It wasn’t until a few years ago that I actually learned sleep apnea was a real condition. Tim and I, both heavy snorers, were lying in bed discussing it.
“Wait, so you stop breathing in your sleep?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he replied.
“But like… you start again right?”
“Of course. Your body wakes itself up again without being fully awake. You breathe fine, go back to sleep and then it can happen again in a cycle.”
“Huh,” I said. “Do I do that?”
“Nah,” he replied. At the point of this conversation, Tim and I had been sleeping in the same bed for over six years. I trusted him more than any doctor. “Your breathing is always really regular. I never hear you.”
With that I considered the matter closed. I snored, but I never stopped breathing. My father on the other hand, a chronic snorer and perhaps the loudest person ever to fall asleep, stopped breathing all the time. When I came home to visit it, I’d notice when he’d nap on the couch. At first his loud snoring would be rhythmical, but it was always followed with a pause. Sometimes after that pause he’d resume like usual, but occasionally he’d kind of gasp or snort and then go back to sleep. Apnea!
Of course you’re probably wondering if my father got diagnosed past that, and the answer is no. This is partially because my family isn’t exactly the most keen on doctors (myself included), and partially because I knew there was no way he’d ever be open to sleeping with a machine strapped to his face. I knew I wouldn’t be!
Flash forward several years, and I had a bought of strep throat this June. For the entire year after Tim died, I didn’t get as much as a sniffle but around the one year anniversary of his death I got strep throat seemingly overnight. This is not unusual to me, because I have large janky tonsils that act as mouth terrorists. A quick round of antibiotics later, and I was good to go.
Except when I went to Taos later that summer, I came down with a really strange case of tonsillitis. One night I had a fever, my lymph nodes on my neck swelled up large enough to be noticeable by other people and I had the worst sore throat ever. It hurt to swallow, turn my neck or touch my throat. I treated myself with the maximum dose of ibuprofen my liver would allow and red wine (see previous avoidance of doctors). After a few days I felt better, but my tonsils never got 100% back to normal.
For weeks I felt like I swallowed a ball that was stuck in the back of my throat. It effected my ability to sleep at night and slowly drove me crazy, so I finally hauled myself to a Ear Nose & Throat doctor.
“My tonsils are giant and I feel like I have something stuck in my throat and I can’t sleep at night because I feel like my throat is closing and if I can’t sleep at night I get a little crazy and I haven’t been sleeping because my throat is CLOSING and I’m getting a LITTLE BIT CRAZY and I really JUST DON’T LIKE MY TONSILS CAN YOU HELP ME I’M SO TIRED!”
He blinked at me and then slowly asked, “Do you snore?”
“Yes I snore, but MY TONSILS ARE SO LARGE PLEASE HELP!”
“Do you snore every night? How long have you snored?”
“I don’t KNOW because I sleep alone because husband DIED and I’m so VERY VERY ALONE and I also have REALLY BAD TONSILS PLEASE HELP!”
At this point he reached for a scope to make sure I didn’t have a mass tumor in my throat (I don’t) and after about an hour diagnosed me with a chronic infection of my tonsils and adenoids. I went home with antibiotics and steroids to reduce the swelling, as well as an order for a follow up appointment.
“Also, I want you to take a sleep study,” he said. “If you’re having trouble sleeping and you snore, you might have sleep apnea.”
I immediately brushed him off. “Yeah pretty sure I don’t have that, but if I don’t have to sleep in a strange doctor’s office I can do that.”
He assured me that I could do a home study, and a sleep scientist from the neurology office would follow up. For the next few days, I slept amazing. The steroids immediately reduced the size of my tonsils and knowing that I don’t have throat cancer is a great way to ease anxiety. I went back to the ENT after two weeks of my antibiotics, feeling mostly cured. Mostly.
“How are you sleeping now?” he asked.
“Overall much better, but some nights where they still bother me a little bit.”
“Well it’s time to schedule that sleep test and see what’s going on.”
It took about a week and a half to schedule and wait for my sleep study with the neurology center, and during that time I had a sneaking suspicion that things weren’t all as they should be. When I laid down to sleep at night, I would sometimes hear myself snore while I was in the state in-between wake and sleeping. During the day I started noticing how tired I was all the time. By three in the afternoon, I wanted nothing more than a nap. Caffeine didn’t help, and on the weekends when I would happen to nap on the couch I never actually felt “asleep”… just constantly waking up and falling back asleep.
Plus I started noticing a new sensation when I was trying to sleep at night. When I got right to the edge of slumber, I almost heard/felt a click in my throat. THE APNEA! I would think as the sensation jolted me away. The nights leading up to my sleep study, I began to have anxiety about not breathing when I slept which gave me anxiety about falling asleep which only made me more tired during the day.
This started getting really long, so I’m chopping it in two parts. Tune in soon for the epic conclusion of my sleep issues. Do I have the apnea? Did I drink too much this weekend and remove my own tonsils? ONLY TIME WILL TELL!