A Walking Zombie: My Life with Sleep Apnea

Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that you should consult your doctor if you are concerned that you or someone else may have sleep apnea. You may have to sign up for a sleep study, and it can be a serious issue.

If you look up sleep apnea on the internet, like here, you will find very general descriptions like “a pause in breathing or shallow breathing” that can occur frequently every hour, which results in a lack of deep sleep for an individual. This is most frequently caused by the collapse of soft tissue in the throat. A common symptom is excessively loud snoring. This can exacerbate several health concerns due to a lack of proper rest and oxygenation while unconscious (I hesitate to give it the consistency associated with sleep). This can also lead to “excessive daytime sleepiness.”

Yet, all of this is vague and general, like many medical descriptions found on the internet. What does sleep apnea look and feel like for someone that suffers from even a minor case, like mine?

Staying active has never been a problem for me. I played soccer for eight years growing up and baseball for three. I was in the high school drumline, active in my youth group, and spent much of my time outdoors-camping, fishing, hunting, and even just playing neighborhood pick-up games. Even with all of this, I am a night owl by nature and always have been. I prefer to stay up late during breaks from school and sleep in until I wake up naturally.

Yet, for years I couldn’t figure out why I fell asleep as soon as my friends and I stopped moving to play a board game or watch a movie late at night. It was bad enough that I was known for falling asleep between turns at Risk (I can remember at least once where my friends targeted my territories first, so I could sleep uninterrupted), and I was also known for snoring loud enough to drown out late-night movies. At one youth retreat, after arriving from drumline nationals in the early am, we hiked in the pouring rain all day, and had piping hot soup for dinner; I drowned out the evening prayer with my snoring minutes later.

I thought that I suffered from excessive mental passivity (I don’t if that is a real thing or not), and that, as an introvert who spends an inordinate amount of time in my head, when I didn’t have something to think about or mentally do, then that’s it: lights out. I thought this may have been caused by mental boredom. I read books, mostly novels, through the majority of my school years: I can remember reading during lessons as far back as 6th grade and all the way through my two undergraduate degrees. In part, this was because I found the books more interesting; however, it was also the only way that I could stay awake in most classes and pay attention to the teacher’s lectures and instructions. No matter how much I tried to focus on the teacher, if I wasn’t mentally doing something, I fell sleep. Often at the drop of a hat.

I used to get extremely defensive with my friends in high school, who would sometimes invent creative ways to wake me up when I fell asleep late at night. In my mind, I hadn’t. At most, I had just blinked, unless I woke up with the sound of my own snoring in my ears, which happened rarely (although every once in a while, especially if I fell asleep sitting up in a chair with my head rocked back, it would be to sound and feeling of my own choking as I gasped to catch my breath).  In my mind, they were unnecessarily picking on me for the hell of it. The loss of consciousness, as my body desperately tried to take advantage of my inactivity and succumbed to exhaustion, was and is immediate. One second I’m awake, the next I’m not. No transition, no drowsiness, no warning. This did not only happen at night.

What about that phrase, “excessive daytime sleepiness?” Well, I’ve already described some of it. However, that’s not all. Imagine being unconscious for 5-8 hours (notice how I didn’t say asleep?) and waking up to the sound of your alarm. Instead of being refreshed and ready for the day at work or with family, you feel like you were dragged behind a horse all night. Your head feels stuffed with sand and cotton, your limbs are weak and listless, and all you want to do is roll over as you realize that you are exponentially more tired now than when you went to bed. Hopefully, if you are smart, as someone sleep apnea you have come to recognize these days. Hopefully, if you are lucky, you have a job that allows for calling in sick and you take one. Most likely, you will be no help to anyone if you do go.

Someone that doesn’t have sleep apnea may think, what’s the big deal, so you’re tired? Tough it out. Have coffee. Listen to some loud music. Take a cold shower. But . . . remember what I said in that two paragraphs ago, about falling asleep with no warning signs, at the smallest hint of inactivity? Like during a 20+ minute commute to work before dawn? Someone suffering from sleep apnea will recognize when it is and isn’t safe to drive, based on how well or poorly he or she slept. They get used to crashing unexpectedly at a friend’s for a quick nap or a night’s sleep, knowing it is not worth the risk that others would take.

And remember the caffeine that I mentioned before? Most likely it is of no use. People suffering from sleep apnea sometimes have an unhealthy dependency on caffeine just to make it through the easiest of days, which means that when we need it most it will have no effect whatsoever. This is why we are walking zombies: due to our lack of deep sleep, our bodies can shut down doing the most mundane of tasks, like proctoring tests, grading papers, filing forms, checking email, watching TV. The caffeine only helps sustain the zombie-ism so that we can struggle through the day.

Is there nothing that will help? There is: a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. Basically, it is a machine that maintains a constant air pressure that is set to your specific needs, so that the tissue will not collapse. However, the down side is that they can be expensive out-of-pocket (machine, and tubes, and mask, each sold separately). Insurance will not always cover them, especially for minor cases. So, they can help, if your insurance covers it or if you have the hundreds of dollars-closer to thousand-to shell out for one.

Is there anything else? Sort of. Doctors do know that many lifestyle choices can affect sleep apnea, either one way or another. Excessive smoking and drinking can make it worse on any given night. Obesity makes sleep apnea worse, as well. So does being in poor physical shape. Too much caffeine adversely affects sleep, as well. Sounds easy, right? Stop smoking/drinking-or do so rarely-, lose weight, exercise, eat better, and stop drinking caffeine. Nope, it is not easy. There is a vicious cycle in place that afflicts those with sleep apnea.

Here’s an average day: you wake up exhausted. You struggle through showering, shaving, and getting dressed, all the while wishing you could just tumble back into bed. Faced with the choice between making breakfast at home or something bought on the way to work, you opt for the unhealthy Starbucks or McDonald’s breakfast sandwich of your preference, including your first cup of coffee (out of many coffees and sodas you will have). All so you could have fifteen more minutes of sleep. You shuffle through work. Odds are you bought another cup of coffee or a soda during your break. You may or may not eat lunch today; it is possible you may just want to rest, enjoy the break, and recuperate mentally from the already exhausting day you’ve had. You shuffle through the afternoon. You buy more caffeine, this time a cold soda, before heading home. By the time you get there, you know that you only have a few hours left before you pass out for the night. Do you want to spend most of that time cooking? Odds are, you opt for unhealthy fast food as a quicker solution, so that you have more time to enjoy the evening and detox mentally from work. Same goes for working out; it takes too much time, and in reality, you probably don’t have the energy to do so anyways. You know that you need sleep, but it is a war between having a couple hours at home to enjoy, all the caffeine still coursing through your system, and your acknowledged need for rest. You may pass out from exhaustion on the couch, you may actually make it to your bed. Rinse and repeat. And watch as your relationships suffer. Who has energy for emotions and communication and relationships when you can’t even stay awake when you want or need to? What happens when the constant exhaustion saps your nerves and patience? You don’t even have energy to do the fun physical activities you want, like hiking or going to party, let alone maintain healthy relationships with others.

Like I said, it’s a vicious cycle. We know what is good for us, but we often have to choose between that and what we can manage in any given day. You learn to cope (I know, for example, if I don’t exercise as soon as I get home, and cook dinner right after that, then I won’t at all). Yet, because of the trouble sleeping and resting, this goes beyond the typical overworked American syndrome.

Thankfully, I have been able to cope. I have not been able to afford a CPAP machine out of pocket yet (my insurance wouldn’t cover one, on three separate attempts: said the case was to minor to necessitate the payout) yet. However, I have gotten in better shape, have been eating better more often-but not always-, and I have am more intentional with my lifestyle choices. I haven’t had caffeine for over 6 months, and this isn’t the first time that I have given up caffeine for months at a time. The sleep apnea bothers me less and less throughout the year, as noticed in the sizable decrease in hit-by-a-Mack-truck mornings.

I feel the best I have felt in years, especially compared to when I first started teaching and did not know that I had sleep apnea. Would I like a CPAP machine? Yeah, eventually, especially for the rough sleeping that can come from traveling and sleeping in unknown locations. Yet, I have made due as best as I can, and I feel great. I have plans to get a physical when summer break begins so I can have a better idea of how I am doing, and my expectations are positive.

I am happy to say that less and less I am a shambling member of the undead, and more and more a full, awake human. It takes discipline to do what is best and not what is easy, but it is worth it.


3 thoughts on “A Walking Zombie: My Life with Sleep Apnea

  1. “We know what is good for us, but we often have to choose between that and what we can manage in any given day.” You have no idea how much I relate to this. I’ve suffered from chronic fatigue for years, and it isn’t until recently that I’ve been able to break the cycle (for the most part). There have been many days that I felt guilty about all the hours I “wasted” sleeping instead of doing productive things.

    I’m sorry to hear that you suffer from this, but I’m glad that you’ve been seeing improvements. It’s tough to make the right choices for your health, especially when you aren’t feeling well, but it is definitely worth it in the long run!

    • I appreciate the empathy. It helps to know that, even when causes and situations may be different, people have had similar experiences.

      I often have felt the same guilt, especially when I may be missing something socially oriented. People don’t understand how bad it can get or how constant it can be. All they see is, “He’s not coming because he’s too tired…” They think it’s laziness, not something serious.

      • Yeah, I’ve definitely experienced that. I also have a lot of people who tell me “I’m ridiculous” because I sleep so much and still complain I’m tired!

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