Invading the Land of Nod, Part 3: “Don’t hold you breath,” I’m told

Posted 3/2/16

by Hugh Gilmore

So far: My loud nighttime snoring drove my wife and me to sleeping in separate rooms. That was not a happy situation for either of us. I vowed to “do something about it” by the …

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Invading the Land of Nod, Part 3: “Don’t hold you breath,” I’m told


by Hugh Gilmore

So far: My loud nighttime snoring drove my wife and me to sleeping in separate rooms. That was not a happy situation for either of us. I vowed to “do something about it” by the end of 2014. After procrastinating all year, I went for a “sleep study” on Dec. 23, just in time to ring out the old and ring in the new way of sleeping. Or so I thought.

As you might imagine, I was eager to see the sleep study results. Everyone wonders if others know weird things about us when we sleep. Now I could find out if I’m a strange sleeper. Truthfully, though, all I really cared about was the snoring part. And as long as I was at it, I’d also like to know why I snored. And anything else those electrodes pasted all over my body could tell me about myself.

Unfortunately, my consultation was set for Jan. 6 of the new year. I’d have to wait almost two weeks. In the meantime, as I try to do with all medical tests performed on me, I went to the hospital’s “Release of Information” office and sought a printout of the test results. Many doctors don’t want patients to see these before they do, and they often try to impede such discovery. In the office, I’m often too shocked and awed when the doctor verbally glosses the test’s results. I want time to research the facts and think about them. That way I can prepare my office visit questions in advance.

Back home, I read the sleep study results. They said that I experienced episodes of sleep apnea and hypopnea. (Apnea occurs when you stop breathing for ten seconds or longer, sometimes up to a minute; hypopnea is less than ten). My breathing cessations occurred more frequently during my REM sleep (a deep, vital stage). These apneas and hypopneas correlated with decreased oxygen saturation in my blood. These respiratory events caused severe sleep disruption.

In effect, I spent much of my sleep time in the lightest stages of sleep. Thats because when one’s lungs are not getting oxygen your blood pressure rises and other systems arouse enough to wake you up, over and over, just below the level of consciousness. Certainly keeping you from moving on the deeper, more refreshing levels of sleep that we all need. Hence, no wonder I had moved up to two 10 mg tablets of Ambien per night and still felt sluggish in the morning. When you research sleep apnea they always warn you that it can cause death.

Okay, so what? I thought. That didn’t worry me since dying while sleeping is usually held up as an ideal way to go. Much better than suffering a long time, or getting hit by a truck. What I cared about was my snoring. Snoring, not apnea, kept me from sleeping in the same bed as my wife. Though, truth be told, she caught me sometimes at my apnea hobby and it worried her: “Hugh, wake up. You’re not breathing.”

But the point is: snoring and apnea are two different things. One does not imply the other, though both are frequently found together.

And what is snoring? Put simply, unless one has an unusual anatomical feature in his breathing apparatus, it is the sound made by air moving through a floppy, loose, vibrating tube. Like tissues and folds of the breathing chamber slacken with age and make noise when air is blown through them. All I could think of when I read this was: I am so glad I didn’t snore when I was young and courting my wife. How embarrassing. How potentially off-putting. Hmmm ... but then I went on to become a noisy snorer. Is that considered romantic bait-and-switch?

Write that down, Hugh. One more question for the doctor. I started typing a list of questions. In the meantime, though, I wanted to know if there was any cure, or at least a means of alleviating my problem. I read on. There are dozens of treatments offered to the patient suffering from apnea, or snoring, or both. Among them are various kinds of surgery, most intended to stiffen the air passages against vibration. Another approach uses dental devices that jut the jaw forward, theoretically keeping the air passage open. And then, there is the “continuous positive airway pressure device,” popularly known as the CPAP machine. The least invasive of the three basic techniques, it seemed as though I should try it. Sometimes it treats apnea and snoring simultaneously.

But it was ugly. I’d need to put a mask over my face and receive air from a hose that ran from the mask to a machine. How dreadful. I pictured my mother who suffered at the end from second-hand emphysema. I pictured various movie hospital scenes where people needed to breathe through masks. Scary. Uncomfortable. Claustrophobic. And un-romantic. Suppose my wife suddenly turned in the dark of night and said, “Kiss me, you fool!” What a turnoff.

But I’d never even get close to that dilemma while she and I slept in separate rooms. I wanted my snoring cured. CPAP seemed like something I’d grudgingly try. So, okay, yes. I’ll do it, I decided. I pictured myself in the doctor’s office saying, “Yes, doctor, I’ll take Door Number 3 – the CPAP machine. Yes. I’ll do it. Bring it on. I want back in my bedroom!”

Silly me. Life is never that simple. (Continued next week.)

Hugh Gilmore has written several novels, a story collection, a memoir, and a warm tribute to his former mentor, Loren Eiseley. All available at bookstores everywhere in print and e-book formats.