When I asked her to describe the sound I made, she grunted like a pig nosing its way to a trough.
It was cute at first, how Zoe* would fall asleep in seconds and announce her triumph with a stubborn little snore. For fun, I used to time how long it took between the end of our nightly conversation and the first soft rumblings from her side of the bed.
It was a quirk, I reasoned, one of many that made Zoe special, different, mine. Before long we fell in love, there were more nights together, and her "quirk" began to lose its luster. Her snoring regularly woke me up. The days after we shared a bed, I often felt singled out by gravity. After weekends together I'd be completely shot, a Monday zombie, happy but inert.
The turning point happened after sex one night when she actually drifted off while I was talking to her, punctuating the offense with a dismissive snore. In retaliation I began to nudge her, shove her, outright move her whenever she made the slightest peep. If she woke, I'd mumble a few sharp, sleep-deprived words in her direction, my back turned. I even carped, "You need to try harder not to snore!" before slinking out of bed one morning.
After a year together I'd become desperate, a low-functioning lethargic with a short fuse. I loved Zoe more than ever, but held her responsible nonetheless. She took action in the form of a Breath Right strip and it actually worked. Her nightly serenade was reduced to almost nothing, which would've been thrilling if not for a minor snag: I still couldn't sleep.
It was more pronounced when we shared a bed, which made we want to do it less. Yet I wasn't sleeping great on my own either, despite needing to sleep solo just to catch up on winks from time to time.
I kept it to myself at first. After the fuss I'd made, I didn’t have the courage to tell Zoe it'd been me all along. It was partly why, a few weeks later, I found myself agreeing to move in with her. After all, she said, we didn’t have "that sleep thing" to worry about anymore.
"Right," I croaked, despairing silently. My ruse ended when Zoe caught the flu this past winter and it kept her up a few nights in a row.
"I'm not the only one who snores," she announced, before padding off to the bathroom.
Later, when I asked her to describe the sound I made, she grunted like a pig nosing its way to a trough. "I think you have Restless Leg Syndrome, too," she added, pulling the pin on the comment and tossing it at my feet before closing the bathroom door. I came clean.
I couldn’t sleep. It was worse than ever, likely exacerbated by my growing mania. Zoe was nonplussed, almost amused as I promised to address the problem and then peppered her with my findings. The most surprising — and hopeful — was a new focus on couples in sleep research.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, 23 of couples admit to sleeping in separate beds and 20 percent claim they have less sex and/or have lost interest in sex because they were too sleepy. The tension between Zoe and I was also common.
"The resentments build up, then you explode," explained Dr. Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., director of the Rush University Sleep Center in Chicago, who further noted a high divorce rate among people with sleep problems. Then came the matter of my potential diagnosis.
The most likely was obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder where you intermittently stop breathing during the night. Recently, it has been linked to a host of disturbing problems from depression and diabetes, to heart disease and stroke. The popular solution, a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine, is a Vader-like contraption that involves wearing a mask over your nose and/or mouth while you sleep.
My friend Peter said this of his newly prescribed CPAP machine: "If I was single, I’d be hiding that sh*t in the closet." But he added, "When I wake up in the morning now, I'm not 'hung over' from lack of sleep."
Another friend, Chris, who had severe sleep apnea, tried the UPPP (uvulopalatopharyngoplasty) surgery, which involves removing soft tissue from the back of the throat, including all or part of the uvula, tonsils, and adenoids.
"It just didn’t seem worth it," he concluded, after his snoring and apnea returned six months later. Paul, the younger brother of a college friend, also had the UPPP surgery, and it changed his life. He stopped snoring, no longer relied on caffeine to function, lost a significant amount of weight, and would "do it again in a heartbeat."
I arranged to take a sleep test. I didn't fancy the idea of connecting myself to a machine every night and the surgery seemed extreme, but I loved Zoe and it felt like our relationship was at stake. A few weeks later, I was sitting in a chair at a local hospital in my boxers and t-shirt while a stranger attached 28 electrodes to my head and legs.
The doctor informed me that I had sleep apnea but my oxygen-intake level was above 90 percent, which meant it was very minor. However, my "sleep efficiency" — the amount of time I actually slept during the test — was 55 percent, a decidedly poor number. Also, I was in Stage II sleep through most of the test (Stage IV is R.E.M., the proverbial "deep sleep" needed for rejuvenation).
This, along with a host of other minor stats, confirmed what I already knew: I was a light and lousy sleeper. The good news was neither machine nor surgery would help much. The bad news was much like the limbo of a poor night's sleep, I didn’t have a problem significant enough to warrant anything more than an oral device to help with my snoring, an option my doctor glossed over before ushering me out of his office. Which left me precisely where I started, only more informed (and neurotic).
But my problem had been de-clawed, I realized. There was nothing medically wrong with me and that was a burden lifted, one that I hoped would increase the quality, if not the quantity, of my sleep. I worried about Zoe, though. The lack of a definitive problem would make my reluctance to move in together just that.
She'd already renewed her apartment lease for another year, but was clearly pained at having to do so. We'd agreed to move in together after her new lease was up, but we both knew it was a weak consolation.
When I called to relay my prognosis, however, I was reminded why I loved Zoe, why I was lucky she tolerated me.
"I knew it," she exclaimed, when I gave her the news. "Not that it matters. I fall asleep before you anyway."