I have been walking through soup most of my adult life. I was born with horrendous allergies, but beyond the terrible reactions I had to chocolate, cats and pollen, what made my particular case all that more annoying was the consistent feeling I had of living underwater. Breathing was simply a labor-intensive enterprise; I was exhausted all the time.
In my mid-30s I gave up on Western medicine, which had never really helped me, and began seeing an acupuncturist-herbologist. In no time this drippy-throated, "soupy" body of mine felt better. In fact, if I was vigilant with my diet (like a lot of people I seem to be very susceptible to gluten, which caused an increase in postnasal drip, dried out my throat and made me lethargic) and kept up with the herbs, I could pretty much keep things at bay. So I stayed off the white stuff--flour, potatoes and other refined sugars--and took my dandelion root and licorice, which helped to maintain good flora and dry out mucus. Still, that allergy tsunami was always just up around the bend. Any slip-up--eating a nice dinner roll or visiting too long in a house with a cat--could put me into tailspin, but mainly through the Chinese medicine and good diet I kept things pretty even.
But I was still tired. In fact, I was getting more exhausted as I got older, to the point of feeling debilitated. The weight I was gaining (and trying so desperately to shed with regular karate classes), my already slightly cynical moods and the regular colds I suffered through, all increased as I reached my mid-40s. True, I wasn't showing signs of those old allergy symptoms, but I still felt like every day was an uphill climb through a swampy ennui only I could discern.
I did consider all those "newer" maladies like Epstein-Barr and fibromyalgia, to name a few, but through testing I found I didn't have any of these (as best modern medicine can determine their existence) and my biannual physical always indicated I was in excellent health--despite the feeling of fatigue.
Then I read about sleep apnea.
I treaded carefully however. I know the Internet is a wonderful communication and learning tool, but it can be abused by anyone with a desire for self-diagnosis. What are the symptoms of sleep apnea? Exhaustion during the day, added weight gain, memory loss, snoring (though I live alone so I couldn't be sure about this one) and mood swings were the ones I knew well. The worst aspect is that a person stops breathing while sleeping--this is a called an apnea "episode"--and if there are enough of these, sleep sufferers will never enjoy a deep restorative slumber, woken up as they are when they stop breathing, just on the cusp of a truly deep sleep.
In November, I was tested for apnea with a two-night sleeping test, though I use the word "sleeping" lightly, trying as I did to sleep in the lab while wires were attached to my skull, face, chest and thighs. It was determined that I have a pretty darn good case of apnea. In fact, my doctor was surprised I had dealt with apnea for as long as I did (nearly two decades) and had not suffered some of the more serious side effects many sufferers seem to display (high blood pressure, etc). Of course I suffered plenty in "underwater" living, but I had simply attributed the feeling of malaise to my highly allergic body.
In January, I was given a BiPAP machine, a small unit that pumps an easy current of air through a tube, up into a mask that is suspended by straps that go around my head. I wear this "mask" (it's really just a small soft rubber nostril piece), fitted comfortably just in my nostrils, close my mouth and lie down to the slightly amplified sound of my exhalations. Now I knew after 20 years of exhaustion I wouldn't simply pop out of bed like a gymnast, but soon after I began to use the machine I noticed an incremental improvement in my wakefulness and an overall lightness in my mood.
Two months later, I dare say the thing is working. At 46, I might just be beginning to feel like "normal" people do. Having only known a rather exhausted, crabby outlook for the past two decades, I really don't know what to make of all this. In fact, I wonder if I might even like the new me, happy as I was to wallow in my cynicism. Even if one is in pain, sometimes one comes to rely on that pain to define themselves. If this marketable shift in my wakefulness increases, I might not have any more excuses for my lack of motivation. I might begin to have a positive outlook, consider the glass half full instead of, as Woody Allen said, seeing the glass full, but of poison.
Along with my body feeling better because of adequate restorative sleep, I might need to start to look at the world in an entirely different way.