Saturday, April 3, 2010

About this experience? I’d like to sleep on it

My mother’s dad, at least, was one serious sleeper. The event I recall hearing about occurred when Grandpa, just a teenager in West Virginia, awoke to the smell of smoke in the middle of the night. He jumped out of bed and woke up his parents and siblings, all of whom got out safely. Minutes later, the fire department arrived and put out the fire without much damage. Once things quieted down, though, the family noticed someone was missing. “Where’s Clyde?” they asked of my grandpa. They eventually found him on the far side of the house, opposite where the fire had been. He was on both feet, leaning against the house. Fast asleep.

Despite what my brother Stephen told me for years, I really wasn’t adopted. I might even have inherited my grandpa’s sleep gene. I needed it while growing up amid the sounds of subways, buses, 18-wheeler trucks and jets that passed scant feet above our ten-story building—we just had to live on the tenth—en route to landing at LaGuardia Airport. Barring the occasional night, as a teenager, that I tossed and turned over this or that girl, I slept fine those years. Could it be these past twenty-five years in quiet suburbia that have brought me to an appointment at a sleep center?

After all the years I put off a sleep study, my imagination had had lots of time to prepare. In this fictional narrative, I’m be shown a room where I’ll spend the night. A big two-way mirror is there to monitor my every move, and I’m tempted till the lights go out to make faces and stick out my tongue. A nurse on the other side documents every flail of my arms and legs during the night, especially after I kick off first the polyester covers, then the loose-fitting hospital gown. The room’s temperature is too warm, or too cold, and feels more humid—or less—than home. Before I lie back, humorless nurses fit my head and body with electrodes designed to monitor my every thought, eye movement or smile. Myriad wires the thickness of those going into our cable box are connected to the electrodes, and when I turn to see the clock bolted to the nightstand, they pull at my hair. “Now sleep,” one snaps before disappearing for a smoke break. Fumes waft into my room, and I hear the occasional shuffle of cards. I cough once. Again. The sun comes up.

In truth, the setting was more soothing and professional. Two soft-spoken male technicians greeted me and showed me to a small room with a bed, a lounge chair, tranquilizing hotel art and dark-wood wainscoting. The pillows looked flat the way I like them, and warm air wafted into the room with a benign hum. Yes, I thought, I could sleep here.

But in the short while the technicians let me be as they wired up other patients, I learned I wasn’t exactly alone. I stepped over to the window to close the drapes and noticed two ladybugs on the sill. Except they weren’t those cute red ladybugs but rather Asian beetles. We’d gotten these orange bugs in the house over the winter, and unlike ladybugs they don’t come in one at a time by accident. They like the warmth of homes and gather in numbers wherever in the house it’s warmest. With the first few, we’d thought they were just orange ladybugs and courteously escorted them out the door. Asian beetles, though, aren’t so friendly. They fly in your face when annoyed. They’re known to bite. And in a room where I needed no distractions, I thought it best to rinse these two down the sink and be done with the problem. I found four more and dispatched them the same way.

Then I pulled back the curtain—to find at least fifty more.

The facilities guy and his vacuum took a good hour to show, during which the technicians weren’t sure I’d be there for the night. How scientific could the study be if I’m kept awake from the sound of little feet scratching across the rigid-plastic acoustical-time ceiling? (Yes, alas, my hearing is even better than my memory.) The man must have sucked up beetles for five minutes straight. A few more showed up before the technicians returned, and I resolved that whatever I didn’t hunt down while mobile, I’d be hearing till dawn.

That crisis over, the technicians returned and more than met my expectations. Granted, the wires were thin. But these fellows indeed stuck 22 electrodes to my face, neck, hair (think Rogaine in reverse) and calves. Three heavy straps around my chest weren’t too tight—unless I inhaled. The men attached a nasal cannula to monitor my breathing and draped the tubing over my ears. On one middle finger, they taped an oxygen monitor; I’d have to hide its red glow if I turned onto my left side. I didn’t think this would be a problem. Though I eventually did turn, and often, I felt at first that I could hardly move, let alone turn. I suddenly felt very sleepy. Just one night, and it’ll be all over. Just one night. Just one….

I didn’t really fall asleep that quickly. I took at least an hour, which included calling the technicians to get a green light on the TV to stop blinking. Also, little feet scratched across the ceiling above. Don’t yawn, I reminded myself. I’d just fallen asleep, though, when THE SOUND came. Never mind the beetles. Never mind the occasional flushing of toilets or the peg-legged pirate pacing in the room above. I awoke, startled, to what sounded like a 55-gallon drum of water being slowly poured down a metal pipe that emptied onto a plate of sheet metal—with a microphone catching every drip and gush. (Even without its utter loudness, it was not a relaxing sound given our family’s recent experience.) In a daze, I called out to the technicians to kindly inquire what the hell they were doing across the hall. The older gentleman came in, listened and shrugged. “It’s the heater,” he said. “Just a sound. Sounds are okay.” He left. Easy for you to say, Bub. After that 20-minute cantata I needed another hour to fall asleep, and I was awake again long before the 5:45 a.m. reveille.

As the pair of technicians yanked off the various tapes and electrodes, the older guy explained that they’d analyze my data and get back to me within the next couple of weeks. I didn’t care: I felt freer by the moment. And when the younger one removed the cannula from the front of my nose, I commented that it had been the most uncomfortable part of the whole ordeal. “Well, we only put that on the first time,” he replied.

“The first time? You mean….”

“Yes, some people need to come back a few times.”

Nevertheless, I’m grateful. I’m going to sleep well tonight. I’m going to sleep fine from now on. Because I’ve learned the purpose of a sleep clinic. It isn’t merely to monitor your sleep and diagnose, say, sleep apnea. It’s meant to provide a point of reference for all nights to come. It’s okay, I can tell myself. Whatever else is going on while I’m trying to sleep, no matter what’s troubling me, at least I’m not there.


  1. Great post! I felt like I was right there with you, and like you, hating every waking (and I do mean WAKING) moment of the experience. Nothing like a lab trying to replicate a true sleeping experience, in a place so totally different for a normal situation. Let's hope they get some answers from your data and figure out any problems... maybe if they sleep on it...
    Anyway, great story!

  2. Thanks, Jack! Whatever the answers they get, the very notion of a repeat experience is definitely the stuff of nightmares--and makes a big rubber mallet to the head look welcome by comparison.

  3. sleep clinic lol i went to one on the les thanks for the buggy thoughts

  4. OMG! What an ordeal! I'm sure they do this so they can see how you sleep UNWELL! I will avoid this situation in the future, thanks for the warning. Here's hoping you never have to go back there again (I would've split after seeing the 50 beetles!!).

  5. You're welcome, cfwc! But what's a "les"?

    Susola, I myself was ready to leave if the vacuum man wasn't going to show. And would you believe one or two of those things got into my overnight bag? They wanted the rest of the family to met the beetles--but didn't get far.

  6. Hi Ed,
    I just now came across this juicy tidbit from your Fog Bell. I would have been out the door after seeing the beetles. As you may know, I cannot sleep if there is a live insect anywhere in my room. I must dispose of it immediately before I go to bed. In case you're wondering, yes, I have a fly swatter in my bedroom closet for just such a situation.
    Thank God, this doesn't occur too often anymore.
    Great submission; I thoroughly enjoyed it.