The Sleep Thing

Sleep CyborgI run into people, from time to time, and they ask: how is the sleep thing? 

Usually, I tell them the sleep thing is fine. Way better than it was back April, when I was falling asleep in front of the computer. Way better than it was back in May, when the diagnosis of chronic sleep apnea became all kinds of official and they sent me off with a machine that’d stop me from asphyxiating while I slept.

This is not a lie. Compared to the state I was in at the start of the year, life is a magical wonderland full of candy unicorns. I sleep better. I concentrate better. I do not feel like I am messing up every aspect of my existence as a default state. I keep discovering all sorts of secondary problems – shoulder pain, neck pain, teeth grinding – that were basically linked to the apnea and have now cleared up.

The sleep thing is fine.

Except it’s not.

When you start on CPAP they make it very clear that it’s a therapy, not a cure. The apnea isn’t going away just ’cause you’ve hooked attached a mask to your face and let it pressurize your respiratory system so your throat doesn’t close up so easily. There’s a whole bunch of things that can make the therapy less effective, on a given evening.

You can pull the mask off in your sleep, for example, ’cause it’s not the most comfortable of things to wear. You can disrupt the fit of your mask while tossing and turning, you can go to bed with hay-fever. You can travel, and discover that the faint differences in the way water tastes from city to city becomes a major problem when you put it into a humidifier.

Stuff happens, is what I’m saying. More often than you’d want them too, all things considered.

And that means some days you wake up feeling like a normal person, happy and productive and able to interact with the world. And, some days, you revert. Not as bad as you were, right at the beginning, bad bad enough that you notice it and feel the difference. Bad enough that you’re aware of the line between treatment and cure.

And that’s cool, ’cause treated is so much better than the alternative. So much goddamn better, believe me, that it’s insane.

But it means re-learning how to live your life. It means, some days, you need to get comfortable with the idea that you’re not going to have the energy for everything you’d like to do. It means you have to re-learn the difference between just a little tired and feeling vaguely exhausted, ’cause your default state has been exhaustion for so long that it’s hard to tell the difference. It means you learn to check a screen every morning and gauge how bad things are going to be based on the apnea index and leak-rate the machine tracked overnight.

It’s not always bad. For example, you also discover that your tendency to do the introverts retreat after social events was exacerbated by the apnea, that teaching courses or doing a festival requires far less recovery time than they once did. And you can read books in bed again, without falling asleep the moment you open to the first page. That you can write for longer than 500 words at a burst, ’cause your attention span has a setting other than “kitten on speed.”

Eventually it sinks in that the sleep thing is a thing – it doesn’t go away, it just gets managed better.

So you set out to re-evaluate every damn thing in your life.

My current notebook fetish? Motivated by the sleep thing, and the attention that’s getting paid to the research around the effects screens are having on our sleep patterns.

My recent realisation that I probably need to give up drinking? Totally linked to the sleep apnea, since muscle relaxants are pretty much a guarantee that you’re going to experience longer, nastier breathing-related incidents.

My increasingly rigid refusal to stay awake past my designated bed-time? Entirely built around managing the apnea as best I can, ’cause every time I’ve broken that rule to hang with friends or go out, I’ve paid for it the next day, and the day after that.

At the same time that you’re evaluating, you fret about things.

Like the ongoing costs of the therapy, which are not prohibitive but are right up there with car maintenance as a thing you need to worry about, ’cause you’re going to be replacing masks, filters, and such for the foreseeable future.

Like, what happens when the power goes on, in a storm, and how you’ll get through the next day.

Like all those things that you fucked up, quite royally, over the last five years, and whether they could have gone better if you’d discovered the real problem years ago and started treating it then. Some days you play what if? and you find yourself getting angry.

And that’s okay. The sleep thing is a thing. It’s complicated and long-term and way bigger than you were expecting.It’s not on your mind all the time, but it is on your mind. It occupies a chunk of your mental real-estate that used to be devoted to other things. The sleep thing is a thing you’re going to think about, talk about, far more than other people want you too, ’cause it defines your life in so many little ways.

But that’s hard to convey, really, so you learn to stop. To say, yeah, better, when people ask, ’cause that’s what it all boils down to: its better than it was.

Not great, not normal, not cured, but you’re figuring it out.

And in the world of polite conversation, that’s close enough to true to count.


  1 comment for “The Sleep Thing

  1. Bec
    30/09/2015 at 1:28 AM

    I am glad that you have benefits, but grateful that you are able to describe the reality of sleep apnea as many people suffer from it.

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