I think of myself as a good sleeper. Give me a large book and a horizontal position, and I could fall asleep strapped to the top of a bullet train. Sleep has been a constant ally, a friend. When I was a teen, it was a refuge. I used to pray for sleep; its temporary oblivion was a welcome respite from anxiety and obsessive thoughts. It was a pause, not a death but close enough to it. Every time I fell asleep, there was a chance of resurrection, to wake up new.
My girlfriend, Allison, however, does not think I’m a good sleeper. She knows the truth. At night, I’m thrashing around and screaming. Occasionally, it sounds like my breathing stops. Worst of all for her, I snore. Badly. She’s shown me a video of it, and it’s horrifying: my thin, wheezing inhales are interrupted by a wrenching tear of a noise. It sounds like someone ripping a carpet in half inside a cave. It sounds like a Hans Zimmer score. It’s awful.
We sometimes get into these little fights when I wake up. She’s had a terrible sleep and is justifiably pissed. She can’t stay mad for long, though, because who is she mad at? It wasn’t me snoring, not really. Certainly, it was my body, my lungs, my soft tissues getting flabbier with age and drinking. Those are the guilty parties. But I wasn’t even there. Ask anybody.
When my girlfriend is flipping my sleeping body over and plugging its nose, or occasionally smothering my face with a pillow or two, who is she smothering? How unimportant is the self to our life when we are sleeping—something we spend a third of our life doing; something that if we didn’t do, we would die—that it can be completely absent?
I tried treating my snoring with the junk-drawer solution of purchasing every anti-snoring device available at Shoppers Drug Mart. Nose strips, mouth guards, some kind of nasal spray—anything that the store had on sale on those two shelves promising snoring absolution between the Ricolas and the orthotics. Nothing worked. Every time, there would be a slight glimmer of hope, a placebo-infused sleep where we would try to convince ourselves my snoring was better. But, every time, it soon became clear the only difference was that the top of my mouth was now shredded from the cheap plastic of the so-called snore guard.
Allison wanted me to see a doctor about the snoring, but it’s hard to take snoring seriously as a health problem. It seems more like a joke, like a health problem that a sitcom dad would have after getting electrocuted by Christmas decorations. It doesn’t seem like a health issue but more like a personality defect.
According to Nick van den Berg, a PhD candidate in experimental psychology at the University of Ottawa and a member of the Canadian Sleep Society, “Snoring occurs as our muscles in the upper airway relax so much that they narrow the airway.” This is why snoring gets worse as we get older, as our once taut and virile inner neck muscles become flabby and weak with age. The real threat of bad snoring is it could be a sign you have obstructive sleep apnea—which is when your airway is completely blocked. This blockage causes you to wake up constantly. The lack of sleep—for you or your partner—caused by snoring can be a serious health risk, as insufficient sleep has been linked to cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.
More than the health issues, a lack of sleep can cause almost existential issues. Sleep is essential to your functioning as a human being. “Sleep is key to memory consolidation,” van den Berg told me. It is not entirely clear how, but when we are asleep, our brain organizes, processes, and saves our memory. More than that, he added, “Sleep doesn’t just stabilize our memories but also enhances our memories.” He told me about studies where the subjects are taught a basic skill before bed, and when they wake up, not only do they remember the skill but have actually improved upon it. Sleep, then, is more than necessary; it’s where we are forged. Every night, we throw our day-to-day experiences, memories, and lessons into the kiln of sleep, let them bake for hopefully eight hours, and remove a better, stronger, fuller version of ourselves in the morning.
So my girlfriend was right to insist I deal with the problem, but I was resistant. I’m in my mid-thirties, I haven’t had a doctor since I was a kid. My health care subsisted on walk-in clinic visits and youthful hubris—a faith that things will work out and a belief that a problem doesn’t really exist until you deal with it. But I think what really scared me off was that going to a doctor about my snoring would be my first confrontation with the way I live and its repercussions, almost like being shown a mirror to my mortality. Certainly not a face to face with the Grim Reaper, seeing who would blink first, but definitely footsies: the first acknowledgement that I’m not impervious to the effects of time and decisions made, that my body has limits, that it can break and fall apart, and that, to live a good life, one has to make good decisions. And as someone who thoroughly enjoys bad decisions, that’s an unpleasant pill to swallow.
It has been a tough year. A friend passed away suddenly and tragically. Then my grandmother followed. A chronic knee problem I had turned into a full-blown meniscus tear, dashing any hopes of a late-life bloom in a guy who is “surprisingly athletic” and revealing a body that is eroding with time. My eyesight became distorted. A visit to the eye doctor revealed I had fluid under my retina, a condition called central serous chorioretinopathy. It’s caused by stress. I started seeing a therapist again. Within minutes, over Zoom, he told me I looked depressed. Things felt harder, time less plentiful. I was reminded that there’s no guarantee that things will just work out. It was a year of the space capsule of my youthful fantasy breaking up on contact with an atmosphere of reality and repercussions, all soundtracked by some of the worst snoring you’ve ever heard.
But there are other things to be afraid of besides aging, and fearing a breakup or an unexplained disappearance, I tried what Allison had been asking me to do. I went to a doctor.
The doctor asked me how much I drank a week. I gave him a number that was high enough for me to know he should factor it in his diagnosis but low enough that I could say it out loud without being embarrassed. He figured I had sleep apnea and said I should drink less and lose weight. He referred me to a sleep study to confirm the diagnosis. To get a CPAP machine for the apnea, I’d need the study results. A CPAP machine is a device that shoots a steady flow of pressurized oxygen into your nose and mouth. It involves a hose, a mask that covers either your nose or mouth or both, and a head harness, resulting in the wearer looking like a cozy fighter plane pilot, like Top Gun’s Maverick if the undisclosed enemy country were your dreams.
The sleep clinic was in Toronto’s St. Joseph’s Health Centre. I entered the hospital ready to get my sleep on. I felt nervous and excited and blisteringly sober. I had successfully adhered to the guidelines sent out by the clinic: no alcohol in the past twelve hours, no coffee in the last two, and no naps. My mind was unadorned—free from its usual coating of hangover shame, too-late coffee worry, and post-nap delirium—and hungry for some answers and clarity.
Next, a technician saw me and asked a couple of questions, the most provocative being: What position do you sleep in? I’m mostly a mix of side and stomach, with one leg pitched like I’m doing a hurdle. Overall, though, I would describe my sleeping position as maximum obnoxious. My limbs are splayed as far as they can reach, and I am continually thrashing and rolling from side to side in erratic and irregular movements. Basically, I sleep like David Byrne dances.
I sat on my assigned bed, waiting for the sleep lab to begin its work. “Lab” was really a strong word for the experience. There were no beakers, or mad scientists, or stainless-steel tanks with anonymous figures floating in green fluid. There was just a generic hospital room: infinite white walls; a thin, hard bed that felt like I was lying on an H&M clothing shelf; a clunky, foreboding radiator; and a pillow that had all the comfort and support of a bag of napkins. Worst of all, there was an AC unit that something was dripping onto, producing a sharp, arrhythmic, metallic smack.
At quarter to eleven, the technician came in. He was disappointingly less of a mad scientist than I was expecting. Instead, he seemed sleep deprived and grumpy. He began sticking the sensors to my body for the electroencephalogram, or EEG. Created in 1924, this test uses electrodes to measure your brain waves without being invasive (cutting your head open). It is still the gold standard for sleep studies. Sensors were also placed on my arms and legs to measure my movement, and a sensor was placed below my nose and a harness around my chest to measure my breathing. I don’t know what it says about my self-esteem, but I found being a specimen thrilling. The thrill quickly passed as I proceeded to have the worst sleep of my life.
Ideally, there are two types of sleep that can be divided into four stages. The first three stages are of NREM, or non-rapid eye movement, sleep. It is in these three stages that typical sleep occurs. Stage one is the drifting-off period: those fifteen minutes of drowsiness where it is hard to tell if you are asleep or not. Once you are out, the second stage begins. It is marked by slower brain waves and short, fast bursts of brain activity called spindles. Both are thought to be involved in memory consolidation. The third stage of NREM is slow-wave sleep. Your brain waves are now deep, long curves, similar, at times, to those seen in people under anaesthesia. It is in these last two stages of sleep that the majority of restoration happens.
Suddenly, the second act of sleep occurs: REM sleep. The brain explodes with activity; it appears awake. This is when most dreaming occurs, especially the intense, emotional genre of dreams—the ones that are like “I’m on a date with a book report I didn’t finish” or “I started playing hockey again, but I didn’t realize that my skates are made of everyone I’ve ever disappointed.” Your body reacts accordingly. Beneath the eyelids, your eyes start to dart around wildly, and your heart races. If your body weren’t paralyzed, your limbs would be thrashing around. It’s not entirely clear why this happens. Van den Berg’s favourite theory is that it is preparatory. “If NREM is recovery from the day before, REM seems to be preparation for the day ahead.” This would explain why some dreams can be so intense: they are training modules for the most heightened emotions you can experience.
When you have a good night’s sleep, these different acts and stages are a harmonious cycle. Of course, many things can disrupt this harmony: electric light, caffeine, a long night out, or—as I found out—being covered in wires that precariously cling to your body with every toss and turn. Many thoughts can keep you up at night, and in the lab, I discovered a new one: “I sure hope that when I turned over, I didn’t ruin this experiment being performed on me.” Another pressure point in the delicate dance of the sleep stages is if there is an unceasing arrhythmic drip onto an air conditioning unit the entire night and the drip sounds like someone didn’t turn off the tap in your brain—a drip that erodes who you are, who you were, and who you would be into a howling nothingness begging for sweet release.
I was woken up at five-thirty after maybe two hours of gruel-thin snoozing. The wires were removed, and I strolled home in the dawn light, feeling like my sleep–wake cycle and circadian rhythms were utterly and completely ruined. I didn’t know what kind of information they could glean from my dire snooze, but I learned that there were limits to my sleeping abilities, and one of them was getting the Weapon X treatment.
After two months, the results of the study came in. There was no sleep apnea. I have what the report called “mild primary snoring.” As far as the study could tell, there is no particular reason for it. Aging, drinking too much, and rapidly deteriorating neck muscles are all it takes. The snoring wasn’t a condition; it was the sound of time catching up to me.
These were not the results I was looking for. I had been hoping for a condition, a disorder, another of life’s petty aggrievements I could list and point to whenever I indulged in a self-pity wallow. I wanted a quick fix even if that quick fix was strapping a glorified bike pump to my face. Instead, what I got was consequences. I used to not believe in consequences. Not really. I thought I could do what I wanted. Any suffering that came along was something I didn’t have control over; it was something to get used to, like the weather. The responsibility you have to yourself and others eluded me. But decisions have consequences, and they aren’t a one-time deal. Instead, they coalesce and compound and reverberate, like a snore off the inner walls of your throat. There is no guarantee things will just work out: injuries worsen, tragedy happens, your girlfriend gets fed up with you snoring. When you don’t sleep, you don’t just get it back by sleeping in the next day. It takes days for you to recover.
My snoring has gotten worse since the study. Louder, more frequent. Thankfully, my girlfriend and I have figured out a staggered sleep schedule that seems to work. More than that, I’d like to think I’m trying. I’m working out more, eating slightly better, drinking less. From this study, I learned you are not just your moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings. You are an accumulation of everything you did before. The person you are today builds from the person you were the day before: when you ate, what you learned, how you slept. You have to take care of yourself and others. Things aren’t just going to get better on their own.