Apnea

The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562
(Oil on panel, 117 x 162 cm)
BY Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Most people are far more adventurous in their waking state than in sleep, but I belong to the group of approximately 10% of the population whose behavior in sleep is riskier than in wakefulness. In sleep, I go through phases of drowning, murder, or near murder, and I risk heart attack probably more than someone having a party on cocaine. Actually, I was at a war with bad and loud sleepers until I discovered I was one myself.

Late one night in a graduate student dorm I was hitting my sleeping roommate with a tennis racket. I had been barely awake myself. Every night his explosive snoring kept me awake. He woke up and screamed. He was furious and though I apologized, I was, too.

But then a strange thing happened, he was waking me up by the same method. I have news for you buddy; your snoring has kept me awake for hours.

In the morning we were both miserable and tired and he recommended that we jog, but neither of us could do more than three circles around the Longhorn stadium. I blamed it on his keeping me up, but when he was gone for the weekend, I kept waking up tired. In fact, all my life I had been a poor sleeper, and a terrible grouch in the morning. I simply took that as a temperamental trait, until one night after wine tasting in San Louis Obispo. I woke up unable to draw a breath. My heart beat wildly. Electrical shock waves were coursing through my tingling body. I tried to move and I couldn’t. I saw blue light although I was sure there was no light on in the room.

What the hell is going on? I thought. Am I dying? Heart attack? Stroke? When I managed to inhale, I almost asphyxiated because a gagging reflex was triggered by my stuck throat.

I got up, gasping, and I felt fortunate to be alive.

My heart beat arrhytmically in the morning, and my hosts, freaky Californian health fanatics who ate everything with flax-seed oil, looked at me, and said, My God, you look terrible.

My arrhythmia went on for a couple of days. I attributed that to the chemicals in the red wines but still, it was excessive, so I went to see my doctor, who, because of my family history of heart attacks, immediately ordered isotope and sonogram tests of my heart. To my surprise, my heart tested all right and my arrhythmia went away. My doctor was puzzled, and he wanted me to kick the only habit I could never kick: coffee. In the morning, waking up groggy and grouchy, I can clear my head, or at least attempt to, with coffee best of all. A friend of mine worked in a sleep clinic and when I described to her what was going on, she suggested that I undergo a test at the clinic. My head and body were all wired to EKG and other monitoring machines. Naturally, I slept badly. Who could sleep well with sticky tapes pulling hairs all over your body?

The test result was that I stopped breathing up to forty times an hour, and up to a minute at a time: Obstructive sleep apnea, borderline severe. I was asked to answer questions such as whether I felt fresh upon waking up, what my dreams were like, and so on. I told the sleep clinic doctor that I had a dream I was drowning and trying to come up to the surface for some air. He said, that’s the most typical sleep apnea dream. You probably have many nightmares every night.

Doesn’t everybody?

No.

That puzzled me — how could you live without nightmares? What kind of life is that?

He gave me a continuous positive air pressure machine. Now the air was blasted into my throat, through my nose, and if my tongue by any chance collapsed into the air passage, the air pressure would blast through.

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