Molly Fisk: Sleeping Beauty

My alarm went off this morning at 5 a.m. I got up and dragged a coat over my nightgown to go get the trash, which my renter and I had both forgotten to put out. This isn’t a terrible task, in the greater scheme of things, nor is 5:00 a.m. a terrible hour. Several people I know get up at 3:30 a.m. to work in bakeries and regale me with descriptions of their grogginess.

But for me, someone who’s had very little sleep over the past four years, it was a miracle. First of all, I was dead to the world and needed an alarm. Secondly, I’d planned this caper the night before, when I realized around 11:00 p.m. that the trash wasn’t out, and chose not to do it then, in the rain. Extended sleep deprivation knocks out almost all your ability to strategize and make decisions, as you’ll recall if you were ever a parent. Lastly, there wasn’t an ounce of resentment in my body — not the night before when I remembered it was trash night, not at 5:00 a.m.when the alarm went off, not as I was trying to be quiet dragging the bin’s wheels across my gravel driveway.

I used to be a person who’d kiss you goodnight and be fast asleep in ten minutes, waking up eight hours later annoyingly cheerful. Menopause put the kibosh on that, and for about a year I discovered what life was like between 2:00 and 4:00 in the morning. Which is a misnomer: the hours between 2:00 and 4:00 are deepest, darkest night-time, there’s no morning involved.

Then, without noticing, I segued into a pattern of waking up every two hours. I could go back to sleep each time, but somehow I never went deep enough to stay there. I blamed this also on menopause — which is very handy for blaming, if nothing else. It was annoying, but I didn’t recognize how dangerous it was until I began getting drowsy when I drove for longer than an hour. That, please pardon the phrase, woke me up. Road trips are some of my favorite pastimes, plus driving, in California anyway, is our primary symbol of independence.

After some research, in-home sleep-testing, and persistent nagging by friends, we found out I have dreadful sleep apnea. I can’t remember the numbers involved, but apparently I stop breathing in my sleep often enough to terrify everyone.

I did not want sleep apnea. I still don’t want it, but I’ve got it. After another year of adjustments, trials, errors, and bitter complaining, I now I wear a Darth Vader-like helmet contraption to bed, which is the opposite of sexy. But, hey, would you rather be sexy and dead, or absurd-looking and alive? A timeless American question. I chose alive.

It turns out all that lost sleep had sort of ruined my life, though it happened so slowly I didn’t notice. Regaining things is the revelation. The more sleep I get, the smarter I am, the more cheerful, the calmer, the kinder. 5 a.m. trash bins? No problem.

It’s incredibly sweet. I’m incredibly grateful.

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  • patricia yarberry allen February 4, 2017 at 8:19 pm

    Poor menopause is often blamed for everything that a woman doesn’t like about her life after her mid-forties until her death (and perhaps that too!)
    Sleep deprivation is such a serious health issue. I am so glad that you had the tests and found a treatable cause. You are right, there is nothing as restorative as a sound uninterrupted 8 hours of sleep.
    Thank you for your beautifully written essays that bring the readers of your column such joy.
    Dr. Pat

  • Juliet W Bradley February 4, 2017 at 3:51 pm

    I had sleep apnea. I tried sinus surgery, braces and CPAP. All failed. If it wasn’t for my medical school daughter’s nagging, (“Mom, you are going to get dementia or have a heart attack if you don’t fix this!) I might not have persisted. Last August I found out about a dentist that makes a dental device that holds my lower jaw out so it can’t fall back and block my airway. Success at last!! I just had a sleep test last week and I now fall in the normal range! And, like you, I am slowly learning what it feels like to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time…

    • Molly Fisk February 4, 2017 at 7:32 pm

      I’m so glad to hear this, Julie, and hooray for E. bugging you about it! Will you e-mail me the name of that dentist? Always looking for other ways to do this (especially for travel: lugging an extra case everywhere is no fun). xox

  • Shirley February 4, 2017 at 8:25 am

    Molly, I was diagnosed with Sleep Apnea 15 years ago. The CPAP saved my life! It took 3 weeks to feel better after I started using it. Then I had more energy than I had in years. I wouldn’t be without it one night. Good luck!!

    • Molly Fisk February 4, 2017 at 2:02 pm

      Thanks, Shirley! It’s a radical difference, and despite feeling like Darth Vader just before I fall asleep, I will continue as long as necessary, which might be forever… 😉