As someone who has both sleep apnea and a sleep disorder that is associated with my fibromyalgia, I feel eminently qualified to comment on this topic. It also seems that everyone and his brother has a problem with sleep, so I’m sure the interest is there. There are many, many places to find out about sleep problems and I know people search.
My primary problem is sleep apnea. That’s literally when you stop breathing in your sleep. It takes a number of forms – you may stop breathing so that you completely wake up; you make stop breathing just long enough to bring you into a lighter sleep level where you never get the true rest you need; you may stop breathing enough to wake up, but you wake for such a short period of time that you don’t remember waking – your body does, though, and has to start the sleep process all over again.
My own sleep apnea is moderately severe. This refers to the number of times you stop breathing in a certain space of time, as established by a test done at a sleep center. It’s not painful to have the test done, though it is a pain in the neck – lots of little sensors and electrodes attached to you with glue, like a super EKG or something and then you try to sleep. But it was worth the inconvenience to me.
I did not suspect that I had sleep apnea. I didn’t fully wake up when I stopped breathing. I thought that my fatigue was due to the fibromyalgia, maybe, or to the pace of my life. During part of my single parenting period, I spent over two and a half years working 60 hours a week – it helped pay the bills – in addition to caring for the children. I thought I fell asleep the instant my head hit the pillow. I didn’t wake during the night, but woke feeling exhausted anyway. I thought it was the pace. Just after I married my current husband, he asked me one day if I knew I stopped breathing when I slept. I thought he was crazy. He told me how he’d notice that I suddenly wasn’t breathing and it scared him to death. He didn’t know if I’d start again. I always did when he’d nudge me, but he still had the fear. He also wasn’t completely thrilled with the snoring I did (it’s one of the signs you may have sleep apnea). To make my husband happy and reassure him I wasn’t going to hold my breath and not wake up one morning, I went to see my doctor with my husband in tow. I was referred to a “sleep doctor” (a pulmonary specialist) and sent for a sleep test. I also learned how dangerous sleep apnea could be!
The likelihood of dying in your sleep because you stop breathing and don’t start up again is slight, but possible. But there are many other consequences that aren’t as dramatic. They can be worse in the long run. Untreated sleep apnea is associated with increases in high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, fatigue related accidents, lowered immune system and a number of other health issues. So while it doesn’t often kill you suddenly, like my husband feared, it does work on killing you slowly because your body never gets the real rest it needs to repair itself. To paraphrase Roberta Flack, sleep apnea was “killing me slowly…”
I noted that I did not know I had sleep apnea and that’s true. I didn’t remember waking in the night and thought I was sleeping like a rock the second my head hit the pillow. But there were signs that something was not right. I was always tired. Since fatigue is a part of fibromyalgia, I just chalked it up to that. But this wasn’t just fatigue. I would take “micro-naps” at the least opportune times – at work, sitting in front of the computer screen on my desk; driving the car, especially on the highway. It was embarrassing to suddenly jerk my head up from my chest and wonder how long I had been in that position. What had I been doing? Even worse was on the road. I could feel my eyelids falling closed without my permission and I would struggle to keep them open. But the need for sleep was so irresistible that they would sometimes fall anyway. Thank God for the “rumble strips” they put along the highways now. Scared the begeebers out of me when I’d hit one, but it did the trick – a big adrenaline rush goes a long way to help you stay awake! Also kept me from running off the road. There was one time I recall driving to an evening class on the highway. I remember everything before Exit A, but nothing between Exit A and Exit C about 10 miles down the road! I recall shaking my head to clear my vision and wondering how I got that far. Scary! I must have had an angel on my shoulder that day!!
The other sleep issue I have, now that I really do sleep properly, is falling asleep. It isn’t that I lie awake thinking about things or worrying like my mother. It’s just that I don’t fall asleep. I’ve worked enough with relaxation techniques as a childbirth educator to know how to do that. It’s more like my brain is busy just below the level of consciousness and I can’t do anything to control that. For those of you old enough to remember TV when there were just antennae on the roof or “rabbit ears,” think of what it looked like on a stormy day when you tried to get a station that was just a little bit out of range — fuzzy, snowy, vague pictures that you would have to strain to make out. It’s a bit like that — there’s something going on in your brain but you don’t know what it is. You do know that it keeps you awake. My doctor finally suggested sleep medication, which I hesitated about because I take enough medication as it is. But I agreed to try it and it was the second best decision I ever made (marrying the man who told me I stopped breathing was the very best, of course).
Now I sleep well. I fall asleep within an hour or so of taking the medication (depending on what I’ve eaten that evening). With my CPAP mask on, I sleep through the night. It took about a week to get used to it initially, but now I wouldn’t go without it. It even goes on all our travel adventures. I sleep 7-8 hours a night, instead of the variable hours I used to get. Working at it and cooperating with my doctors has paid off in some unexpected ways, especially with the fibromyalgia. I no longer have those terrible mood swings that were attributed to the fibromyalgia. My pain levels have decreased in general (not cured, but definitely improved). The frequency and severity of flare-ups has also decreased. My concentration has improved. My energy levels are more stable. I think my immune system has benefitted since I seem to get fewer of the “bugs” than I used to. Which of course brings me to my initial question.
Why do you refuse to sleep?
Or perhaps I should rephrase that: why do so many people “bitch and moan” about not sleeping well but refuse to do the things necessary to get better sleep?!
My stepdad snores loud enough to wake the dead and has been diagnosed with severe sleep apnea. They gave him a CPAP machine which he used one night, then refused to use it again. “I don’t like it. It’s not comfortable to sleep with it. I’m too old to learn something new.” Better to stay tired and cranky and easily stressed?
My mother-in-law falls asleep, but wakes throughout the night: to sleep at midnight, awake & up at 2 AM, back to bed at 3 AM, up at 4:15 AM, back to bed at 5 AM, up for the day at 7 AM. But she refuses to think about taking any medication that might help her sleep through the night. “I just don’t like medicines. I take enough of them.” Better to be tired and have your arthritis worse than it has to be?
My own mother has trouble falling asleep – you remember her, the worry wart? She will lie there thinking about problems and concerns for hours before she finally falls asleep out of exhaustion. Then, of course, she sleeps too late into the day. Up til 2 or 3 AM, sleeps til noon. She refuses to take the medicine the doctor has prescribed. “I’ve read too many scary stories about that medicine and the problems people have had. I want to have my wits about me in an emergency. I don’t want to get addicted. The doctor doesn’t really know how I feel anyway.” Better to be exhausted all the time and have no energy for the exercise the doctor told you was important after the heart valve surgery?
I guess the part I really don’t understand is the stubbornness; the refusal to try to do something about a problem that impacts your life in such a negative way. All the complaining or making excuses in the world won’t improve your health and energy. So why waste so much energy fighting the very things that could improve your life. I really don’t get it!! Why do people refuse to do things that are good for them? Why do they prefer the slow path to self-destruction? I could never live my life like that.
If anyone has any ideas on why people refuse to do something about a problem like not sleeping and why they prefer to stay stuck where they are, I love to hear them! But don’t make excuses. That’s another of my pet peeves: people who have a problem but make excuses as to why they can’t try to do anything about the problem.
Let’s face it — making excuses for not trying is just another way to say it really isn’t important enough to you to try. It’s making a choice to not help yourself. So if you can’t sleep, stop whining. You have a choice: Do something to make life better or shut up, because the rest of us don’t want to hear it if you’ve chosen to give up.