I’ve always been a “poor sleeper,” according to my mom. Apparently, I come from a lengthy line of them—one grandfather was an epic snorer; my parents are frequent middle-of-the-night wakers. Growing up, I remember many mornings when I'd find my mom on our den couch after a night of tossing and turning. Insomnia is in my blood.
Poor sleep was such a strong norm in my house I never really thought about it. I’d often toss and turn in bed, never ever getting a full night’s rest. With no "good" sleepers to compare myself with, my sleep habits seemed normal. But on my honeymoon, my insomnia came into stark relief. I had known that my husband was a great sleeper, but it hadn't registered that he slept soundly all night long—without waking once. He could sleep on planes, on trains, in cars, and pretty much anywhere else he found himself with zero issues.
I was the total opposite—I required a bed, a white noise machine, and a very dark room to have even the slightest prayer of sleep. Even then, sleeping was a challenge. Observing my husband night after night triggered a panic that my frequent night awakenings might not be so normal. What was wrong with me?
My insomnia began to take over. By the end of our honeymoon, I was not sleeping at all and feeling like a caged animal. My inability to join him in bed—and sleep—was wrenching. While my new husband slept soundly, I sat on the floor of our hotel, spiraling deeper and deeper into my sleep anxieties.
I burned through concealer sticks to cover the dark circles under my eyes.
When we got home, I read everything I could about insomnia, determined to improve. I saw a sleep specialist, who suggested several techniques: getting out of bed if I couldn’t fall asleep within 20 to 30 minutes to do a quiet activity before trying again, turning over my alarm clock to avoid causing anxiety as I lay awake, generally trying not to obsess.
She also recommended that I do a sleep study in a lab. My gut told me that a sleep study was something I needed, but the mere thought of trying to sleep with others monitoring me triggered massive performance anxiety. I declined.
Despite the lack of sleep—I typically got less than three hours on average, and that was with multiple wakings—I somehow kept it together. I made dinner every night, functioned well in a demanding job, never once nodded off during a meeting. I burned through concealer sticks to cover the dark circles under my eyes. It was like my internal sleep switch was permanently stuck in overdrive, but somehow I kept powering through.
But there were signs the insomnia was catching up to me. I started to have heart palpitations and even smell weird despite regular showers, a gross side effect even my husband noticed. My body was clearly crying out for help, and nothing—not the herbal teas, or the melatonin, or the breathing exercises, or the warm baths—was working. The emotional toll of chronic sleep deprivation is maddening. No matter how well I seemed to be doing on the outside, inside I was falling apart. Sleep is one of those things you can’t force. No matter how hard I worked, I still lay awake at night. I felt helpless.
After a couple of years, and some counseling and soul searching, I realized I had to stop comparing myself with my husband in the bedroom. We weren’t going to sleep like the picture-perfect couple every night, our heads resting peacefully next to each other, our hands intertwined. The truth was, having a bedmate made my insomnia worse. Every time I stirred, I worried I was bothering him, and every time I found myself staring up at the ceiling, I beat myself up for not being able to sleep as well as he could. We decided to take breaks from sleeping in the same room—it was no reflection on our relationship emotionally, sexually, or otherwise. I just needed some rest.
My sleep study revealed that I stopped breathing dozens of times an hour—for a minute and a half at a time.
Soon after, we started a family, and the exhaustion of having newborn twins kept my sleep erratic, but at least there was a reason I was awake at 2 a.m. As I got older, my anxiety around sleep started to fade—I was less worried about comparing myself with my husband or any of the other good sleepers out there, instead focusing on my own situation and what I needed. My sleep was still fractured, but I was surviving. That had to be good enough, right?
I was so wrong.
Four kids and 21 years after that fateful honeymoon, my teens mentioned my snoring. At first, I brushed it off, but one day my husband said he heard choking sounds when I was sleeping, which scared him and worried me. This didn't feel like something I could ignore, so I did some research. After all the years of poor sleeping, I realized that I might have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). It explained so much of my sleep misery—my dry mouth, migraines, slightly elevated blood pressure, and the incessant nocturnal awakenings.
For the first time I felt hopeful about the future of my sleep performance, but to receive a definitive diagnosis required the dreaded sleep study. Thankfully, I found out that most sleep studies are now conducted at home. You can pick up equipment that records your respiration, heart rate, blood oxygen level, and pulse, and set it up in the privacy of your own bedroom. I messaged my primary care doctor, who ordered one for me.
The results were truly shocking. After over 20 years of suffering from chronic insomnia, my sleep study revealed that I stopped breathing dozens of times an hour—for a minute and a half at a time. In the few short hours I was sleeping each night, I was having 205 “respiratory events.” The sleep study also revealed my blood oxygen level was frequently below 88% (sometimes as low as 80%) as I slept, which meant my brain and organs were chronically deprived of oxygen. Each time I stopped breathing, adrenaline pumped through my system to jump-start my breathing again.
My body was being ravaged by this nightly process, and I had no idea it was happening.
I was terrified but incredibly grateful to have an answer: I wasn't just a "poor sleeper." I had a sleep disorder. Even though I felt I had been keeping my life together, in reality, my health was severely compromised. Getting a diagnosis saved my life.
My doctor ordered I immediately start on a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which forces air into your nose and mouth to keep your airway open when respiration ceases. It sounded straightforward, but the machine woke me up continually when the air started to rush down my throat and up my nose, causing even less sleep than before. It works for some people, but I was distraught and depressed to be hooked up to a machine that looked like it belonged in the ICU.
The CPAP can take months to get used to, but given that it was making me sleep even less, I was determined to find another way. With the approval of my sleep doctor, I found a dentist who specializes in sleep apnea. She provided a carefully custom-fitted appliance similar to an orthodontic retainer—it sets your lower jaw in a slightly forward position which allows the airway to open when sleeping. A tiny key moves the appliance forward or backward, so over the course of a couple of months, you find the right setting for you.
I’m a few months into using my oral device, and things have definitely improved. I still wake up a few times at night, but overall the quality of the rest I get is better. That’s been a game changer—feeling empowered to find a sleep solution has made a huge difference in not just my sleep but my life. I no longer feel paralyzed with intense anxiety surrounding my sleep issues. And I’ve stopped trying to be a perfect sleeper. Instead of comparing my sleep with others', I just focus on getting the best rest—for me.
Laura Richards is a freelance writer and journalist from Boston. Connect with her on Twitter @ModMothering.
Originally Appeared on Glamour