Screen your sleep lab when evaluating your insomnia

Insomnia plagues me. In that, I’m no different from millions of other Americans. But I am different in that I sought supposed experts to help me deal with this situation. My experience proved to be a nightmare.

First, I believed my sleeplessness due to the fact I feel “on,” all the time, doing too many things in the space of 24 hours. In my earlier career (teaching), students’ faces swam in front of me, at night, and often, I played back the day’s troubling scenarios. Then, too, there were the inevitable family problems: a child breaking curfew, another with an attitude. I never kept anything in the moment but projected to the extreme, fearing the worst.

When I became a realtor, I worried into the night: “Did I have all documents necessary for the next day’s closing?” “Did I call the water department? “Did I remember the smoke certificate?” The reels played in my mind, non-stop, and I couldn’t unwind.

When I mentioned my trouble sleeping to my doctor, he cautioned that it was not just inconvenience; it could affect my heart. He suggested sleep lab, where they monitor a person’s duration and quality of sleep. With that, I signed on … sleep lab would tell me, once and for all, if I were sleep-deprived.

I reported at my pre-appointed time of 11:00PM, with pillow in hand. My husband accompanied me, and we two sat in the waiting area, as friendly facilitators met their assigned people and just as quickly spirited them away. Since I was last to be met, I feared I drew the short straw—the unprofessional runt of the team.

Sure enough, he came shuffling into the waiting area, looking like he wanted to be anywhere else. He introduced himself as Bruce. I said a nervous “Good-bye” to my husband; we parted, and I followed “the Lackluster One” to my room.

It was an austere cell, devoid of creature comforts. No television, no side tables, no lamps for reading. The basic closet and queen-size bed fitted with white sheets and a thin blanket suggested my time there was to be “all business.” I was apparently there, to sleep “on command.”

I asked where the bathroom was and Bruce informed me it was “down the hall.” I excused myself to use it and popped the half tab of Ambien I’d been prescribed at the orientation meeting a few days earlier.

When I returned to the room, Bruce lathered me with gobs of viscous gel, connecting wires to me all over. He then said a peremptory “Goodnight,” snapped off the lights, and the fun began.

I lay in the dark, tossing and turning, trying to get comfortable, cursing myself that I didn’t, i) check the physical lay-out of the place beforehand, ii) insist on a room with bath (others had that), and iii) specify my monitor be a woman–I never knew a man watching me as I slept would bother me—but it did.

After 90 minutes of “awful,” I called out, “Bruce…I’m afraid I need to use the bathroom.” He came in, disengaged me from the wires, and I went to and from, wondering when I’d need to repeat the activity. Bruce hooked me back up.

An hour later, claustrophobia kicked in. Bruce had become “Igor” (in my mind) and I now viewed him as warden, watching my every move. I could see his extension, “the eye” of the camera in the corner, even in the dark, and I knew he could see me even better. I wished I’d taken the whole Ambien.

I heard the disembodied voice: “Is something wrong?”

I said, “Yes, I need to use the bathroom … again.” At this point, I would have welcomed catheterization.

Back in the room, I said, “I never have this much trouble sleeping at home. Do other people have problems with this?” Igor answered flatly: “No, not really…” End of discussion. Now, I was really angry (for his lack of empathy), but I swallowed my pride and got back on the rack.

Two more hours went by with me alternately kicking off and rearranging bedding; I’d counted the slats in the blinds; clocked the night sounds of those around me; and generally staved off mounting hysteria.

Again, the voice: “Are you all right?”

I said, “No, you know what I need (to do),” said like a drug addict wanting his “fix.”

This time we didn’t even bother with chit-chat.

Another hour ticked by with me not sleeping. Finally, I said (to the camera): “Look, this isn’t working. I need to go home.”

Now, Igor played hardball: “Well, we need another 60 minutes minimum. If you leave now, Blue Cross won’t pay.”

I asked: “Did I sleep at all?” (I’d begun to think the whole experience a huge nightmare).

Igor’s answered: “45 minutes.” I wondered where that happened in the spate of bathroom visits.

My return volley: “OK, I’ll stay but you need to come in and unhook me. Just put on the light…you do whatever…and I’ll never tell.”

That’s how my last hour of sleep lab went. When I left, I walked out the door with another woman. When I asked: “Did you sleep?” she answered, “Hell, yes … I took enough meds to drop an elephant.”

I cursed: “Damn, I didn’t know you could do that. Why do I always learn these things too late?”

Sleep lab couldn’t evaluate my sleep patterns in the short space of time I slept. On a positive note, I’ve since spoken to many who’ve had wonderful experiences at their particular sleep lab where surroundings were condusive to sleep (some mimicked comfortably-appointed hotel rooms), patients could read or watch TV, and monitors put them at ease.

Screen your sleep lab, check out the conditions, and ask the questions I didn’t, ahead of time, to afford yourself optimum results.

Colleen Kelly Mellor blogs from the perspective of a chronic patient at Encouragement in a Difficult World: Biddy Bytes Blog.

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