THE ENDLESS ANXIETY ABOUT TRYING TO GET SOME SLEEP
An urgent blue “S.O.S.” blinks from the nightstand. I try not to look at the clock. Internally I already know what time it is. I have been stood up once again by a nightly visitor. The sandman isn’t coming back.
All the minutes of lost sleep accumulate like leaves falling from a tree. They scatter around the room, uncollected hours, days, even months accrued. And then the worry starts. What am I worrying about?
Staring at the ceiling and listening to the nasal whistle from the slumbering shape next to me, I experience what a sleep researcher terms “hyper-arousal,” a sleep state that writers often fall into. Their brains will not turn off. Or maybe it is simply “paradoxical insomnia,” a scenario where one might think they aren’t sleeping when they are. I am too tired to know. Living in an over-stimulated immersion of cell phones, texts, and headphones means that it just might be too quiet at night to sleep. Our brains have been re-wired from the prairie days when a shout from a distant hillside was a big deal.
A pad and pen sit within reach to record the thoughts my mind spits out like tickertape. Does a hibernating bear struggle this way inside its cave? It seems important to write the question down as it pops into my brain at four in the morning.
Many sleep disorders are first reported during teenage years. That’s when I first noticed mine. More than 60 million Americans—including a disproportionate number of women—suffer from a variety of sleep disorders. My sleep disturbances represent a large enough concern to warrant a medical consult.
Medical director Nicholas Rummo at the sleep center at Northern Westchester Hospital knows just how well people are sleeping. He presides over a newly renovated space, a series of dimly lit bedrooms where sound is muffled and the air is as thick as a down quilt. “Fifteen percent of people feel they have a sleep problem at any given time,” he says, listing everything from a condition where people act out threatening dreams to a nocturnal eating disorder where people rise to dine while sleeping. “The NWHC sleep center is a meeting point for many things involving neurology, pulmonology, and sometimes even psychiatry,” Rummo adds.
It costs several thousand dollars for an overnight sleep study though insurance usually covers much of the cost. A sleep study navigates the shifting border between wakefulness and slumber and will help determine what form of sleep disturbance a patient has.
One common ailment is sleep apnea. Untreated, it increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. The prescription for the condition is Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), where a Darth Vader–like mask forces air into the passages. My husband was an early pioneer of the treatment and also a patient of Dr. Rummo. After years with a CPAP, he sleeps like a man in a coma but claims it loosens his fillings and rubs a bald patch at the back of his hairline.
Dr. Rummo showed me a package of Prevent, a new apnea option. It looks like a circular Band-Aid for the nostril and acts as a two-way valve. The brochure shows a silver-haired couple cuddling in bed with the odd-looking bandages obstructing their noses. Hey, whatever works.
Seriously, anyone who suffers from chronic sleeplessness knows it is no laughing matter. Ironically, cataplexy, a condition triggered by emotions, causes the afflicted person to fall to the ground in a REM sleep state if they experience, say, laughter. Somehow, that almost sounds better than lying awake alone at night.
It makes no sense that I spend half the week living in the city that never sleeps, as does memoirist Patricia Morrisroe who points out in her hilarious new memoir, Wide Awake, that there is “no quiet apartment in Manhattan.” The author temporarily relocates to a country house in Bedford in an attempt to alter her sleeping pattern but finds the process of house hunting keeps her up nights with worry. The book is great bedside reading for any insomniac, particularly one chapter titled “Are Sleeping Pills More Dangerous than Al Qaeda?”
I ask Dr. Rummo if all this talk about sleep makes him feel, well, sleepy. I had noticed his eyelids were fluttering as I peppered him with questions. “No,” he says. “I just worked an all-night hospital shift. My body is still getting over that.” Sometimes a lack of sleep is simply a hazard of life.