At some point in the last 10 years, I started sleeping like a baby — not the angelic cherubs that gave rise to the saying “slept like a baby,” but the needy insomniacs that wake up every two hours.
The nights of putting my head on the pillow and falling into a deep, refreshing sleep gave way to a frustrating blend of lying in bed, watching mindless videos and occasionally drifting off.
I replaced any hopes of attaining the fabled eight hours of sleep with metaphorically crossing my quad fingers and praying for a solitary stretch of four straight hours without waking up.
I knew my new normal couldn’t be healthy, but my struggles slowly infected my perception of what constituted a good night’s sleep. I disregarded the fact I’d often catch myself drifting off after lunch, and I adjusted to constantly feeling achy and exhausted. I learned to be careful with a glass of red wine and to embrace coffee after 39 years of avoidance.
But this last year it all got to be too much to ignore. Between struggling to focus and immediately forgetting passages I’d just read, the evidence was right in front of my tired face: I had a problem.
I got a referral to a sleep doctor who affirmed what I knew: Sleep apnea is very common — even more so among quadriplegics — and highly treatable with a CPAP or BiPAP machine. Despite countless people telling me how the breathing masks have grown less cumbersome and Lecter-ish, I’ve fervently resisted the notion of even considering one. No more.
When I went to the hospital for my overnight sleep study, I was actually excited for any mask — no matter how hideous — and the relief it might provide. Eight restless hours of constant interruptions later, I rolled out with more questions than answers.
The sleep technician swore I slept for two hours. I swore I didn’t. She said everyone says that. She told me to expect the results in one to two weeks.
Two weeks later, a nurse called me back during the evening rush hour commute.
“To put your results in perspective, one to four sleep incidents per hour is considered normal, four to 15 is a mild problem, 15-30 is moderate and anything over 30 is severe,” she said, and then paused. “You had 102 incidents per hour.”
Um … I didn’t know what to say.
“We’d like to get you back in for another sleep study as soon as possible,” she continued. “This is serious.”
Over 22 years of living with SCI, I’ve received enough test results over the phone to earn my merit badge in “Deciphering Nurses’ Intentions.” In the world of disability, where chances are there is always something “wrong” with you from a medical perspective, knowing when to head to the ER and when to pour yourself a stiff whiskey and call it a night is an essential skill.
I sensed this nurse was genuinely worried about my wellbeing. That worried me.
I did the basic math in my head: 102 incidents per hour means I stopped breathing for 10 seconds or longer, almost two times every minute.
I expected the results to be bad, depressing even, but the idea of spending more than a third of my time not breathing caught me off guard. Still unsure how to respond, I did my best to turn my frown upside down.
“Is that at least a record?” I asked.