If you’ve ever woken up because you’re not breathing, you may be able to relate when I say it’s a terrifying experience. This has happened to me only occasionally over the last few years, but when it did I would sit bolt upright, my lungs sucking violently inward for a breath. The worst part wasn’t waking up with empty lungs; it was my heart racing way, way faster than it should be. That and having to manually restart my breathing.
Since these episodes seemed to happen for several days or week at a time and then stop for a few months, I ignored it until about it a year and a half ago. Of course, my doctor suggested a sleep study to rule out sleep apnea.
“We have a sleep lab here,” she offered. “It’s in a trailer behind the office.”
I immediately felt apprehensive. “I will not be able to do that – ever – unless it is absolutely required,” a voice inside my head said. The prospect of voluntarily sleeping away from home in a medical environment (in this case a trailer, no less) with wires hooked to my body and someone watching me all night was incredibly intimidating. What if I didn’t sleep at all? How could I sleep with someone watching me? What if I did something embarrassing? I have trouble sleeping as it is and simply couldn’t fathom sleeping for one minute under those conditions.
Comfortable with the Idea
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. A friend at the gym mentioned he had sleep apnea and wore a device called a CPAP to help him breathe at night. I asked him about his sleep study and he gave me a glowing recommendation for a company that does them exclusively. Suddenly, I was convinced I could do this. I called the next day, and when I got off work I stopped by the lab to check it out.
The office was located in an office building and the inside was clean and professional looking. There were two “bedrooms” that resembled hotel rooms with nicely made queen-sized beds, nightstands, and TVs. There was a small video camera pointed straight at the bed. “I can do this,” I thought.
I talked to the woman there about all the details and made an appointment for August 13th, a Friday night. (I ended up changing it to the 14th so as not to interfere with my Saturday morning workout – that turned out to be a bad idea.) I was to arrive at 8:45 p.m. It would take 45 minutes for the attendant to connect all the sensors and then I could go to sleep.
The day of the study I gathered my pillow and some sweat pants and t-shirt to sleep in. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a male or a female “putting me to bed.” I’d been informed that the first patient to arrive was the first to get hooked up and first to go to sleep, so I was determined to be the first to arrive. I go to bed fairly early and worried that a late bedtime would compound an already horrible night’s sleep.
But alas, I couldn’t find the office in the dark, had to stop and call, and ended up being the second to arrive. I was already a stress basket by the time I arrived.
A Little Chaos to Lull You to Sleep
The sleep study attendant turned out to be a woman – a very chatty woman – but I was relieved it was a woman nonetheless. I settled into my room and turned on the TV while she hooked up the man in the other room. I was starting to feel more relaxed when I heard the front door open. Two men passed by and made a point of looking right into my room. I immediately felt invaded upon – I was lying in a bed watching TV for God’s sake! Who were these guys anyway? I got up and shut the door.
Then I heard the sleep attendant come out and say in an agitated tone, “What are you two doing here? You can’t be here! I have patients here right now!” She then informed them that they’d have to call her boss, which they must have done because they stayed. What ensued was the high-pitched sound of a vacuum cleaner on steriods right outside my door along with the rustling of plastic sheeting and hushed voices. I felt my stress level growing by the second.
After about 10 minutes the attendant came into my room to explain that there was a leak upstairs and the workers thought it would take 45 minutes to suck up all the water. She couldn’t guarantee it but encouraged me to stay. Stay? It’d taken me 1 ½ years to get here. I wasn’t leaving, although it looked like it was going to be a long night. (The workers did end up leaving after about an hour.)
Wired and Ready for Bed
By the time the attendant was done hooking me up to the sensors (chatting the whole time), it was nearly 11 o’clock. I wearily tried to carry on my half of the conversation (consisting mostly of “Uh-huh,” “Wow!” and “I bet”), but it was way past my bedtime and I was beginning to wonder how I’d chosen the one night this lab was having a crisis to have my sleep study done.
It was painless to have the sensors connected: the attendant puts a dab of gooey stuff on the end and tapes them all over your face, a couple on your legs, and a few on your scalp. A tiny pair of tubes is also placed in your nostrils to monitor oxygen intake (definitely the most uncomfortable part). Everything’s attached to a box, so when I had to use the facilities, the attendant simply gave me the box with a strap on it and told me to “carry it like a purse.”
It was a mistake to look in the mirror in the bathroom. My chin, forehead, and cheeks were covered in white medical tape and my hair was sticking straight up where she’d connected the sensors. I hoped I wouldn’t have nightmares.
I carefully got into bed and the attendant put the box under the other pillow. She told me to move around normally and that she’d come in and ask me to lie on my back if she needed to reproduce my symptoms. She turned off the light and I took my little pill and rolled over. Then I did fall asleep. That’s the nice thing about sleeping aids – they work. But at about 1:45 a.m., I awoke to the attendant gently tugging on the nostril apparatus. It had come loose and she needed to put it back into place.
And You Won’t Be Having Any of Those
When she was done I used the facilities again. I came back and reached for my pill bottle – I knew it’d be tough to go back to sleep and I’d brought a quartered pill for this very scenario. But the attendant would hear nothing of it. She said it was much too late to be taking sedation and it wouldn’t be safe to drive in the morning. Besides, I didn’t need it, she said. I looked at her dubiously. Tonight wasn’t the night to wean myself off sleeping pills. And since I was wearing earplugs I couldn’t really hear her very well. I nodded in resignation but then lay there for an hour and stewed about not being able to take my medication.
Finally, at 3 a.m., I called out to her and explained that I only wanted to take a quarter of a dose, a measly 12 milligrams.“Driving will be more dangerous with no sleep,” I told her. When she relunctantly agreed, it reminded me of the times when my daughter has successfully changed my mind about something. I felt mildly victorious and fell asleep soon afterward.
She woke me up at 6 a.m. and reported that she had gotten all the test data she needed. She had apparently asked me to turn on my back during the night but I hadn’t heard her, of course, what with wearing earplugs. I immediately fretted that I hadn’t exhibited any symptoms during the night and wearily drove home. I’d slept about five hours.
Since the typical sleep apnea sufferer is overweight (or technically, with a neck circumference over 16 or 17 inches), I don’t fit the typical profile. My only symptoms are occasional choking at night and some snoring; I’m not sleepy during the day. But if I find out it’s not sleep apnea, at least I can look at other causes such as sinus issues. The experience made me renew my desire to stop taking sleeping medication as well. Although there’s no way to tell if it causes my tongue and neck muscles to relax too much, there are plenty of reasons to learn to sleep on my own again. I hope it’s possible!
My doctor’s office will call me with the results in a few days. Surely the worst thing about a sleep study (besides a rough night’s sleep) is giving up your autonomy and control. I’m happy I survived it, relieved that it’s over, and I’m looking forward to hearing what kind of data was gathered about me on this very memorable night.