Like most people who have sleep apnea, I had no idea because it only occurs during sleep. Being single, it’s not as if I had a wife or girlfriend to tell me that I was momentarily dying in my sleep. I’d been told that I tend to snore loudly, but it was not until I shared a hotel room with fellow photographer Chuck St John that anyone clued me in. While we were in Panama City Beach shooting the ClassmateUSA swimsuit calendar together in March, Chuck repeatedly poked at me to wake me after I stopped breathing. I felt terrible about it, even though there was nothing intentional about my involuntary bodily functions.
I went for a sleep study at Erlanger North where they hooked wires and sensors to my body and watched me on video overnight. I was later told that my sleep and breathing were interrupted 125 times in a single night under observation. I had no idea!
I qualified for a follow-up sleep study using a CPAP machine. CPAP stands for “continuous positive airway pressure”. It involves strapping a mask that fits over my mouth and nose, this machine gently blowing air into my throat, the pressure from that air helping to keep my airway open while I sleep.
“Thanks for the sex,” I imagined saying, rolling over and putting on my Darth Vader-like breathing apparatus. After I joked about it, someone reminded me that it would be better than her lying all night next to a guy snoring like a freight train.
Several weeks later, wearing the mask has become a nightly habit and something I barely even think about once I get sleepy. The changes are pretty dramatic. For one thing, I now sleep deeply enough to achieve REM sleep stage and dream again. When I wake up in the morning, I am sleepier, the consequence of reaching a deep level of sleep, I reckon.
I do not make a habit of sharing any health problems with the world, but for the purposes of this blog post, I will overshare…
For the last 2-3 years, I have not really felt like myself. I was always tired in the daytime, having trouble concentrating, feeling anxious, and so forth. Sleep deprivation was definitely taking its toll on me, affecting my temperament and my ability to feel energetic enough to do anything. I would get home from work, mentally and physically exhausted. I would nod off while watching TV in a recliner in the middle of the afternoon. I had difficulty focusing and reacting. I felt frustrated, cranky and worried in social situations. I was at an increased risk for heart disease, stroke and pre-diabetes.
Now, using the CPAP, I find that I am a new man. I feel like the Steven Stiefel who took on the world just a few years ago has returned to kick some ass.
I know I still have much room for self-improvement, particularly in the area of losing some weight. At 190, I am heavier than I’ve ever been in my life. I was always skinny as a youth, drinking milkshakes as a teen just trying to gain weight. My nickname at Space Camp in 1982 was “Bones” like on Star Trek. Now I am more likely to be called “Fat Albert”. I don’t like how I look when I gaze on my own reflection.
As someone who spends most of his time in sedentary situations — sitting at a desk at work and commuting two hours daily in a car – I risk shortening my lifespan and contribute to this weight gain. My ideal weight range for my height is 170 lbs, which means I need to lose 20 lbs.
I need to join a gym and actually use it. I also need to do as many photo shoots as I can this summer (this is about the most exercise I get with the hiking and squatting and perspiration that is typically involved in a photo shoot on a hot June day). Back at the beach in March, shooting that swimwear calendar, I could definitely feel how out of shape I am as I slogged through the sandy beach in sandals toting my heavy lighting gear. It’s probably a miracle I did not croak of a heart attack right then and there. Getting healthier is now the primary goal of my summer.
The point of this blog post is to commemorate this new positive development in my health and encourage anyone out there who is having sleeping issues to get treated. It just might save your life.