Monday, June 20, 2016

Every Breath You Take

For the last two decades I haven’t wanted to write.

At all.

After spending the first 25 years of my life (not to mention an alarming amount of college and grad school tuition) attempting to hone that particular skill set, the idea of putting one word in front of the other had become unpleasant. Daunting. Difficult. Even painful.

Which was a little problematic, considering “Writer” was the box I had ticked on every "What I Want To Be When I Grow Up" questionnaire Life had ever handed me from as far back as I could remember.

I used to love it. A lot. There was nothing I enjoyed more than making up characters and having adventures with them.

But in my late 20s something happened. Something changed. Something I didn’t quite understand.

I just couldn’t do it anymore. The storytelling impulse – the storytelling compulsion, really – that had been with me since even before I could read - that impulse I’d taken for granted for so many years - had just vanished.


It was gone.

The tank had run dry. The engine wouldn’t turn over.

I have spent the past two decades slogging through a sludgy mental torpor, unable to do the one thing I was ever marginally good at.

Through it all I never quite gave up. Out of bone-deep stubbornness, I somehow managed to drag four or five screenplays across - or within shouting distance of - the finish line.

But I really had to force it. It was like pushing rope. It was all I could do just to focus for half an hour at a time.

A total number of pages that should have taken me two years tops, ended up taking nearly twenty.

And, if I’m being honest, they weren't particularly good pages.

Writing had become hard work. Exhausting work. Impossible work. Work I couldn't even attempt unless I took multiple weeks off from my job and crammed myself to the gills with caffeine. And even then, the results were paltry, at best. What had once been a fire hose had slowed to an occasional drip.

So what changed?

I didn't know.

For years, whenever I was asked why I never tried to pursue much of a writing career, I would quip: “Graduate school cured my love of theater.”

Was it sardonic? Certainly. Clever? Maybe. But was it true?

Well, honestly it seemed to be. It felt true. My experience in grad school had gotten a little bumpy near the end, and in the years that followed, I just couldn’t motivate myself to write.


Seemed like it.

But, come on. It hadn't been that bumpy. And even if it had been, it shouldn’t have affected writing non-theater pieces, right?


But it did.

Whether it was prose, screenplays, shorts or even blog entries, I was still slamming headlong into the same problem. Writing in any form had become a Sisyphean chore. I just didn’t seem to have it in me anymore. My brain just wouldn't cooperate.

So what was the problem?

Had I just peaked early and burned out? Had I run out of stories worth telling?

In truth, the problem ended up being less metaphysical and more physical.

It turns out my brain really wasn't cooperating.

Because it was being strangled.

"My safe word is: 'Please Stop Strangling Me.'"

I’ve always been a snorer. This wasn’t news. Even as a little kid, I could rattle the windows at night. But apart from irritating a long string of roommates, family members, a fair number of neighbors, and certainly The Missus, I had never thought much about it. People snore. So what?

And as I slid from my 20s to my 30s and on into my 40s, a sedentary office job, a long commute, and the slowing metabolism of encroaching middle age all conspired to pack a considerable amount of extra meat onto my already stout frame. As I’ve detailed previously, I have never been slender. But in the last 20 years I’ve managed to swell pretty far above my natural weight class.

What I didn’t realize was, the snoring and that extra fat were just symptoms of a problem. A problem that was pretty much destroying me from the inside out.

It’s called Sleep Apnea, and it can totally kill you.

"Show me on the drawing where the death gets in."

It turns out, every time I went to sleep, my soft palate -- the fleshy bit in the back of the throat -- would collapse like a deflated bouncy castle and drape itself over my airway.

This was what was causing my snoring.

But the snoring wasn't the problem.

The problem was that it was starving my brain of oxygen all night.

Spoiler Alert: Your brain needs oxygen to live.

“This is where you dipped into R.E.M. state,” the doctor said, indicating a brief dip on the chart a few days following my sleep study. “You stayed there for less than a minute.”

“But it was a six hour test,” I said.


“Is that why I don’t dream?”

“No,” he said. “You’re not dreaming because there are three more levels of sleep below R.E.M. That's where dreaming happens. And I don’t think you’ve been to any of those levels in years.”


“According to this, you’re experiencing an apnea event about a hundred times an hour.”

“Which translates to ...”

“Almost every breath.”


So what did it all mean?

Well, it meant that with nearly every breath, I was choking on my own throat.

It meant that every night my brain was being starved of oxygen.

It meant that my brain was never getting a chance to rest and recover.

It meant that my mind was being strangled for hours on end.

Every night.

For years.


And as he rattled off the symptoms, all the pieces started to fit. Constant physical exhaustion, extreme mental lethargy, weight gain, persistent mental fog, utter lack of short-term memory, shortened temper, complete loss of concentration ... check, check, check, check, check....

My brain, he said in so many words, was a tattered, wrung-out dishrag. It hadn’t been able to rest or recharge in nearly twenty years. Frankly, it was kind of miraculous that I’d managed to shamble through my life generally, let alone write what little I had.

I was essentially staggering through each day with the needle pinned below empty. Coasting on fumes. My brain was never getting the sleep it desperately needed to function.

Oh, and did I mention it can totally kill you. Sudden heart failure is fairly common with untreated apnea, as are strokes, and incidents of falling asleep at the wheel. Hypoxia, irregular heartbeat, and even diabetes are all linked strongly to it.

"Seriously. It's SO not good for you. As your doctor, I would recommend that you should probably stop having it."

So no, this wasn’t a case of snory chubster needing a few extra hours of shut-eye. This was severe oxygen deprivation to the brain. Staying in bed for a few extra hours on the weekend wasn’t going to help. Longer strangling sessions weren't the answer.

So ... what was?

Was there a treatment?

Could anything be done?

It's called a CPAP machine. And it just might be saving my life.

Every night I strap what looks like scuba gear onto my face and the machine blows air through a tube and up my nose - Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. The air pressure keeps my soft palate from collapsing over my airway and choking the life out of me while I sleep. It’s a little bit like a stadium with a fabric roof – the air pressure keeps the dome from caving in.

Sounds invasive and terrible, right?

How could a person possibly sleep in that get-up?

Well, it turns out, beautifully.


I love this goddamned thing.



Because, for starters, it’s not as invasive and terrible as it sounds. After some initial trouble with a bulky and unpleasant face mask, I was able to switch to a much smaller “nasal pillow” which plugs into my nostrils perfectly.

And I'm thrilled to report that it’s working!

In the months since I’ve started using it, my memory has snapped back, my mental acuity has returned, and my energy level has ticked steadily upward.

Most noticeably, my once horrifying caffeine problem has been eliminated entirely.

There was a time I needed FOUR TO SIX LITERS of Diet Pepsi a day. Just to function. (For those not in Europe at the moment, that’s nearly TWO GALLONS.) Each day. Just to drag my swollen carcass to work and back.

The sheer volume of soda I have consumed over the last two decades has surely done irreparable damage to every organ and bone in my body, but I am happy to report that since I started using this machine, I’ve cut caffeine out of my diet entirely. With no repercussions whatsoever. Unless you count the fact that I’m now saving about $4,000 a year by not needing to drown myself in an ocean of aspartame.

And that's not all. My mood has markedly brightened, my thinking is quicker, and my vision has even gotten a smidge better. I’ve even dropped about fifteen pounds without exercising. (Admittedly, fifteen is just a drop in the proverbial fat bucket, but it’s an encouraging start!)

But the biggest change I’ve noticed is that my concentration has come roaring back. Time was, the state that Malcolm Gladwell calls “flow” was a fairly regular destination for me. Whether I was writing, reading, sculpting, model building, drawing … anything that required intense, focused attention ... I would slip down into a kind of concentration hole and emerge many hours later with the task completed and a back stiff from hunching.

I’ve started doing that again. Often without meaning to. And it’s fantastic.

And guess what else ...


It started almost without my realizing it. One day on the train home from work – a time I used to be helpless to stop myself from nodding off – I just flipped open my laptop and started absently plinking away.

And before I knew it, a few weeks had passed and I was 70 pages deep into a new script.

And it was different this time. I wasn’t forcing it. I wasn't doing it because I felt an onerous sense of obligation to live up to a life choice I’d made four decades prior. Nor was it a guilty attempt to justify the life-crippling student loan debt I’m still trapped beneath.

No. This time I was writing because it was fun. Because I wanted to.

That’s it.

In fact, the thing I'm writing isn’t even something I could ever sell. It’s really just for me.

And that’s okay.

In fact, that's better than okay.

That's pretty goddamned great.

Till next we meet ...

1 comment:

  1. Same thing happened with me. Very happy for you man. And you described the true ESSENCE of sleep apnea perfectly. I felt it all the same as you described.