I've been curious about getting a sleep study for a long time, but it never actually occurred to me that I might have a sleep disorder—until recently.
Despite falling out of bed repeatedly as a child (sometimes not waking up), having lots of weird dreams, seeing people in the room whenever I was a bit sick, and being able to fall asleep anywhere from a park bench to the subway and even a nightclub (without the influence of alcohol), I thought I was just a "sleepytime gal," as my father would put it.
It didn't occur to me that I might be sick.
It didn't occur to me that I might have a disorder.
In fact, as the nighttime, waking hallucinations got worse, I just figured I was haunted. Or possessed. Or "accompanied" by something.
Medical professionals disagreed. I got diagnosed with PTSD, but even that didn't seem to quite fit the bill. Although I've been taking medications that have helped the nightly visions subside, it still seemed like a good idea to find out what the underlying problem was.
If it wasn't a ghost.
So, upon describing my symptoms to a sleep disorder specialist—a litany of visions, terrors, paralysis, twitches, fainting spells, and daytime sleep attacks—I was promptly scheduled for a sleep study. And not just one of those overnight ones. They wanted to see me sleep through the night, wake me up early, and then have me nap every two hours throughout the next day, to see if I could fall asleep, and if I would go into REM.
8:45 p.m. I arrived shortly after the sleep center opened, having worked a part-time job for five hours and then having killed time working on my laptop in a local restaurant for another four hours. I was exhausted and ready to sleep, despite the early hour.
I started giggling upon my arrival. I was nervous for sure, but I found it funny and slightly unsettling that it smelled like a dentist's office. The sleep center was in a high-rise building in the middle of Century City—amidst law firms and talent agencies and highfalutin corporations—and here I was with a duffle bag slung over my shoulder, pillow and red blanket spilling out of my arms.
My accommodations for the night were reminiscent of a hotel room, but one outfitted with lots of wires and equipment, and drawn black-out curtains. "What time do you usually go to bed?' my technician asked me, to which I groaned and said, "One a.m....?" She warned me that she'd be waking me up around 5 or 5:30 a.m. and I would have to stay up for at least two hours then, so I should probably try to fall asleep by midnight.
The technician started strapping me in, hooking me up to electrodes on my legs, chest, chin, temples, forehead, and scalp—all of which were connected to a central control that was like something on a space shuttle. She was going to monitor each twitch of my eye, clench of my jaw, inhalation, and exhalation over the course of the night. And, just in case I did something really weird, she'd be watching my every movement thanks to a camera mounted on the ceiling of my room.
It's funny how when someone tells you that you can't have caffeine or alcohol, that's when you want it really bad. Or that you can't change your clothes in front of the camera or touch yourself for a little self-pleasure because you're being watched. Everything is off-limits. It's just you and the wires, and the very bright white fluorescent overhead light.
10 p.m. I was getting used to all the tape and goop and sensors that had been adhered to me by the time I really started to settle down and get sleepy. I'd had two EEG tests as a child when my fainting spells set off the alarms for a potential case of epilepsy (which I turned out not to have), so I kind of knew what to expect. The only really annoying thing was listening to my fellow sleep study subjects arriving after me, and feeling the heart rate monitor clipped to my left index finger. My heart was pounding, but it pretty much always does when I go to bed.
12:30 a.m. I was warned that I would be able to roll over on my own despite the wires, but that I would need help going to the bathroom. I can usually make it at least five hours without having to get up to pee, but after a couple of hours at the sleep center, I woke up with the urge, so I pressed the "Call" button at my bedside. I was freaked out about not being able to sleep at all, and not giving the technicians anything to observe, but I managed to fall right back to sleep. I was hoping for the onset of night terrors, just so they could see what I've been going through, but I got off easy last night with only a case of night sweats.
5:20 a.m. I was awakened with a "Good morning!" from my technician, who started removing some of the electrodes that would no longer be needed during the daytime study. I was awake, but I wasn't alert. Although I couldn't wait to go back to sleep, I would have to wait until 8 a.m., when the daytime technician would set me up and send me on a series of naps, two hours apart, 35 minutes each.
8:50 a.m. I awoke from the first nap, unsurprised that I had been able to fall asleep again. After all, it was still before my normal waking time. But I would have to stay up for more than an hour more before I could take my 10 o'clock nap, so I wandered out into the waiting room in my gray pajama bottoms and red tank top to add some hot water to a cup of instant oatmeal for breakfast. I noted the framed, autographed headshots of Ed McMahon and Forest Whitaker hanging on the walls, as though this were the dining room at Sardi's.
"Is it just you and me today?" I asked my day technician.
"Oh, pretty soon, the doctor will be here seeing patients, so it's going to get a bit noisy...." he said.
10:50 a.m. I woke up from my second nap even more tired than after my first, and still hungry. It was getting hot in my room, so I changed out of my long pants and into a pair of shorts, and stumbled barefoot out to the waiting room for some more hot water and another oatmeal packet. This time, the room was full of patients, and here I was with all my electrodes stuck to my face and in my hair, carrying my control panel like a purse.
"Hi," I said to them, as they tried to avert their eyes.
I slept again at 12, 2, and 4 p.m., awakened each time by my technician just when the sleep was starting to get good and I felt like I was actually asleep and not just lucid dreaming. Each time he put me down for a nap, he put me through the same routine of opening and closing my eyes, looking up and down and left and right, blinking really fast, and clenching my teeth. Supposedly, this sets a baseline parameter so they can tell when (and if) I actually go into REM, but I found it exhausting, and easy enough to fall asleep afterwards.
4:45 p.m. "OK you're done!" I heard the technician say, just as I was committing to the long haul of sleep. I sat up, and before I knew it, he was dabbing some kind of alcohol-based solvent all over me to remove the adhesive that I'd been wearing for about 20 hours. "You can get your things now," he said.
I wasn't exactly ready to leave. I needed a few minutes to wake up. I needed to be lucid enough to make sure I didn't leave anything behind. I was not only sleepy, but downright exhausted from a full day's worth of sleeping and waking, an endless cycle of somno interruptus.
I just hoped I'd performed well. I felt like an actor walking away from an audition, pleading, "But I can do it better!" I knew my sleep could be a lot freakier than it was. I just didn't know how to force it to happen at a precise place and time. It always seems to creep up on me unannounced.
There's a certain narcissism in medical testing. It feeds our need for self-awareness, but in many cases, it presents a diagnosis that we can't do much about. If it turns out that I have such-and-such sleep disorder, I'm not sure that my life will change all that much. I guess it'll just explain some of the mysteries of the past. And it'll mean that I'm not lazy; I'm disabled.
But I'm already disabled. Between fibromyalgia, depression, and PTSD, I have all the disabilities I can handle—not to mention whatever residual brain injuries I have from my past head traumas. I'd really rather not have yet something else wrong with me. I grieve for the life I might've had, had I not had a disability. Or three. Or, now, four.
We'll see what the report says, when it comes back in a couple of weeks.
In the meantime, I'm already ready to fall back asleep again.
That Which Haunts Me
These Terrors of the Night
These Creatures of the Night