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Four letters that changed my life

A middle-aged man’s advice to the walking weary.
This is a story about feeling tired. Constantly. About doing nothing about it for a long time and about why that was dumb. It’s a cautionary tale, but one with a happy ending, because while the problem is serious, the solution is simple.

At the risk of ruing the ending, it’ll probably help for context, if I give little summary of what my problem was and the solution I found:

Sleep apnoea is basically a closing of the airway during the first stage of sleep when our throat muscles relax. When you stop breathing you sort of wake up without fully waking up, meaning you never reach a deep level of sleep and therefore feel tired the next day. Left untreated, it’s like a self-inflicted torture that breaks you down mentally while damaging you physically. CPAP is device that provides an unnoticeably gentle breeze that keeps the airway open so you can reach the level of deep, restorative sleep that your body and mind needs to function.

Make sense? Here we go.

Looking back on my adult life (I’m too old to recall much of the non-adult bit), I can split it into two very different parts: ‘before CPAP’ and ‘after CPAP’ (to save us both time, I’m going to refer to them from here on as ‘BC’ and ‘AC’).
The whole point of this story is that the AC bit should’ve started years earlier, and when I think about what I struggled through unnecessarily, I don’t want anyone with undiagnosed sleep apnoea to live a BC life a single day longer than they have to, because another thing ‘BC’ could stand for, and another way I could describe those years of my life is, ‘basically crap’.

It’s now 2020, or, in this little story, the year 5AC. Five years since I was diagnosed with sleep apnoea and started using a CPAP device. I wish I could say that 2020 was actually 10, or even 15AC, but I, like I suspect a lot of people (especially men), was pretty damn slow to fully address it.

That slowness equated to years. Years spent moving at a glacial pace through two main stages of denial that could be described most kindly as naïve, but more accurately (now I know the impact of sleep apnoea on the body and mind), as borderline self-harm.

I’ll call the first stage, the ‘it’s-a-phase/it’ll-pass’ stage. This stage is comprised of a whole lot of doing nothing really, unless googling chronic fatigue syndrome and whingeing to anyone who’ll listen counts as taking action. It was confusing, frustrating and basically disheartening, with all three of those feelings growing stronger as time passed.

This is where the little cogs that make up a vicious cycle start turning. The impacts of sleep apnoea-induced tiredness reach every aspect of your life. I’m going to leave out the physiological ones (little things like increased risk of stroke and heart disease you can read up yourself) and focus on the mental and emotional ones.

I’ll start with the description of ‘tiredness’. It’s sometimes referred to medically as ‘daytime sleepiness’. Sounds so minor right? Like something you can shrug off, tough out, or just get over with a double-shot or a can of red bull. Actually, it sounds like term they’d use in a day-care centre to soothe a toddler. “Has little Oliver got daytime sleepiness? Time for a nap-nap little Oli”.

And it’s not just other’s opinions that can diminish and dismiss the problem. You yourself can think it’s an issue that won’t/can’t last because most of our tiredness in life has previously come from something that’s (a) easily identifiable, and (b) self-inflicted (big nights out or big Netflix nights in). It’s therefore not surprising we instinctively try to link it to something we’ve done as opposed to something inherently physiological.

At work this tiredness effects your ability to perform at work. For me this lead to a loss of confidence and increasing self-doubt.

With friends this tiredness lead to accusations of laziness, or in a social setting, the dreaded male insult of being ‘soft’. For me this lead to resentment and withdrawal.

With family, the tiredness lead to my young son not understanding why Daddy need ‘rests’ on the weekend when he wanted to play. For me this lead to feeling of guilt and inadequacy with fatherhood.

This cute little ‘sleepiness’ created a nice little vicious cycle of emotions, right? I said I wouldn’t focus on the physical side of things, but I will say there’s a physical vicious cycle that kicks off too, in that you do use the red bulls and double shot coffees in an attempt to cope.

Stage two, I’ll call the ‘self-diagnosis/I-can-solve-this’ stage. This stage actually had some positive impacts although without addressing the root problem. I quit smoking. Still tired. I cut back on drinking. Still tired. Both sound positive right? They are, but here’s how I saw it at the time (with the negativity of someone who’d spent a year and a half in the haze of stage one): I’d just removed from my life two things that I enjoyed, and I was STILL BLOODY TIRED!

After 6 months of ‘cleansing’ it was onto the final stage. This bit will sound rushed but I’m writing it this way deliberately to reflect just how quick and easy it felt. I went to the GP. He explained what sleep apnoea was and referred me to a sleep testing place. I spent a night where my breathing during sleep was observed. I spent a second night being monitored but this time wearing a CPAP mask. I purchased a device and I stopped feeling tired. I felt like myself. The cycles with work, friends and family started turning in a positive direction.

There’s only one lingering negative emotion that I’m left with, and that’s a tinge of regret. Regret that it took me almost two years - two hellish years - to arrive at a solution. Especially seeing the solution is so bloody simple. It’d make me feel a lot better if this little story helps someone move from BC to AC, well, ASAP.
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