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Jan 27

Failing the sleep test

Since I was an adolescent, I’ve had problems staying awake during the day. Honestly, I haven’t given it much thought, because for the most part, it’s not debilitating. I know that my sleepiness isn’t normal in the strictest sense, but I think it was normalized for me as a kid because my father had the same thing. Despite getting what most people consider getting a full night’s sleep — both my father and I fall asleep if we sit (or in his case, sat) in the same place for long periods of time. Double that if it’s in a car — I will be out within 15 minutes. We both would fall asleep at the most inappropriate times and in inappropriate places.

Dad was diagnosed with sleep apnea, but given my experience and what I remember of his, I think that’s an under- or misdiagnosis. He would sleep eight hours with the CPAP machine and then sleep for more hours during the day. His coworkers used to joke about how you could hear his snoring across the office (a benefit of working for state government was that it was a joke rather than a fireable offense).

As for me, it was a joke in undergrad that I would fall asleep in lecture, but remember everything, to the point of answering lecture questions in my sleep (and being right). I don’t like falling asleep in odd places and at odd times, but I know I will and that it will happen beyond my control. Because of that, I practice some pretty strict sleep hygiene. I don’t take naps in the middle of the day, I don’t do anything on my bed but, as the doctors recommend, “sleep or sex”. (Hi Mom!) I get at least 7-8 hours a night. I also realized a few years ago that white breads, sugars, and potato knock me out like a narcotic, so I do avoid them when I can.

And all that helps, but I still find that I often cover for myself when I fall asleep in meetings, pretending I’m writing notes in my lap when I feel myself falling and can’t escape. I have arranged parts of my personality so I will stay awake, I have always gotten good “participation points” when really I speak so I don’t sleep. I imagine that my father was the same way.

This all came home to me this week when I was at a week-long work event. During the general sessions, we were in dark rooms for over an hour, so I fell asleep. I can cover for this easily now, the only tell is the closed eyes because over the years I’ve been able to stop head bobbing or becoming slack jawed. A senior manager happened to see that I was asleep and told one (rather insensitive coworker) I was asleep. She answered, “Oh, she does that all the time.” Well, she’s a jerk, but not completely wrong. But it makes me really angry and frustrated. You take me out of my sleep schedule, feed me foods that knock me out, and sit me in a dark room without the opportunity to move or speak, then yes, that’s what you get. I’M not weak, or bored or whatever. YOU just stripped me of all my coping mechanisms. So shut up.

But more than angry, I was thoughtful. All these things I do, all the times I sleep, it’s not normal. Everyone else is able to cope, and I’m not. So I did research, and nothing seemed to fit other than the symptom “Excessive Daytime Sleepiness”. I don’t think I’m really narcoleptic, I don’t snore so sleep apnea is out (also that treatment didn’t help Dad). The one thing I do know is that it’s genetic. I took a sleep scale test I found from a specialist at Stanford, the Epworth Sleepiness Scale. On a scale of 1 to 24, with 7-8 being normal and 10 being “get thee to a sleep center for testing”, I am a 15. Yeesh.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this information, but I do know I’m done with people thinking I’m lazy or disrespectful. This really is something I can’t help, and I won’t apologize.

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