…or how to stop losing sleep over lost sleep
By Bobby Ampezzan
I’m 37 years old, and my fiancee tells me one morning, “You stop breathing in your sleep.” She’s worried. Sometimes I growl at her in the night. I snore like a timpani tune-up. My dad and I share a love of napping in the afternoon—napping in spite of a full night’s sleep concluded just hours before. How I’ve envied those careening co-workers who get six hours a night then claim coffee makes them anxious. I get nine hours and rise as if from a coma. Coffee barely stirs the curtains.
My unremunerative nights are no longer a mystery. I have moderate sleep apnea, a Greek word that means “no breath.” In my case, I stop breathing (or struggle to breathe) about once every four minutes. I know this now because over the summer, I spent a night hooked up to an electroencephalograph (EEG), an electrooculogram (EOG), an electrocardiogram (EKG), an electromyograph (EMG) and a pulse oximeter at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Sleep Clinic in Little Rock.
I arrived that evening after business hours, between the first and second Wheel of Fortune puzzle, I’m pretty sure, flush with a heavy ribeye dinner at The Butcher Shop and a little weary. My sleep-study room was spare, like a stay at the Palace in DeQueen. For about 40 minutes, a “sleep tech” taped electrodes to my legs and chest and glued them to my scalp. An oximeter on my index finger and a plethysmograph band around my abdomen completed the ensemble. I was now ready for sleep inside a Soyuz space capsule.
Shawn Chastain, my sleep tech and the first man to tuck me in since Dad, came over the intercom. In every other way, the room was sensory deprived—there was no light, the temperature was unnoticeable, and it smelled like a library—but now there was this crackling speaker, and, “Bobby, I’m going to ask you to look to the right, now to the left, up, down. Now blink five times.” Breathe deeply, do it again, now hold it 10 seconds. Flex my face muscles, then relax. “OK,” he said, “good night.”In the middle of the night, Chastain again broke over the intercom—“Bobby, roll over on your back. OK? We want you to stay on your back.”
I struggled to fall back to sleep. It felt like the better part of an hour; then Chastain came into the room to tell me it’s over. It’s 5:40 a.m. All done.
But this is when I sleep best, I wanted to complain. At least, I’ve always said so, but now I realize that’s probably not true.
And they knew it.
A week later, I got the diagnosis: moderate sleep apnea, “which became severe at times,” said Dr. Caris Fitzgerald, the doctor at the clinic, and “based on what I’m seeing here, I do think you need to try out one of these machines and see how you do on it.”
This humbling news was heralded by the women in my family who, for generations (at least three), have joked about the men’s snoring. Several years ago, my father was diagnosed with sleep apnea, and when I asked what his doctor would do about it, he said, “What can he do?” So when I did my sleep study, I just assumed they’d discover some problem and, just as surely, no imminent therapy.
A month later, I’m proved wrong. Back at the Sleep Clinic, I’m fitted with a Respironix C-PAP Auto with humidifier. It’s, it’s—it’s quite nice, actually. It does a little bit of the breathing work for me and makes me sound a little like baby Darth Vader. The only problem is that the mask prevents me from sleeping on my stomach, the position in which I most often find myself upon waking.
As it turns out, that’s a big problem.
On a return visit, a daytime appointment, Dr. Fitzgerald asked me, “Mr. Ampezzan, what do you think is the worst thing that can happen with sleep apnea?”
The doctor’s eyes, like headlights getting bigger in your picture window, alarmed me. I began to say, “I think, probably, after time, the body becomes conditioned to chronically low dissolved oxygen. …”
“Some people don’t wake up.”
Wait, die? That’s the answer? That could be the answer for rescuing too many shelter dogs or living in Cincinnati. And, by the way, some people don’t suffer from sleep apnea and also die in their sleep.
“Don’t worry,” she said. It’s quite rare for an otherwise healthy adult to die from a respiratory episode in his sleep, she’ll assure me later—she’s only heard of five deaths in the eight years she’s been studying sleep.
The orthodoxy today is that apnea isn’t typically caused by a lazy diaphragm or rheumy lungs but obstructed entryways in the nose and throat. The most popular script is a Positive Airway Pressure machine (C-PAP or A-PAP) therapy. The PAPs don’t serve air into your lungs so much as prop open the pinched passageways—I’ve actually heard the phrase “pneumatic stints.” This is the machine I got in September.
I’ve been using mine several months now, and I struggle. Sometimes my nose gets painfully dry. Sometimes, in my sleep, my epiglottis relaxes and a rush of air escapes my mouth like the seal of a crypt suddenly broken. More often, I want to roll over on my stomach and can’t, lest the pillow pry the mask off; again, a rush of air. Usually at about 2 or 3 a.m., I pry the damn thing off and drop it beside my bed. Lately, I’ve been doing that in my sleep.
Still, ham-fisted as this therapy seems to me, I’ve felt results. I’m less tempted to take afternoon naps. I feel more alert during the middle of the day. My fiancee hasn’t complained about my snoring in months (ironically, she has developed her own nighttime disorder—waking restlessness). I’ve texted my family funny photos of me in my C-PAP mask. They’ve been encouraging.
Leaping from bed each morning to thumb trig textbooks, no, I do not. But on the best mornings, I awake more refreshed than I’ve ever been. In my future is a string of consecutive nights I quietly sleep six to eight hours with the mask, drinking in all the benefits of uninterrupted periods of slow-wave sleep. I feel myself improving, and that—improving—is a consideration rarely given over to our sleeping selves.
Do you Dream of Electric Sheep?
Apps, gadgets and gizmos to get you through the night
The app: Sleep Cycle
Placed on your mattress, this app keeps apace of your every toss and turn—and then wakes you during the lightest stage of the sleep cycle. (sleepcycle.com)
The sound machine: LectroFan
Ten different electric fan sounds. Ten variations of white noise. This is the sound of silence. And it is amazing. (lectrofan.com)
The wearable: Jawbone UP3
Using its new-fangled sensor technology, this recent addition to the Jawbone line of wearables tracks light, deep and REM sleep—and then tells you how to do it better. (jawbone.com)
The service: SleepRate
Sure, it’s a wee bit Big Brother-y—the first part of the deceptively simple three-step service does involve strapping on a heart sensor—but with a sleep improvement plan that “guides you through a series of incremental changes to your daily routine” as the upshot, we’d gladly cede our personal space for some quality Z’s. (sleeprate.com)
The mattress: Sleep Number’s x12
In the world of mattresses, some are made with springs and others have something more. First debuted at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show, this little number automatically measures your breathing rate, movement and average heart rate. (sleepnumber.com/x12)