Gearing Up: One Man's Quest for a Good Night's Sleep

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Photo via Pexels.
Photo via Pexels.

For the past ten years, ever since I was diagnosed with sleep apnea in my late fifties, I've been on a quest to get a decent night's sleep. But so far, that quest has been quixotic, frustrating, and at times, downright ridiculous.

None of my doctors suspected I had apnea. After all, I was thin, fit, and didn't snore. But by the time I hit 55, I was also chronically tired. I tried supplements, thyroid pills, and Chinese herbs, all without success. Finally, I saw the symptoms of sleep apnea in an article on the internet: fatigue, restless sleep, and waking up at night gasping for air. (Check, check, and check!)

Once or twice a month I'd wake up gasping, my heart pounding, often just after I'd fallen asleep. I'd have a brief but intense 'am I dying here?' experience and then fall back into restless sleep, trying not to think about it. I wrote it down to nerves, to my anxiety-prone genes, until the next time it happened.

After a home-sleep study, in which I was wired up like a lab rat, confirmed that I had apnea, and stopped breathing 56 times during the 7 hours I was on the monitor, I was sucked into a new world of devices, medications, and warnings about the dangers of this condition. Those dangers included a higher incidence of heart disease and heart attacks, which claimed my father, my uncle, and assorted other men in my family.

The gold-standard treatment was a c-pap machine, a helpful device about the size of a loaf of bread. The device consisted of a control panel, mask, and hose, and according to the technician at Mt. Auburn Hospital's sleep clinic, would take "a little getting used to."

That was an understatement, or an outright lie. My first mask was small and light, with nasal plugs that fit into each nostril. But those nostrils were congested, and just as I fell asleep my mouth opened and I was blasted with air, which woke me up. Next, I tried a full-face mask, which seemed well-suited for scuba-diving, if not for sleep. With both of those masks, I could only sleep in one position, on my back. And that led to another problem —- I can't sleep on my back. I sleep on my stomach or on my side, not splayed out on my back with a hose forcing air down my throat.

After I ditched the c-pap, I found a sleep dentist who fit me with a mouthguard, a special oral device that moves my teeth and lower jaw forward, so that I look like Cro-Magnon Man, one of my prehistoric ancestors. Still, the mouthguard allows me to breathe through the night, while still not eliminating my apnea. The device is awkward, mildly uncomfortable, and has changed my bite over time, shifting my teeth and triggering jaw pain.

According to my latest sleep study with my mouthguard, my oxygen level remained over 90%, which means that I hopefully will not die (soon), and will not endure the frequent gasping and choking that go along with untreated apnea. On the other hand, I'm still chronically tired, wake up frequently through the night, and never feel rested in the morning.

And so my quest continues. I recently found a new sleep doctor, who explained that my sleep issues are "complex," compounded by my "fragmented sleep" and my inability to sleep through the night. Now, when I prepare for bed, it looks like I'm going on some kind of expedition, like a "flat Earther" who's afraid of falling off the planet.

Each night before bed, I assemble my gear. My special Intake nose strip, to open my nostrils and compensate for my deviated septum; eye drops and eyewash for my chronic dry eyes, which often wake me through the night, my mouthguard to keep my throat clear for breathing, and mouth tape to promote nasal breathing, which is supposed to reduce sleep apnea, along with an antidepressant, which in small doses, helps me fall asleep.

Each morning, I bite down on another small device to realign my teeth, to move them back into their normal daytime position. I peel off the mouth-tape, remove my nose strip, and rinse off my eyes. Soon, before I've fully regained my energy, it will be time to gear up, lie down, and do it all again.

Judah Leblang is a teacher, writer, and storyteller in Boston. He is the author of two memoirs, and performs his one-man shows at Fringe Festivals, and community venues throughout the eastern US and Canada. Find out more at