When life throws you lemons, thank it for the snack

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Joys of Insomnia (with a Sprinkle of Sleep Apnea)

A long time ago the Bear Naked Ladies released a song about the pleasures of insomnia. I actually used to pray for insomnia, especially toward midterms and finals so that I could have the time I needed to finish my grades and return the papers to my students. It's funny how prayers are rarely answered when you expect them to be or when you think you need them.

I originally thought I had a mild case of hypersomnia because I would find myself uncontrollably falling asleep in the middle of the day. This was especially worrisome when I was driving, which happened too often for my own comfort, unfortunately. Sadly, no doctor would believe me or listen to my story. They all just assumed that I obese and therefore suffering from [my words here] a sugar coma due to diabetes. Surprise, surprise, I never had glucose levels that indicated diabetes. True, I may have come close, but no one could ever diagnose me with it. You see, I'm probably one of the healthiest overweight women in the country. Despite my excess size, I have good numbers in all the areas you'd expect an obese person to suffer--cholesterol, blood pressure, excellent heart, decent sugars. No one could ever find anything really wrong--close, but not off the charts--in my blood work. The only true diagnoses I got were asthma (only because I kept telling them, no one actually tested me for it after I was 8 years old) and allergies. Neither of these are known to cause significant fatigue issues.

Finally, after years of not knowing why I sometimes had unexplainable weakness in one or both of my arms or why my mind could be awake but my eyes insisted on spontaneously closing and staying that way for a long while, my doctor ordered a sleep study. I'm sure there are many more invasive medical procedures out there. However, I find it incredibly ironic that they expect to study your sleep patterns with a) only 1 night of observation and b) you being hooked up to dozens of wires that prevent you from sleeping in your natural positions. My doctor sat on the first sleep study for over a year and the clinic that performed it shut down for some unknown reason. It wasn't until an ear-nose-throat physician ordered another one that I would find something close to an answer. And I went to that doctor because of an ear infection that wouldn't go away after 3 weeks despite various treatments. My regular doctor sent me to the ENT because they wanted to take out my tonsils. The ENT ordered the sleep study after putting together a lot of the other pieces, including my frequent spontaneous naps.

So, another uncomfortable night later, I got a diagnosis: sleep apnea. Yes, ladies and gents, the sleep disorder most commonly associated with snoring is apparently part of the puzzle for my lack of energy. With sleep apnea, you may think you get a full night's sleep, but your body actually wakes dozens, sometimes hundreds, of times during the night. You are only semi-conscious and so gosh darn tired that you are not fully aware of the constant waking. And why do you wake so often? Hmm, it could be because your respiratory system has a major malfunction so the only way your brain can think to get you to actually get some oxygen is to wake you fully to kick-start the lungs. By the way, not everyone with sleep apnea snores like a chainsaw all the time. I used to only snore noticeably when I was congested from allergies or a cold, thanks to my asthma. Now that I have a diagnosis, wouldn't you know it, I can hear myself snoring more often.

Wait, this blog has insomnia in the title. What's with all the sleep apnea talk? The sleep apnea was the only clear-cut medical diagnosis I received. At the time of the sleep study I was getting a full-night of sleep, sort of, fully waking to my alarm each morning and rarely before then. If you've read the last few posts of my blog, then you'll know that things in my life started to pile up and stress levels magnified. I started having nights in which I woke too early--1 am, 2 am, 3 am--and found it hard to get my brain to shut down long enough to finish my sleep cycles. This didn't happen too often. Even as a kid I had trouble sleeping the night before a trip, probably because of the anticipation. When I had problems sleeping during grade-reporting times, I chalked it up to stress. Temporary insomnia goes hand-in-hand with excessive stress and anxiety levels, after all. Besides, I didn't get a diagnosis of clinical insomnia with my sleep studies, just sleep apnea. Also, a diagnosis only occurs when you experience the symptoms of insomnia--can't get to sleep, trouble staying asleep, waking too early or too often--consistently (as in daily) for six weeks. I originally had a bout of sleep problems sprinkled here and there. It started to become more consistent during and after our move.

I found myself not able to sleep, or keeping very odd hours for me; I used to be like a clock in my "old life", always waking within an hour of the same time, even on weekends, and always going to bed within an hour of the same time frame. After my daughter went to visit her dad I found that I had consistent problems getting to bed when I wanted to and I was waking after only an hour or two of sleep, regardless of when I fell asleep in the first place. Sure I was taking naps in the middle of the day, but that's not an exclusion for insomnia. Our bodies want sleep even if they're not going to give it to us on a schedule. So, for the last 4 weeks, I have yet to have a single night in which I sleep for 4 or more hours without achieving full consciousness. I admit that I am a little peeved about the whole thing. The saving grace is that I don't currently have employment--I pray every day for a job, and I apply to countless jobs every single day, but still no bits--so I don't have to worry about falling asleep on the job. However, insomnia is not healthy. The body needs its sleep for basic maintenance and dreams are essential for mental health.

Hold on! This blog in general is supposed to be about the bright side. Where is it? Remember at the beginning, where I told you that I used to pray for insomnia? I knew about the bright side from the start. Even this past month, after I toss and turn, trying to force my mind to enter maintenance mode so I can get more rest, I am wise enough to give up and get up and try to do something. Sometimes I play a mindless computer game and that helps. Sometimes I sift through my copious amounts of email. I occasionally take the opportunity to catch up on my reading or, in the desperate hours when it looks like sleep is gone for the night/morning, I try my hand at the limitless chores that abound when you are the sole adult responsible for the welfare of a child. So, yeah, I've found a way to make use of my insomnia. The only time I'm cranky from lack of sleep is when I fight the insomnia. When I give in and use the time for something more productive, then I find I actually have enough energy to make it through my day. At least, that is, until I take a nap.

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