Sleep apnea had me hungover. With CPAP I sobered up.
Intolerable snoring. Pounding headache. Grogginess throughout the day.
I was hungover from my night’s sleep when I woke up. It wasn’t until a friend recommended a sleep test that I figured out how to take control of my sleep health and beat my sleep apnea.
I was 28 years old at the time - not exactly your average baby boomer dealing with chronic illness. Today, the typical sleep apnea patient is a 53-year-old man with a range of other health problems. Because I didn’t fit that profile, my sleep issues weren’t on anyone’s radar - not my doctor’s, not my family’s, not even mine.
Lucky for me, I also had a friend dealing with sleep issues diagnosed with sleep apnea. Starting continuous positive airway pressure treatment, or CPAP had changed her life. It was seven years ago that this friend helped change mine. Here’s how it happened.
It was pink.
My friend’s CPAP, that is. Brogan was 30 and dating my roommate. She would bring her machine over when she stayed the night, and now and then, I would see it sitting in the room. After several months of wondering what was wrong with her, I finally worked up the courage to ask her.
"It's changed my life," she said.
Woah! I was not expecting that response. Now I'm curious.
She explained how she struggled with sleep issues for several years before she was finally diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and was prescribed a CPAP machine. She said she had been a different person since starting her treatment, and she wasn’t looking back.
As I listened to her, I thought to myself, “sounds great and all, but you have to wear this mask thing on your face every night.” So yea... no thanks. I wasn't convinced. But she insisted. If I even remotely thought I had sleep apnea, then I should go for a sleep test to find out.
But let me back up. My conversation with Brogan didn’t suddenly make me think I could have sleep apnea. I had the idea that maybe something was wrong, buried in the back of my head. But, I was in denial. I had been told by past girlfriends that I would choke in my sleep and make weird noises. I had been told I snored like a bear every time I went to sleep. But I was 28, running a marathon, and sleep apnea were for fat people. Or so I thought.
At Brogan’s prodding, I spoke to my doctor. I told him I snored severely and had been told I stopped breathing during the night. He, too, was skeptical - I just didn’t fit the profile of your typical patient. But he took it seriously enough to refer me to a Sleep Specialist to get tested.
Results I didn’t expect
Now, you may have an idea of what's involved with a sleep test. Spend the night in the hospital with a bunch of wires stuck to you and some weird tech watching a video feed of you sleeping. That doesn’t sound great, right? As such, I wasn't exactly looking forward to this experience.
This is why I was relieved to learn that you can take the test at home. There are quite a few home sleep tests that are much more comfortable than the typical in-lab test. I took home one of the wrist-worn versions. All in all, it was pretty easy to fall asleep with and didn’t disrupt my night.
After taking the test, I waited for the doctor to get back to me with my results. It sounded like I I had six months to live when they called! “Please come in so we can discuss your results,” they said. What was there to discuss? Shouldn’t the result be nothing was wrong? I begrudgingly headed to my appointment, where my doctor talked me through what the test had shown.
My diagnosis was mild obstructive sleep apnea.
My apnea-hypopnea index or AHI was eight events per hour. This means my breathing was significantly reduced or stopped completely eight times an hour on average. That's 64 times in a typical 8 hour night! And that was mild! It didn't feel mild to me. I was suffocating in my sleep!
The doctor explained the risks of sleep apnea and what happens to the body, but most severe side effects have only been linked to untreated moderate or severe sleep apnea, luckily not mild. Treatment, aka CPAP, was optional since I only had mild sleep apnea. As I mulled my diagnosis and the reality that the condition would likely worsen as I got older, I kept coming back to Brogan’s words.
“What the hell,” I thought. I've got it, and if this can change my life, I figured why not give it a shot. I could always give it back. So I decided to try CPAP and see if it changed my life.
My first night on CPAP
Having decided to try out CPAP, the next step was to get set up with my very own machine. Thinking back to Brogan's, I hoped they came in more colors than pink.
I arrived at my setup appointment and was surprised to find a small group of others waiting to get their CPAP that day. So I had just found out that I was dealing with a chronic disease, and now they expected me to share that fact with strangers openly! I almost turned back and headed home. But the promise of a new life propelled me forward, and I decided to stick it out.
The nurse helping us walked the group through what a CPAP was, how it worked, and all the equipment that came with it. We each received our trial device, a tube, and mask to try out in the clinic. We tried breathing on the machine and were told what to expect for two weeks. It was a lot of information, but all I could think of was the Bane jokes my roommates were going to think of.
I headed home with equipment in tow, ready for that life-changing event. It was finally here after weeks of questions and tests and tubes. Luckily, trying CPAP for the first time wasn't as bad for me as I’ve heard from others. I could get to sleep pretty quickly. I woke a few times that night, but I count that more towards the Christmas morning-like anticipation of the new man I would wake up as.
When morning did come, and I took off the mask, I felt nothing.
I can't say I felt substantially different. If anything, I felt a little more groggy that morning. There was no life-changing moment. I was confused. “I must have done something wrong,” I thought to myself. Resigned to my ineptitude, I headed out for my day, knowing that I'd get it right tonight.
Well, flash forward another day and the same result. I went to sleep just fine, but no revelations. At this point, I was starting to think the dream had passed me by. There was still no life-changing moment. It was all a lie. Brogan and the world were playing a cruel joke on me. So by the third day, I decided I had had enough. I was done with CPAP. That night I gave it up.
Curing my sleep hangover
When I woke the following day… I felt... hungover. Huh?
I hadn't even had one drink the night before. Splitting headache, groggy, and feeling like death warmed over. It didn't make any sense. I only felt like this after a big night out. Could the CPAP be making me feel terrible, I thought? But that didn't make sense either since I hadn't used it the night before.
Understanding slowly dawned on me. Could this be how I usually felt before using CPAP? Had I just not noticed it because I was so used to it?
How could I be used to this!?! My head was killing me.
But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense. I had to confirm my guess. The next night I tried the CPAP again. And then... no hangover. Everything was back to normal. Over the next few nights of trial and error, I was convinced that the hangover I was feeling was actually what my body had been feeling for years.
Every time I slept without the CPAP, the hangover would appear again. Every night I used the CPAP, it was gone the following day. This whole time, I had been gradually getting worse night after night, year after year, and hadn’t even realized it. It wasn't until I used CPAP that I experienced a good night's sleep. My “normal” before had been the hangover.
I can't say for sure that at that moment, I pledged to use my CPAP for the rest of my life. At 28, that would mean committing for 50+ years (I wasn’t even married at this point), but I sure had a hell of a reason to keep trying.
As I've used CPAP over the past seven years, I've realized how lucky I was to register and recognize my problem. Who knows how long I would have struggled if it hadn’t been for Brogan. I've been able to do things I wouldn't have been able to do before. Treating my sleep apnea with CPAP has let me sleep better, have more energy, and live healthier ever since.
Don’t wait to find out
Maybe you’ve been dealing with sleep issues but haven’t talked to anyone about the chance that it might be sleep apnea. Maybe your doctor hasn’t asked because you don’t fit the typical profile. If you’re even remotely concerned you might have a sleep issue, then it’s time to take the next step and find more information. Brogan taught me that.
I’m fortunate I had a friend who encouraged me to take the next step. Because of that, I found out I had obstructive sleep apnea and started CPAP therapy. When comparing my mornings off treatment versus on treatment, I am a new man. CPAP has changed my life. Not by magically making me smarter or stronger or better looking. But by getting me back to normal. Are you there?
Concerned you might have sleep apnea? Check your risk for sleep apnea by taking this quick quiz.