It’s weird to be tucked in after the age of…10? I don’t know. I forget my childhood. The point is, we can all agree that there is an appropriate age for being tucked in and we are all currently above it. But imagine being the age you are now and being tucked in. Now, imagine being tucked in by a complete stranger. Now, imagine being tucked in by a complete stranger who is about to keep an eye on your body’s every physiological occurrence from the next room. Shit gets weird
On Tuesday, I was tucked in by a complete stranger who then left me to go keep an eye on my body’s every physiological occurrence from the next room. But he didn’t just tuck me in: First, he glued sensors to the top of my head, stuck more sensors around my face and down my legs, strapped something across my chest and something else around my waist, put a band around my wrist and then a pulse sensor on my middle finger, then taped another sensor under my nose across my cheeks, and another on my neck. And then he just abandoned me. This was not some kinky foray into a medical fetish. It was a sleep study.
For the past year and a half, I’ve had trouble sleeping. Wow, a year and a half?! Time flies when you’re slowly dying. I’ve walked around feeling extraordinarily exhausted almost every day, no matter how much shut-eye I’ve gotten the night before. This is, apparently, not normal. So this summer, when I was home in Florida, I saw my doctor about it. I told him my symptoms and he offered up a number of possible diagnoses, including iron deficiency, Vitamin D deficiency, and sleep apnea. I noted that I had, on occasion, woken up gasping for breath, though I wasn’t much of a snorer. He ordered some blood work done and prescribed a sleep study. The blood work was done but the sleep study was denied by my insurance due to the fact that I am a slender 24-year-old woman, not an overweight middle-aged man—the profile designated by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida as the typical victim of sleep apnea. The blood work revealed I was Vitamin D deficient so we chalked my fatigue up to that and I started taking a daily supplement. But boy, if I wasn’t still tired.
I then went to the dentist. I’ve had TMJ since I had braces (Dear Dr. Babyak, this is your fault.) and I was seeing a new specialist to get a new mouth guard made (Yes, I wear a mouth guard to bed! Wanna date me?). Upon looking in my mouth as I lay in the exam chair he said, matter-of-factly, “You have an airway problem. You can’t breathe.” Pretty much. Often, when lying down especially, I feel as though I can’t breathe. I have a deviated septum (I have been on a tour of all the specialists in Madrid, including an ENT), and the top of my spine is curved in such a way that basically pushes the back of my throat forward, especially when laying down. Basically, I won the genetic lottery with anxiety as my bonus, which means that as I’m lying in bed trying to breathe like a normal human and having trouble doing so, I tend to get pretty worked up about it. The dentist asked if I sleep okay. I told him I didn’t and that my general physician thought I might have sleep apnea. “I wouldn’t be surprised.” But by this point, I was about to leave town and couldn’t get a sleep study done even if I’d paid for it myself.
When I got back to Spain, I wasted quite a bit of time before I finally decided in January to make an appointment with a sleep specialist. After consulting my Spanish insurance’s website, I found the Insituto de Investigaciones del Sueño SL, or the Institute of Sleep Investigations Ltd which I call the Institute of Dream Investigations because sueño is the Spanish word for both sleep and dream and the latter conjures up scenes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I love.
On the afternoon of my appointment, I sat in the waiting room answering a lengthy questionnaire with Google Translate on my phone at my side. My Spanish is pretty good, but medical terms are always a little out of left field. “Do you sometimes find yourself drifting off in the middle of a conversation?” No. “Do you normally remember having dreams during the night?” Almost never. “Do you often wake up after a full night’s sleep feeling tired?” Always. The list went on, with questions meant to rule out or diagnose night terrors, sleep walking, Restless Leg Syndrome, Narcolepsy, insomnia, sleep paralysis, etc.
After consulting with the sleep doctor, he ordered me three different kinds of sleep studies to take place in seven instances over the course of 20 hours at the Institute’s sleep clinic. The sleep tests were authorized by my insurance (which means they were FREE. Thank you MAPFRE. See this, BCBS?!) and after getting some busy weeks out of the way, I made an appointment for my sleep study.
So last Tuesday night, I rode the metro in my pajamas. I walked through a neighborhood of Madrid I’ve never walked through before and arrived at the sleep clinic at 9pm with a book and my journal in my backpack and my next day’s lunch in a shopping bag.
Beatrice, a technician, greeted me at the door of the clinic and while I was signing paperwork Diego, another technician, arrived with some takeout food for them. Beatrice led me to my bedroom and told me I could start getting ready for bed. Since I was already in my PJs, I took off my shoes and opened my journal, sitting down at the desk to write without wanting to get too involved in anything since I knew I’d be shortly interrupted. As I wrote, Diego poked his head in. “You can change into your PJs now. We’ll get started soon.”
“I am in my PJs. I always sleep like this.” I’m not sure why I added that last part. Was I trying to impress him? Look how cool and put together I am: I sleep in things that could be mistaken for street clothes.
Diego’s floating head disappeared and when he returned with the rest of his body, he was wheeling in a cart of things that were soon to be attached to me. He moved the desk chair to the middle of the room and instructed me to sit down. He stood behind me like a hairdresser and started gluing sensors to the top of my head and then blow-drying them on so the sensor was effectively cemented to my hair and scalp. After sticking more sensors on my face, he then told me to lie down on the bed. As he rolled up the legs of my fancy sleep leggings to put sensors on my shins, I noticed Diego was attractive and quickly tried to remember the last time I shaved my legs, since I couldn’t look now to assess the hairiness of the situation without being obvious. Luckily, I had completed my monthly winter leg-shaving the Friday before, so while I was prickly, I at least wasn’t hairy. I thought about how cool it must be for Diego to have me in his clinic, since he was probably used to really old people. I wondered if he’d ever considered stealing the personal information of a patient for personal use, say, to ask someone out. Maybe he would for me.
Diego hooked up all the cables that were now attached to me to a box on the bedside table and told me to not move my legs for an hour, and also try not to sleep. ‘Don’t move my legs for an hour?!’ Do you know how much that makes me want to move my legs, Diego?!
Diego left and I tried to think of anything other than my legs but nothing was coming up. I thought about a field of flowers because it seemed like the type of relaxing image that I hoped would absorb me into it, but it did not. After maybe 10 minutes, I started to feel my legs going tingly and numb. OH MY GOD, I thought, I have Restless Leg Syndrome!!! Maybe this is my problem! Maybe I have trouble sleeping because I have to constantly move and that wakes me up! I thought of all the time I spend trying to get comfortable before falling asleep, turning this way and that way, legs bent at the knee, legs straight out, one leg under the covers, the other out. I thought of all the times I awoke in the middle of the night as a kid with my legs asleep and dragged myself out of bed to jump up and down, eyes still shut, feeling nauseous with the tingling in my lower extremities. Now I was really anxious. I HAVE to move my legs. So I did. Slightly. I subtly stretched my calves and flexed my feet, not wanting to move the shin sensors too much but also realizing that the fact that I could not keep my legs fully still was valuable information for the sensors to, well, sense.
Throughout the hour, I heard more patients arrive and get set up—a welcome distraction from focusing on my legs. By the sound of their voices, the other patients were two near elderly men and one middle-aged to older woman. I was certainly the youngest patient by at least thirty years.
Diego came back to my room, signaling the end of that part of the study. He hooked up a bunch more cables and sensors to my body. As he strapped something across my chest, I noticed the wedding band on his right ring finger (where Spaniards wear it) and felt betrayed. Once he was done tethering my every nook and cranny to a machine, he said, “Now you can move. Though that seems like a lie, you really can.” I reflexively laughed in spite of our recent tiff. Diego always knew how to make me smile.
Always a gentleman, Diego held my bouquet of wires as I climbed under the covers and told me to call him if I needed anything, though he didn’t say how. Via the white box at my side? Did I have to press a button first? Via shouting your name through the door? Whatsapp? Then he shut out the lights and left me for my full-night sleep study. The room was the darkest I’d ever been in. Normal Me, a light sleeper, would have loved this, but Sleep Study Me put her wire-clad hand in front of her face to test if she could see it and when she couldn’t, started hyperventilating. It was then that I realized for certain a fear that had crossed my mind in the weeks leading up to the study: I wouldn’t sleep the night of my sleep study.
From lights out at 10:30pm to my wake up call at 6:30am I slept maybe 40 minutes total. I spent all night thinking an endless, loud barrage of thoughts, my anxiety waxing and waning along with my level of consciousness. There were moments when I felt I was about to fall asleep but then a nagging thought reminded me how crucial it was that I should, and it pulled me right out of my potential slumber. I thought about my ex-boyfriend and Diego. I tried to guess the time. I thought about work and worrying and every little thing. I felt just as I did when I was a kid and couldn’t fall asleep at night because of what I couldn’t then identify as anxiety. I used to fear that I’d suffocate in my sleep; that the moments before sleeping would be my last waking ones. How funny, it seemed to me, that I used to fear I’d suffocate in my sleep and I was now being examined to see if I was possibly suffocating in my sleep.
My nose was stuffed. I couldn’t breathe at all and couldn’t blow my nose without disturbing the under-nose sensor. Had I been able to sleep that night, they certainly would have seen some of my possible sleep apneic activity in action, but I knew they wouldn’t get a chance to witness that. I could hear the old man in the next room snoring and envied that his biggest problems were likely just that. And of course, I couldn’t sleep with that noise. I’d hear the technician’s footsteps come and go past my door as he visited the water cooler. My heart rate rose each time they neared. The possibility of being disturbed is often much more disturbing to me than actually being disturbed.
Diego came in the next morning to wake me up. He disconnected my cables from the box and then disappeared without further instruction. It appeared that his shift had ended. How cliché, I thought, of a man to wake you up just as he’s sneaking out. After a few minutes and a trip to the shared bathroom with my cable box in hand, wires still attached to my face and head and taped up around my knees, a new technician whose name I can only assume was Rolf (he didn’t introduce himself but looked more like a Rolf than anyone I’ve ever met) came in and asked what I would like for breakfast.
“Tea?” I asked, my throat sore from the post-nasal drip of the night before.
“I don’t have tea.” I found this weird since I had just overheard him offer another patient an infusion. Are infusions different than tea? “I have caffeine-free coffee.” I agreed to this and wondered why he’d ever asked me what I wanted if he only had one thing. I don’t understand people.
I sat on the side of the bed, unsure what to do, holding the ends of my face and head wires in a box in my hand, feeling like I was in a Wed Anderson film. Rolf returned with a plastic cup of hot milk, a small packet of instant coffee and a plate of two plastic-wrapped muffins. He set it down on the desk and I migrated over to stare at my breakfast. I took a few sips of the warm milk before deciding I really didn’t need any more congestants and had a couple lame bites of a muffin before noticing my lack of appetite. Rolf had brought in another chair so I grabbed my book and curled up in it. I still had a day of more sleep tests ahead of me but no one had given me information about what they’d involve. Nobody was really telling me anything. As I read, I overhead Rolf conducting a sleep study in the next room. “Open your eyes. Now close your eyes. Now focus on a fixed spot,” he’d repeat at varying intervals over the next hour. Was this to be my next sleep exam? It sounded dreadful. Having Rolf sit next to me as I anxiously wondered whether I was opening and closing my eyes correctly or enough was not something I felt prepared to handle at that moment.
A little while after finishing up with the other patient, Rolf came in and merely said “Alright, let’s go,” and motioned to the bed. I took it that Rolf didn’t have much experience getting girls into bed outside of work. I set down my book on the chair and climbed into bed, Rolf reconnecting my cables to the bigger box and switching off the lights as he instructed me to try to sleep for around 20 minutes. By now, I knew well that I would not be getting any sleep at this sleep clinic. Still, I tried to relax myself into a slumber over the next twenty minutes, summoning memories of mindful breathing techniques I had learned but never mastered. Just as I felt the possibility of sleep come upon me, Rolf barreled in, flipping on the lights and approaching to unplug me. He then left and again, I sat on the side of my bed not sure what to do. I decided to go pee, an ever-precarious attempt not to electrocute myself as I was something of a walking battery.
Throughout the day, I alternated between reading and attempting to sleep for about an hour at a time, four more times. After my last sleep test, Rolf brought alcohol-soaked cotton balls to my hair as he attempted to de-cement the cables from my head. He told me that the rest of the glue would wash out in the shower when I washed my hair and then invited me to shower in the clinic bathroom. I politely declined, wanting to get the heck out of there, and after collecting my things I emerged from the clinic into the warm afternoon sunlight, tired and somewhat traumatized. I was eager to get home, take a shower, pop a sleeping pill and go to bed. What a silly thought to have after spending 20 hours in a sleep clinic.
When I got home, I wasted no time before hopping in the shower to shampoo out the glue, but it wouldn’t budge. I was angry with Rolf for lying to me. I was angry at Diego for not giving me a chance to blow my nose before attaching the under-nose sensor. I was angry at the sleep clinic for having thin walls and for the sleep study for even thinking a normal, albeit anxious, person would be able to get a true night’s sleep while hooked up to machines. I was angry at myself for even bothering to investigate my sleep issues. I decided I would henceforth turn to self-medication.
For the next full hour, I used every shampoo, conditioner, soap, and shaving gel I had to scrub my scalp and try to remove the glue, and sometimes came dangerously close to taking a BIC razor to my hair. I wailed and grunted and screamed, wondering if my roommates were home and thought I was having some sort of trauma/cleanliness-related psychological crisis a la Lady Macbeth (“Out, damned spot!”). For the first 40 minutes nothing seemed to work, but then my Matrix Biolage (free tip for those who might ever have glue in their hair) conditioner seemed to be getting some loose. I scraped and peeled and prodded and finally got most of the glue out. I emerged from the shower prunier than I’d been in ages. I’m not one for long showers. I much prefer being clean to actually getting clean and my showers are usually an in-and-out kind of business.
I had dinner and got in my pajamas that looked like street clothes and got in my bed and read my book. I took a pill and finally finally got some sleep.