After I finished peeing, I took a good look at myself in the bathroom mirror. My worst fears had been realized. A lab-test monkey was looking back at me. Harried, blood-shot eyes peeked out from under a mop of tangled hair that was thick with blobs of electro-conductive jelly. Dozens of wires, taped and epoxied all over my head and face dangled down, disappearing into a junction box strapped over my shoulder. It was the middle of the night for me – 11:00 am to everyone else. This lab monkey may have been out of his cage, but the taste of freedom was to be brief. There were more cruel and unusual experiments to come, and hours of more test time to log. Escape might come later, but for now it was back to a fitful nightmare of semi-consciousness under the watchful gaze of the video cameras and the row of computers monitoring my every twitch and brainwave.
This was the sleep clinic, two months ago.
“Have you ever been waxed?” she asked, barely able to hide her sadistic glee.
Let’s call her a nurse. I’m sure the term is incorrect and I’m sure it would displease her. But you can’t be too picky about semantics when you dress in white, work in a hospital, and perform menial medical procedures on patients. The medical procedure of the moment was the removal of the electrodes that were taped to my shaggy legs. The test was over, and it was time to detach all the equipment that had been fitted to my body eight hours earlier. The nurse was of the short-sharp-shock school of Band-Aid removal. In this case they weren’t Band-Aids, but a special brand of medical tape stuck all over my face, chest and legs. But the principle was the same. One quick, jarringly painful rip and the tape was gone. So was a substantial tuft of leg hair, but at least it was all over. For that stretch of tape. Thirteen more to go.
By the time I stumbled out of there, I looked like I had been gang raped. It would take days to wash all the sticky crap off my body, and about as long for the physical damage to fade. I knew it wasn’t going to be a happy experience when I first arrived. I’d seen one of the other test monkeys taking a bathroom break while I was in the waiting room. He had looked like hell, and now I looked exactly like him. My hair was matted with jelly, my face covered with red welts where the electrodes had been taped, and I had the eyes and gait of a man who’d just had the single worst night of sleep in history.
There wasn’t much new about that last part. I’d been among the living dead for a very long time. In fact, I hadn’t slept at all in at least ten years. Oh, I’d fall into a state of unconsciousness regularly. No doubt about it. But sleep – real sleep – was something I hadn’t known since I was a teenager, if even then.
Every morning I’d wake up exhausted, often with a headache, never with any energy. A shower, a cup of tea, breakfast, and I’d be functional. Barely. I’d go through my day in a fog. It felt like I had moss growing on my brain and I was never fully awake or aware. This would last for three, maybe four hours, and then I’d need to go to bed again. A five or six hour nap would gear me up to get some work done in the evening before it was time to go to bed again for real. And the cycle would repeat.
This was my life as a zombie. I was a high-functioning zombie, but a zombie nevertheless. Never truly awake, never truly asleep. What I accomplished, I managed through a cocktail of adrenalin and caffeine.
I’d considered checking into a sleep clinic for years, but it wasn’t until things become intolerable that I admitted something had to be done. I knew I snored, but over the last year it became impossible for my wife and I to sleep at the same time in the same bed. I didn’t breathe so much as struggle for air at a high decibel level.
I first heard about sleep apnea when I was still a kid, and even then I thought I might have it. A month after my night of monitored sleep at the clinic and I was finally, officially diagnosed with it. I had apnea all right. I had it bad.
Described as “severe” sleep apnea, the graph told the tale of a struggle for air that was waking me up at a rate of slightly more than once a minute. This would go on all night, with me waking myself up hundreds of times in a row until morning. I was getting no REM sleep whatsoever. My condition – as far as my own personal take on it went – was killing me slowly but surely.
There were two solutions suggested. The first, offered with no guarantees, was to be surgically altered. Doctors would remove the single largest pair of tonsils any of them had ever seen, along with a few other slices of extraneous meat, and we’d hope for the best. Choice “B” was the mask.
A CPAP machine is designed to keep the airway of an apnea sufferer open with a continuous flow of air pressure. I already knew this would work. They’d hooked me up to one of these gizmos for the second half of my sleep test, and the graph said it all: regular breathing, REM sleep.
I accepted the CPAP prescription, made an appointment with the nearest CPAP technician, and prepared to spend my last restless night on the couch.
Now, make no mistake about it, connecting myself to a ventilator machine every night via a long hose and mask that makes headgear braces look absolutely suave by comparison is a private little hell I wish on no one. But there’s no denying the thing works. I’ve been on it for a month now, and I’m still just figuring out what’s normal for me – normal amount of sleep, normal level of alertness, normal functionality. All I know, as I told my sleep clinic doctor today in a follow-up appointment, is that my worst night of sleep with the machine is better than my best night of sleep without. The whole humiliating medical procedure I went through to get diagnosed may have been worth the ordeal after all.
But if you think that was bad, remind me to tell you about my colonoscopy some time.