The Neanderthal

Originally published in Bay Windows, 2018 and Crow’s Feet/ June, 2021

For the past several years I’ve been wiped out — exhausted. Is this what life in middle age looks like? If that’s true, what do I have to look forward to in my 60’s? This sudden loss of energy, going from 60 to 0 in the space of a few months, didn’t feel like normal aging. But when have I ever been normal?

I went from one doctor to another. Those doctors said I had low thyroid and almost no vitamin D. I gobbled pills and capsules — fish oil, probiotics, supplements, all for naught. Was I blue? Well, waking up at 7 am, after tossing and turning all night — was depressing.

One day I stumbled on an article about sleep apnea on the internet. Fatigue, low mood, and waking up at night, gasping for air — check, check, and check. Once a month for the past 20 years I’d fall asleep and then bolt awake, gasping for breath, my heart racing. I wrote it down to nerves. And sleep apnea was the domain of overweight snorers, and I was neither.

Last fall I finally went over to the sleep lab at Mt Auburn Hospital, where I picked up a small device to measure my heart rate, oxygen level, and the number of times I stopped breathing at night.

Two weeks later I got my report — I had moderate apnea and stopped breathing 56 during the seven hours I was on the monitor, while my blood oxygen level dropped to 85%. Anything below 90 was considered dangerous. Being both a researcher and a hypochondriac, I panicked when I discovered I was at risk for minor medical events, like a heart attack, a stroke, and sudden death. I had lost the ability to even breathe on my own. This was my life in middle age: a betrayal of the body.

The gold standard treatment was a C-PAP machine, a helpful device about the size of a bread loaf, complete with water tank, hose, and mask. The technician at Mt Auburn told me the machine would take “a little getting used to,” but that getting my apnea under control was vital, because every time I stopped breathing it put a strain on my heart, bad news in a family where the men tend to die young from heart disease. After all, my Dad had his first heart attack at 44, and a second fatal one just past 60, and my uncle died from heart disease, too.

But there was one problem: with the mask and hose I could only sleep on my back. And that led to another problem. I can’t fall asleep in that position. I sleep on my stomach or on my side, not on my back, attached to a machine forcing air down my throat.

Over Christmas break, I tried one mask and then another. The first was small, light, and fit over my nose, with plugs that pushed air into each nostril. But those nostrils were congested, and when I finally fell asleep my mouth fell open, and I was blasted with a jolt of air, which woke me up. So, I tried a full-face mask, well-designed for scuba diving, if not for sleep. When I saw the machine and mask, I thought, ‘How will this affect my already non-existent social life?’ and Do apnea-sufferers only date each other? Would I be consigned to a sub-culture of gay apneacs? Wasn’t being gay, Jewish, and hard of hearing enough?

When I first got my report, I was told that apnea was a “serious disease,” and that compliance in using my c-pap was very important. Each night the machine would send off my data to technicians at the hospital, so that if I didn’t use the machine on a nightly basis, my insurance company would refuse to pay and my c-pap would be repossessed. But after a few nights, it became clear that I couldn’t sleep with the damn thing. Back to the drawing board. Back to the internet for more research.

After a three-month wait, I got in to see a dentist who fit me with an oral device, a hard plastic retainer that moves my teeth and lower jaw forward, so that I look a bit more like the Neanderthal I am. I wear it each night, drooling and salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs, but my throat is open, and I can breathe better.

Slowly, my energy is coming back, and my body is learning how to breathe again at night. Now, if I could only digest my food and poop naturally, my life would be complete.