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facts & arguments

Mike Freiheit/The Globe and Mail

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I snore. A lot and very loudly, according to the results of my recent sleep study.

I learned the news from a slight doctor with a South African accent as I sat in a small room with a photo of doorways of Maine hanging on the wall. As the doctor showed me the colourful charts that exposed my nervous system's see-saw journey through the night, I tried to decide how I felt about spending the rest of my life sleeping with the aid of an apparatus that makes me look like an extra from Star Wars.

Before I was diagnosed with sleep apnea, I didn't think much about sleep. Apart from resentful family members and the odd stinkeye from strangers on the bus, I was functioning as well as any First World, 21st-century, working mother could (naps at stoplights notwithstanding). I dragged myself through afternoon meetings and evening soccer practices, ignoring the voices screaming in my head to go lie down. By 8 p.m., though, the threads were beginning to wear thin. My children, in their infinite wisdom, would recognize the verging-on-maniacal look in my eyes and gently revoke their requests for a bedtime story or one more kiss.

Once asleep, I am told, the noises that came out of me were more suited to a slaughterhouse floor than a suburban bedroom. While for most people the time during which they are lying down with their eyes closed is a period of rest and regeneration, for someone with sleep apnea the opposite is true. The façade of sleep veils the fact that, inside, oxygen levels are dropping to alarming levels, the brain is freaking out and the heart is trying desperately to catch up: Guys? Guys?

The sleep doctor explained that apnea is often an inherited condition. My father was a prolific snorer: His violent rumblings were the soundtrack of my childhood, punctuating quiet nights with clanging reminders of his presence: I am here! I am here! Later, they served as an antidote to the languor of adolescence, making rising at dawn a relief. Since his death, stories of the tremors that shook the foundations of our house have become inflated, even mythical in scope. Like the other tales in which my father plays a central role, they have become more precious over time. We tuck them away, wrapped carefully in soft cloth, and bring them out on the rare occasions when we feel strong enough to talk about him without a crippling sense of sadness.

Some stories need no embellishment, such as the morning we discovered a full box of doughnuts splattered violently under his bedroom window. No one knows what provoked this most Canadian of violent acts, but I like to think that some poor guy, walking home in the wee hours, heard the fantastic racket coming from our bungalow and was so moved by either fear or loathing that he lobbed the box of doughnuts at the window.

The first step toward a sleep apnea diagnosis is usually a conversation with the family doctor, who may decide to send you to a sleep clinic where you will participate in the innocuous-sounding sleep study. In my experience, there is very little sleeping done in a sleep study: Something about the combination of a narrow medical bed, an infinite number of wires and the fact someone is watching you on video like some kind of nocturnal pervert doesn't lend itself to peaceful slumber.

When you arrive, you spend an hour and a half getting electrodes glued to your scalp and body. The electrodes are then connected to a transmitter that hangs around your neck like a cyborg albatross when you're awake and rests beside you while you sleep. You must be careful not to move and dislodge a wire. Going to the washroom is a herculean undertaking, requiring a team of medical professionals and the abandonment of whatever dignity you have left.

Then you wait: usually a couple of weeks, after which you revisit the clinic. If you are not morbidly obese, over 60 or grossly unhealthy your doctor will be surprised at your results. He will click his tongue sympathetically and ask, while shaking his head, "What are we going to do with you?" You may feel a combination of defensiveness and guilt, as if you probably could have avoided this unfortunate predicament if you'd just tried harder.

Next you will be given options. I was given two: Either get a CPAP machine (to deliver Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) or undergo facial reconstructive surgery. I paused. If I'd been offered facial reconstructive surgery in my 20s, I would have carefully considered it. At 16, I would have administered my own anesthetic. But at 44 I'm kind of used to my face the way it is, despite its many disappointments. I opted for the machine.

The CPAP machine is a loud and ugly beast, with a long tube that connects to my face by way of a mask. I swear I've heard its sputtering whisper taunting me in the quiet hours of morning. "Pssst! You are old!" it wheezes. I resent its hissing reminder of mortality but I will say that, after six months using it, I no longer feel like sticking my head through the bathroom mirror at 8 in the evening. I haven't dozed at a stoplight in a while. And the bedroom window, so far, remains free of doughnut detritus.