To Sleep, Perchance to . . . Sleep

“If I didn’t wake up, I’d still be sleeping.” – Yogi Berra

About a year ago I finally did something about my sleep apnea. I’ve had it all my adult life, but until I was in my 50s it was a benign condition—I snored horribly but Donna seemed to have learned to live with it and I was otherwise fine.

Then, in my middle 50s, I started falling asleep. All the time. At first, I’d fall asleep at home in the evenings, watching TV or reading a book. It became a joke around the house, how I’d sit down in my easy chair and immediately nod off, snoring away with a book in one hand and the remote in the other, head lolling to one side or the other.

Then I started nodding off on airline flights. In my Air Force career, flying  single-seat fighters, sometimes on 10- and 12-hour overseas deployments, I never dreamed of getting sleepy in an airplane. But now, as a salaried road warrior traveling for business in my post-AF career, I’d sleep from the moment the airliner pushed away from one gate until it arrived at another, yet without the blessing of rest—more tired on arrival than I had been at departure. Frequently, in-flight, I’d waken myself with a loud snort and a jerk of my head, embarrassed because I knew my neighbors had been staring at me and wishing they could get different seats.

Pretty soon I started nodding off while driving, even on my motorcycle. I’d catch myself quickly, but it would happen again five or ten minutes later, over and over. I’d force myself to pull off the road for frequent rest stops and coffee breaks, but these weren’t helping. As soon as I took off again my eyes would begin to droop. It was getting to the point where I simply wouldn’t drive any serious distance unless Donna was with me and could take over when I started drifting off.

And then I started falling asleep at work, sitting at my desk, falling asleep so frequently and regularly that the boss finally asked me to see a doctor about it. And so I did, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done.

The doctor referred me to a sleep clinic, where they wired me up and observed me overnight, confirming obstructive sleep apnea. We who suffer from sleep apnea literally quit breathing in our sleep: we drift off, stop breathing, suddenly wake up to catch our breath with an explosive snort, then drift off again … I was waking up every minute or two, all through the night.

Looking back, it seems a miracle I could have been so alert and full of energy in my 20s, 30s, and 40s, because I had sleep apnea then just as I do now. But apparently you get to a point where your metabolism can no longer compensate for lack of sleep, and if you have this condition you arrive at that point in your late 40s or early 50s. Suddenly what has been a minor problem—more of a problem for long-suffering spouses, actually—becomes a major, debilitating one, turning you into a walking zombie, unable to live a normal, productive life.

The sleep clinic referred me in turn to a specialist, who gave me two choices: sleeping with the assistance of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine or having surgery on my nasal passages and throat. He recommended CPAP over surgery, and hating the idea of surgery in general, I went with his recommendation.

It changed my life. I sleep all night and wake up refreshed. I can fly or drive all day, fully alert, and I haven’t nodded off at work once since I started using the CPAP machine at night. It’s a minor hassle having to pack the machine along when I travel, but it’s been a life-saver and I wouldn’t be without it.

In spite of my best efforts I’m getting older, and it seems one has to make certain accommodations with age. I foolishly thought glasses would be the ultimate indignity; now I not only wear bifocals, I breathe through a nose mask connected by a tube to a square box, but, thank God, only when I sleep.

And this is where I draw the line. Donna’s been instructed to kill me long before I get to the stage where I need to wear Depends.

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