“Couldn’t sleep during my last study,” the woman starts. Perhaps in her fifties, and morbidly obese, she has squeezed herself into the seat next to mine. “They claim I slept, but I sure as hell didn’t feel it.”
We’re waiting to undergo a sleep study at Cornell Medical Center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and the woman I met just two minutes ago has conveyed my worst fear. I have enough trouble falling asleep in my own bed. How am I possibly going to succumb while plugged into a maze of wires, knowing I’m being scrutinized via surveillance cameras?
“Half way through they put on the mask,” she continues. The mask is a breathing device specifically designed for apnea sufferers. She has one at home, but never uses it.
“My doctor has one, too, and he doesn’t use his, either,” she chuckles.
“Because it’s uncomfortable?”
“That, and it keeps his wife up. Makes a sound,” she adds, rolling her eyes, as though if it’s not one thing, it’s another.
She gives me a quick look over.
“But I doubt you have apnea,” she remarks, nodding at my beanpole body.
For years I have suffered periodic bouts of insomnia, self-treating with that mild, street soporific the antihistamine. Easy and convenient, the tiny, innocuous-looking pink pills demand no major overhaul of my lifestyle. But I know they aren’t good for me: they wreak havoc on my plumbing, I’m groggy and bleary-eyed the next day, and I must continually fight the need to up the dosage. Now they’re failing me entirely, so I’ve resorted to handing myself over to the experts. Why does it take me two, three, even up to five hours to fall asleep some nights? Why do I wake up at five in the morning and toss and turn for another hour before passing out again? Do I have apnea? Do I snore? Am I knocking back one too many double espressos?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that sleep-related problems currently affect up to 70 million Americans. Indeed, judging from the number of sleeping pill prescriptions harvested out each year you would think we were facing a national epidemic. Consumers spent a whopping $1.94 billion on the most popular sleeping pill, Ambien, in 2006, while in 2007 they spent $600 million on its competitor, Lunesta. Since 2000, prescriptions for all sleeping pills have doubled to nearly 50 million a year.
This, of course, ultimately leads one to ask: Have insomniacs been suffering without help all of this time? Or has something triggered the sudden spike?
A technician arrives twenty minutes late to check us in.
“Good luck!” my friend grins, as she’s led away.
Moments later I’m directed to my own sleeping quarters. I’ll be snoozing (or not) in a small room just off the main hallway. I set down my bag and the technician takes two Polaroids of my face—front and profile (they want photographs of my nose and throat).
Then, after I’ve changed, the night technician (who will be observing me) and her assistant roll into the room a large silver tray, upon which are fanned out the various accoutrement for the study. With a comb she begins to part my hair and apply a thick, gritty paste to my scalp, fastening like suction cups small, round electrodes, each trailing a thin wire. She adheres several to my head to test for brain activity and several more directly onto my face to record eye movement and to see if I grind my teeth at night. A small plastic knob under my nose will measure breathing and an additional sensor on my throat will test specifically for apnea.
When all of the sensors are in place, the technician pulls back my hair, as well as the wires, and bundles it all into a ponytail. For some reason I imagine I look like the guy from the movie, Hellraiser, the one with the grid of needles stuck to his head and face.
Suddenly I’m concerned about electrocution.
The technician laughs. No, there is absolutely no risk for getting zapped.
“And it can’t read your dreams, either,” she says, because it’s obvious my imagination is getting the better of me.
“Or your thoughts?” I can’t help adding, half joking, half not.
“Or your thoughts.”
I lie down and they fasten two straps around my torso—one girding my stomach, the other my chest—to monitor breathing. A pair of smaller straps around my ankles will determine if I have restless leg syndrome. And a small plastic thimble fit snugly over my middle finger will measure blood oxygen.