“I don’t snore!” I said years ago when I started snoring. That’s for grandpas. Whose grandpa doesn’t snore? Nobody’s! That’s because they all have sleep apnea. Fact is, 12 million Americans have it — a disorder where breathing stops and starts over and over again and is evidenced by loud snoring. If you don’t think that takes a toll on couples, if you doubt that the disorder can drive a spouse to acts of violence, consider this: That’s the exact number of people who cycle in and out of local jails each year.
The home test kit came in a sturdy nylon zip bag in the shape of an oversized lunch box. I was assigned to the home study rather than a stay-over at the clinic. That was fine with me. The theory is, with take-home technology, subjects are more likely to sleep through the night in their own beds. You know. At the scene of the crime.
The kit came with an instructional DVD. The video’s producer didn’t miss a trick, right down to casting. The demo dude looked like he hadn’t had REM sleep since R.E.M. topped the charts. I felt pretty bad for him. He looked under great duress as he donned all the cords and wires, like someone was standing just off-camera holding a gun on him.
Also, it appeared that he was going to bed in a snazzy wool sweater.
His test bedroom, obviously at the sleep clinic, wasn’t anything to write home about, either. The room was clean but it had the grim, undecorated motif of a church retreat center. Say your prayers, dude.
Given all that, I was glad to be at home, in my own bedroom, threading, plugging in and inserting, with the help of Nurse Peggy. It was like hotwiring a car, really. Or setting up a timed explosive. Or preparing for a lie detector test. All of which is, on the adventure scale, far more exciting than mummifying yourself with circuitry just to knock off for the night. Nurse Peggy was patient. Nothing short of a board-certified electrician could have snapped this rig together in less than half an hour.
The centerpiece of the gear was a cuckoo clock that you wear around your neck. You’re supposed to push the big, Fisher-Price-sized reset button in the middle of it if you need to get up for “an event,” which makes it sound like going to a Mallards game might be on tap in the next eight hours.
The final instruction on the DVD: “Go to sleep.”
Nurse Peggy gave me a kiss and retreated to a safe harbor sleeping chamber down the hall. I picked up a book from the night stand and tried to act as natural as a test subject can. When you think about it, the words “test subject” are really just dressed-up versions of less insulting but more accurate descriptors like “lab rat” or “victim.”
For a moment I considered getting up and putting on a soundtrack that would put me to sleep. Like some James Taylor or maybe streaming a PBS NewsHour episode. But I didn’t want to press the giant, Fisher-Price reset button so early in the night.
So I laid there on my back, reading. Two sets of monitor spikes were attached to my nostrils. When I reached to turn the pages of my book they’d pop out and I had to replace them.
I turned off the light and considered what I had learned about sleep apnea treatment. The literature cheerfully proclaims that the disorder is “very successfully treated.” That was good news until I read further and discovered that the treatment includes sleeping every night for the rest of your life with a device on your melon as big as a Division I college mascot head.
But a boy’s gotta do what a boy’s gotta do. And by the way, Dad, thanks a lot. I mean I appreciate the good looks and all, but this other stuff is starting to stack up. High cholesterol. Joint disease. Rotten hearing. I’m no doctor, but I know you had sleep apnea because I’m so smart about it now and because the mortar of our brick home cracked away when you snored.
I fell asleep thinking about his snoring. I woke up at 2:10 a.m. Time to pee. I swung my feet to the wood floor. The street light comes through an unshaded window in our room. As I sat there on the bed I could see myself, just barely, looking back at me from the dresser mirror. I looked like a marionette. I drew my finger to the button in the center of the dream-killer machine around my neck. I gave it a vigorous push. Then, I stood and smiled as the bittersweet words of the late Warren Zevon came to mind:
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”