For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been tired. Most of the time I could deal with it; there was just a nagging sense of fatigue tugging at the edge of my consciousness, and if I didn’t focus on it then it would be fine. But every morning I would wake up wanting to go straight back to sleep, and no matter how long I slept for, it was never, ever enough. Offer me a nap and I would take it. Put me as a passenger in a moving car and I would zonk out, no question.
I just thought this was me, though: that I was sleeping too much, or not sleeping to the right patterns of time; that I drank too much coffee, or not enough water. A few years ago I went to the doctor to see if he could come up with something, but while he was very sympathetic and nice, blood tests showed nothing and all he could suggest was reading Frank Lipman’s book Spent.
It wasn’t until S was having trouble sleeping last summer and noticed that I had very erratic breathing — I would gasp and sputter, he said, as if I had been holding my breath, and never seemed to have the regular, deep breathing you associate with sleeping people — that something clicked, and I started to Google symptoms, putting two and two together (plus the Darth Vader-esque heavy breathing/snoring I did) and thinking that the answer of apnoea could well be the magic four. Convincing my GP (a different one) wasn’t the easiest: when a 32 year old womansays she might have apnoea, it’s not the typical overweight middle-aged man you’re expecting, so it’s understandable that there was some scepticism. But after completing an Epworth sleepiness test, which I’d already done for myself, the doctor realised that I may well be a candidate and I was referred to the sleep studies unit at the hospital. For two nights I wore a pulse oximeter strapped to my finger, which measured my pulse and breathing, recording these onto a USB so they could be mapped out as a graph on a computer. I saw the consultant two days later, and was fully expecting her to declare that I was a malingerer, a fraud, and not to waste her time anymore. Instead, she told me that there was no doubt I had apnoea, and she could diagnose the reason why straightaway – my very narrow jaw, which when relaxed in sleep closed off my airway, restricted my breathing and caused my brain to come out of deep sleep in order to get more oxygen. This was happening 6 or 7 times an hour – I was never getting enough of the deep sleep my body and brain needed and craved. Finally, the mystery was solved and I had an official diagnosis of Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA).
Treatment options were discussed – I’d read about CPAP machines, devices which blow constant pressurised air down your throat, which didn’t sound appealing, but the consultant said a mouth device would be the best thing to try first. An appointment was made at the dental hospital for me, and now five months later, I’m the proud owner of a Mandibular Advancement Device, aka a very large gumshield. I wear this at night, it pushes my jaw forward into the correct position, and voila, I sleep properly.
The first week was tough in terms of jaw pain, but no worse than when I’ve had braces in the past; a few days of softer foods and ibuprofen did the trick. And any pain was cancelled out when I woke up and for the first time in over twenty years, I didn’t want to go back to sleep again. It’s a miracle.
There was a blip: on Monday morning, for some reason, I was exhausted again. I could have fallen asleep straight away (and in fact did), and had to have a nap in the afternoon. I panicked that the magic had worn off; that now my jaw had adjusted to the device and it wasn’t hurting, that it somehow wouldn’t work. But luckily it seems to have been just a one-off (touch wood), possibly because I lost an hour of sleep when the clocks went forward on the Saturday.
After finding a forum for apnoea sufferers, I feel incredibly grateful that mine was diagnosed so quickly and easily, and that I was referred to a sleep consultant without having to fight for it. Being told not to make a fuss, come back when you’ve lost weight, you’re just depressed seem to be common themes when people ask for a diagnosis. I am also extremely lucky that I didn’t have to pay for any of my treatment; having to pay for the MAD seems to be a normal thing too. And my OSA is classified as mild, which is great as it means an MAD is suitable for me and I don’t have to try more extreme measures such as the CPAP or surgery.
I think I will always be a ‘sleepy’ person who loves a lie-in and given the opportunity, will always steal a snooze on the couch. But the relief of not being tired is so unbelievably sweet. I feel like a new person, and it’s great.