Let me preface this story by saying that I am a writer, not a medical professional, and you should definitely seek medical advice if any of this resonates with you.
Sleep is more important to me than many things in this world. In fact, after the well-being of my family and making sure I have enough money to cover my bills, I prioritize sleep over almost anything else. If this sounds drastic or way too dramatic, consider this. I didn’t sleep for the better part of ten years.
Sounds like an exaggeration, I know. Before you assume I’m lying or that I had insomnia or was some sort of confused night owl, let me explain. When I say I didn’t sleep, I don’t mean I didn’t try. I actually made sure I got between 6–8 hours most nights, when I could. On weekends, I even had ten hour stretches of sleep, but I woke up feeling exhausted every single day.
During the last ten years, I knew what my problem was. See, eons ago, I had a sleep study done which found that I had something called severe obstructive sleep apnea. This condition causes you to stop breathing at night, so you wake up numerous times throughout the night. I remember my number of ‘apnea incidents’ per hours back then was high — over 60 per hour. This meant I was literally waking up every minute or more throughout the night.
As you can imagine, this can have a pretty negative effect on you. I was bone-tired all. The. Time. I couldn’t focus well at work, couldn’t stay awake at night when reading or watching television, and I was an irritable witch constantly. I was tearful, emotional, depressed, and I couldn’t figure out why. My lowest point came when I actually nodded off in my car at a traffic light. My foot slid off the brake and I rolled into the back of the car in front of me. Luckily, there was no damage to either car, but it scared me badly. Enough was enough.
Then I had a sleep study done. My resulting diagnosis led to the use of a CPAP machine, a device that forces air into your airways at night so you can breathe. This was a massive game changer for me. Suddenly, I was feeling rested again. I started to feel those horrible grey clouds of depression and anxiety lift. And I could stay awake while doing things like reading or watching movies (or driving). It was nothing short of amazing, until it wasn’t.
My initial use of the CPAP and its benefits just sort of hit a wall. I was feeling better than before, but still having numerous incidents at night. And then we moved to a different state, where I continued to use my machine, but stopped when the humidifier on it became damaged. I just sort of gave up on the whole thing for a while. Well, the next decade, to be exact.
Last year, I decided that I’d had enough of being exhausted (again) and despite the (rather large for me) expense, I had a new sleep study done in the state I’m currently living in. I was shocked to discover that I had over 95 apnea incidents per hour during the study. I was literally never really sleeping. Of course, the doctor recommended another CPAP, which I happily took on, despite its less than stellar success previously.
After using the device for a few months, it’s not doing exactly the job the doctor wants it to, but I have other options. Now, if you’re still with me, after all this boring back story, I really want to get to my main point. DO YOU KNOW HOW A LACK OF SLEEP REALLY AFFECTS YOU?
Sorry for shouting, but I really feel like you need to hear this. If you are always tired, or always sad, or always have a headache, you might not be sleeping as well as you should. If you can’t lose weight, can’t focus on the things you enjoy, don’t want to do anything you used to love but aren’t sure why, you could have a sleep disorder.
I knew I was a prime candidate for sleep apnea. I snored like a bear with a chainsaw. I was (and still am) overweight. And I’ve always had a very thick neck with a narrow throat. What I didn’t know is that sleep apnea can also be present in children, even children who aren’t overweight and who don’t have other health conditions.
My youngest daughter had her tonsils out two years ago. Without having a sleep study done, I knew she had apnea because I used to see her stop breathing at night. She would become deathly still, then gasp for air. It was terrifying, but after a tonsillectomy (for enlarged tonsils and adenoids, not sleep apnea), she hasn’t had an apnea incident again.
My oldest daughter gained weight after being put on a medication that altered her appetite. She started snoring, but not terribly loudly. She’s been diagnosed as high functioning on the autism spectrum, so we’ve paid special attention to any behavioral issues she’s had. Like many teens, she started showing signs of depression that became very severe over the last two years. Working with her doctors, we tried lots of medicine changes and therapies to help combat the depression and anxiety, but nothing seemed to be working.
We reached a point where my daughter was going to bed super early, even on weekends, and sleeping super late (on weekends). During the week, she’d come home from school and fall asleep on the couch. Now, depression can make you want to sleep, but so can sleep disorders. And, sleep disorders can worsen depression severely.
I’m not sure if there’s been a conclusive reason found why this happens. Maybe it’s the extreme fatigue that makes it so difficult to regulate our emotions, or maybe it’s chemical or hormonal. When we sleep, our bodies produce certain hormones and limit the production of other ones. Not getting into the deeper levels of sleep can seriously throw the body’s systems out of whack, leading to all sorts of problems. Depression is just one of these potential issues — cardiac problems, weight gain, and even minor memory loss can all occur if you aren’t getting enough sleep.
We took my daughter for a sleep study and, sure enough, she has obstructive sleep apnea. She uses a CPAP machine, which has made a huge difference in her energy levels. The depression also seems to be getting a little better, though we are aware that it may never be completely treated by the CPAP machine.
To make a long story short, if you have any of the symptoms I mentioned, it’s very much worth talking to your doctor about the possibility that a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea could be causing you problems or exacerbating existing medical issues. Don’t just write off that fatigue and low mood as part of a busy lifestyle. Don’t ignore the problem like I did until you have an accident or endanger yourself and others because you can’t stay awake.
Talk to your doctor about your issues. You may not have a sleep disorder, but if you ignore your problems, you definitely won’t find answers and you won’t get any better.