“Nothing to be scared of. Just going to sleep. Finally, true, restful sleep.”
Dan Torrance, using his shining ability to speak through his mind to a dying hospice patient
Doctor Sleep (2019)
The opening quote drips with irony in this newsletter’s context because many people struggle to get true restful sleep. Some don’t even realize they’re not getting it. I was one of them.
If someone in another room can hear you snoring, imagine how someone who shares a room with you can hear it. Even if you live alone, have you ever felt like you’re suffocating in your sleep? If you have, then you’re probably snoring.
When I was young, all it took was one night’s sleep at a friend’s house to hear about my snoring. I did what many others I observed who snored did: I flashed a sheepish grin, shrugged, and apologized. What else could I do? I marveled at how oblivious I was to it, and I couldn’t help it, anyway.
Or, so I thought, back then.
And I wasn’t alone. I didn’t know anyone, or hear of anyone, who viewed their snoring as something they could control, much less a problem they could solve. It wasn’t until I’d reached my fifties that I did something about it. Why?
Because the problem was getting worse, and it was affecting my wife’s sleep. That, and learning snoring can tax your heart, and what I learned about sleep’s importance to overall health were the catalysts for my eventual diagnosis and treatment.
But let’s back up a bit. Despite being prone to snoring, I detected little of it in my family or circle of friends, and you may not detect it in yours. So, how prevalent is it?
Quite prevalent: The Sleep Foundation estimates snoring affects 57% of men, 40% of women, and up to 27% of children. It’s a thing. Knowing what I know today, it pains me to think many of those individuals may elect to “just live with it” and continue to suffer rather than seeking what could prove to be life-saving treatment.
For those of you wondering what it might be like to have sleep apnea, here’s how you can somewhat simulate my experience with it.
What sleep apnea feels like
Exhale and hold it. When you feel the urge to take a breath, resist it until your body forces you to take the breath. You’ll experience spasms in your diaphragm, and a carbon dioxide/oxygen imbalance is causing that burning sensation in your lungs.
When you take that next breath, allow yourself only a partial breath rather than the full, deep breath your lungs are craving.
When this happens in my sleep, that first hard-fought breath concerns me. The next one alarms me, and regardless of what’s happening in my dream, all I can focus on is fighting for my next breath.
If you repeat this breath deprivation experiment several times, you’ll find your heart rate skyrockets and you’re left gasping.
My body would startle me awake in the middle of the night–thankfully, because some don’t survive these episodes–leaving me gasping for air and riding an unwanted adrenaline surge.
I’d roll onto my side, sometimes shaken, often lying there for a while, persuading myself it’s okay to return to sleep while exhaustion kept me in its grip. Rolling onto my back was, and still is, the most frequent catalyst for my snoring. That soft palate in the back of the throat relaxes and drapes like a sticky canopy onto the other side your throat. The only way to get your next breath is to force a breath strong enough to peel the canopy free.
And your body must force it in your sleep because your unconscious mind has no idea what’s happening. It’s just desperate for another breath.
When returning to sleep was successful, it wasn’t the deep, recuperative sleep my body needed. So I was building a cumulative “sleep deficit” that’s hazardous to my long-term health.
Once I’d started researching snoring and obstructive sleep apnea in my early fifties, I realized how taxing it could be for my heart. Though I’m considered a fit guy and I enjoy maintaining my fitness, snoring left me feeling like I was creating my own headwinds: recuperative sleep deprivation, chronic fatigue, lethargy, and their insidious side effects.
Imagine their cumulative effects over years.
And that’s just the impact on me.
I’m lucky to be married to my wife for more than thirty years. When I asked her, she couldn’t recall exactly when she first started noticing. A most gracious response. I know my wife adopted tactics she thankfully has rare use for today.
Giving me a nudge. Before I treated my sleep apnea, she tells me some nudges were emphatic enough to qualify as shoves. If I stirred and looked back at her, I’m told my expressions ranged from puzzled to hurt to scowling before I abruptly returned to sleep. That’s gratitude for ya, huh?
Sleeping in another room. We’ve had guest bedrooms for several years now, so if Operation Shove The Hub failed, a change of quarters offered her and our relationship relief. Even today, if I wake to find her in the guest bedroom, I ask if my snoring led to her relocation so I can apologize. Often, it’s not, and while I realize I can’t control my sleep apnea 100%, I do care about my wife 100%.
Suffocating me. The nuclear option. She never said it, but I’m sure she thought it. Couldn’t blame her if she did: I can be a light sleeper, and I’m miserable when avoidable noises wake me.
Just how loudly did I snore?
I’ve nodded off a handful of times in recent years while relaxing on my back, so I caught sound bites of myself. I’d liken it to garbage disposal meets Harley Davidson.
So, what did I do about it?
I had reconstructive surgery several years ago to address the issue. In a follow up visit, my otolaryngologist told me my septum was one of the worst he’d ever seen. It was practically a capital letter L, and he couldn’t imagine how I managed to breathe well.
That might help explain why I sometimes struggled with endurance when martial arts training. Of course, the martial arts training might’ve also contributed to my septum’s deviation.
My otolaryngologist also said he straightened my nose as best he could. I‘d need one more surgery for a perfectly straight nose.
My recovery experience helped me make that decision.
Hell Week times three!
Despite the painkillers and soft packing materials, my nose ached deep into the bone, or so it felt. The packing and the swelling left me with a feeling that surpassed congestion. My nose felt like I needed a face tattoo…
Pardon my appearance while we renovate.
Sleeping and eating were rough. I didn’t know I had sleep apnea then, but I knew sleeping on my back was perilous. Thought I did my best to sleep on my side, I drifted on two occasions only to catapult myself from bed, terror-stricken and gasping for air.
Eating was a next level challenge because I had to eat and mouth breathe at the same time. That meant small bites or spoonfuls, chewing thoroughly, then taking a breath before swallowing. A bit of liquid to chase those solids and keep my airway clear. You don’t want to fall into old habits. Something going down the wrong pipe could be life-threatening.
Getting the packing materials removed was on par with a spiritual awakening. A fresh air feast for my nostrils. Still super tender, but feeling more alive than I had in weeks.
I’m not saying this will be everyone’s experience. If you found recovery from nasal reconstruction surgery easy, I’m happy for you. Now shut up about it.
As much as straightened my septum improved my airflow, it didn’t stop me from snoring.
I had to take a more targeted approach.
My doctor recommended I participate in a sleep study. A sleep study is a sleep test, and you pass or fail it in your sleep. It involves either spending the night in a diagnostic center where they monitor your breathing or bringing a device home to monitor your breathing.
My insurance company was willing to cover the home study, and I wasn’t unhappy about it. The thought of strangers watching me sleep is a bit unsettling, and I don’t even want to think about what I might do in my sleep. The facility explained how to use the kit, which also included written instructions. Its operation was straight-forward, though: An electronic device strapped to my chest, an electrode over my fingertip, and a thin clear plastic hose in my nostrils. Good times!
The thing I don’t like about the sleep study is, the less severe your snoring is, the greater the likelihood you’ll have a “better” night. A better night involves fewer to no snoring episodes. Fewer to no snoring episodes means you don’t reach the minimum threshold for a sleep diagnosis, and you’re not eligible for treatment coverage.
I woke the next morning unsure how the test had gone. I returned the equipment to the facility and waited.
My sleep study results
Read ’em and weep: The unit recorded seven hours and forty minutes of score-able data including over 200 snoring events. Of those 200 events, I averaged six disrupted breathing episodes per hour.
Sounds like a catastrophic evening with pre-apocalyptic potential to me. Whether 200 events prompt yawns in sleep treatment circles or have technicians grabbing their nose-canceling headphones, I don’t know. I do know I found it unsettling. Again, that was just one night. Consider the compounding effects such stress has on my body.
There were other terms and figures thrown into the mix, none of which meant anything to me. What did mean something was my diagnosis: mild sleep apnea.
Mild, my a**. There’s nothing mild about the nightmarish condition I’d struggled with for decades.
Let’s put it in a different context: If I, on a consistent basis, did something unhealthy 200 times a day during my waking hours–and it’d be more like 400 because 16 waking hours versus eight sleeping–would anyone say I have a mild or minor problem? Or would they tell me I’m going to hurt myself?
On the plus side, my diagnosis meant I could expect insurance coverage for more impactful treatments to help manage it. If you have symptoms, but you’ve never gone for testing, please do. You and your loved ones are worth it, and treatment can be a game changer from the health and quality of life perspectives.
I’ll delve into my treatment in the next newsletter.