bully around to sock you in the stomach when you need one?
Two steps from my bed to the bedroom door. I was dizzy. The doorknob was stuck -- my door jamb is a little crooked and the door doesn't fit quite right. Some days, you need to give it a good yank. Another pull to try to breathe. The barest squeal of air. I yanked the door. Too hard. Too fast. It came back at me and I lost my balance, fell on the floor, and smashed my head on the end of my bed. I remember thinking, "I'm going to die in a pile of my own dirty laundry."
I woke up again in the morning. I had a big-ass lump on my head and my breathing was fine. I don't know how. I sat up a minute and did the usual "holy shit" thing you do in a situation after realizing you didn't die as much as you thought you were going to. Then I wondered how long it would have been before someone found me there if I had died.
Probably Sallie Mae after the first missed payment, if only to loot my corpse for one last late fee.
The next time this same damn thing happened was when I decided I needed one of those fucking machines. But they don't give them to you right away. The process is so goddamn long. And in the interim, I got to experience what I like to think of as the Junior-grade near-death experience. It's not quite as awful as waking up totally unable to breathe, but it does have its perks.
The Junior-grade near-death experience woke me up in much the same way as the near-death experience did, only this time I could breathe. It was just harder, and I was choking. Choking on what? Hell, I don't know. Maybe I tried to eat my pillow. But I was choking profusely and having a hard time catching my breath. I sat up, tried to get all zen and calm, and then it hit me. During one particularly nasty bout of coughing, I felt something creep up the back of my throat. Nothing so sinister as alien parasites or the hand of a Japanese vengeance demon. It was more of a thickness. A sulphurous, salty, meaty presence.
I didn't even remember sleeping with Al Pacino.
I made my way to the bathroom, handily next to my bedroom, and lifted the lid on the toilet just in time to cough forth a slurry of viscous, twilight hate chum. A mixture of all I'd eaten that day, plus a heady garnish of acidic devilry. It tasted like chicken porridge and vinegar being pushed straight from my gullet out of my face by a tiny, goat-hoofed hate fury.
So the puke thing isn't the best, and it's only happened a few times. But man is it the sort of thing you don't want to repeat. So every time you do repeat it, you curse it a little more.
Much like sleeping with Al Pacino.
Basically, you're going to want to learn how to wear that stupid mask all night, and maybe take some medication for your blood pressure, lose some weight, get more exercise, stop sniffing glue, don't litter -- the whole nine yards. Then, maybe you can sleep properly.
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Learn more about managing your human off switch in 5 Surprisingly Basic Things That Are Depriving You Of Sleep, and read how our ancestors slept in small chunks of time when you check out Why Everything You Know About Sleep Is A Lie.
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