I wiped the fog from my glasses, and read the sign on the double glass door. “Sleep Clinic patients please wait by the door and the technician will be down to get you”.
Maybe I was a little early for my 9 p.m. appointment. I raised my wrist to check my watch, but it wasn’t there. The instructions had said “leave all jewelry except wedding bands at home.”
With my overnight bag in hand, I waited. The building cleaner came through to vacuum the doormat and we made small talk about how difficult it is to keep the mats clean in winter. Another few minutes passed. Finally a young woman in burgundy-coloured scrubs pushed open the door.
“Judith?” she asked, referring to a folder in her hands.
“That would be me.”
“Hi, I’m Amanda. Follow me and I’ll take you to the clinic. Do you prefer stairs or the elevator?”
I followed her up the stairs and down the hall.
“This will be your room,” she said, indicating a room on the left. “You can change into whatever you’re going to wear to bed and then come back out to the waiting room.”
I was there in that five-by-eight-foot examining room because my doctor and I were trying to discover the cause of my too-frequent pain and fatigue in various parts of my body. A sleep disorder that would deprive me of adequate sleep, was one possibility. A bed had been prepared, and a camera peered down at me from one corner of the ceiling. I quickly changed into my yellow Bourbon Street t-shirt and yellow cotton pajama bottoms, telling myself that the camera would not yet be turned on.
Through the open door of a room adjoining the waiting area, I saw a man being connected to a number of wires. When he emerged, he had wires protruding from his head, his face, his shirt, and others dangling from a box that hung from a lanyard around his neck.
“I feel like the robot guy,” he said, with as much of a grin as he could muster under the circumstances.
“Judith, you’re next,” Amanda said.
“I’m going to measure your head and fasten some electrodes to a number of spots so we can read your brain waves while you sleep,” said Amanda. “While I do that, Carolyn is going to attach some more to your legs and to your chest.”
The room smelled of oranges, probably the remnants of someone’s snack, and rubbing alcohol.
They had just begun positioning straps, and swabbing areas for the electrodes, when an alarm sounded somewhere and Amanda went to investigate. She came back with the news that there would be a power outage while a problem with an electrical panel was being rectified. The lights weren’t affected, but the room monitors were.
Does that mean I get to go home?
The now-familiar pain was beginning to creep into my neck and shoulders. The desire to sink into the comfort of my own bed to drift off to sleep was compelling, but no such luck. Amanda and Carolyn continued with their work, applying cool gels and other goop onto my skin and into my hair.
Good thing my hair is short!
Before long my wiring was complete, and the power was back on. Eighteen wires were plugged into the metal box that dangled from a black and red cord around my neck. A nose-piece was attached below my nose by a strap that looped over my ears and joined at the back of my head. This was to check my breathing, Carolyn informed me. A band holding a couple of other wires was around my chest and another encircled my waist.
Now I have to confess that when it comes to sleeping I’m like “The Princess and the Pea.” I can’t get to sleep if my nightclothes or sheets are bunched up or twisted, and I don’t like anything but the covers touching me while I sleep.
“Am I really supposed to sleep with all of this stuff hanging from me?” I sheepishly asked Carolyn.
“Sure,” she replied. “I’ve done it. You don’t need to worry about them. They won’t come off, and if they do I’ll go in and put them back”
That wasn’t quite what I was worrying about, but I tried to be positive.
At last I was in my bed and all plugged in. The system check was done. An infrared light was clipped and taped to the second finger on my left hand. The mattress and pillow both felt hard to my sparsely-padded body and they crackled every time I moved.
“If you need me for anything just wave that light three times and I’ll come in,” said Carolyn. “You can go to sleep now.”
In the dark and silent room I had no problem closing my eyes, but the rest of my body would simply not cooperate. I switched from my back to my right side, to my left side and back again, ever conscious of the extra, fine appendages now sharing my body. I pulled the covers up high; I threw them all off. My bent legs ached. I stretched them straight out. My nose itched. I scratched it. Something felt tight across the tops of my ears when I lay on either side. How long did that go on? It seemed like hours, but I could only guess. There was no clock in the room.
Suddenly I heard a voice and felt someone touching my hair.
“It’s only me,” Carolyn said. “You’re sweating.” She adjusted the connections on the back of my head and left.
I gave a grunt and squeezed my eyes closed again.
I didn’t know I was sweating. I guess I must have finally fallen asleep. Can I go back there?
It wasn’t to be. The tossing and turning began once again. There were times when I felt my mind drift into nothingness and I was sure I was on the brink of sleep, only to have a leg give a jerk, or another itch require attention, and I was back to the reality of my torturous sleep deprivation.
When Carolyn next came into my room to adjust my heart monitors, I was still awake.
“You’re having a hard time sleeping, aren’t you? You’ve been awake for a long time”
“That I am.”
“Well there’re still two hours to go, but if you haven’t gotten to sleep in another hour, just wave your hand and I’ll get you up and you can go home.” She didn’t tell me how I’d know that another hour had passed. A few tears trickled from the corners of my eyes and I quickly wiped them away before they flowed under the electrodes.
Finally my body and mind relaxed, and I drifted into dreamland.
“Judith, it’s time to get up.” That now familiar voice penetrated my consciousness, and my whole being protested. No, no, I just got to sleep. Let me sleep some more!
Slowly, I pulled myself up and swung my legs over the side of the bed so Carolyn could peel the tape from my face, my legs and my chest. My skin smarted with each tug.
“So what happens now? Since I didn’t sleep much, will any of this have done any good?” I asked.
“We’ll have to see what the doctor says when he reads your results. You did sleep for the last bit so that may be enough. If not, you’ll be back.”
“Once you’re dressed, come out to the desk. We have a questionnaire for you to fill out, and then you can go home.”
I picked up the clipboard and squinted through my bloodshot eyes at the questionnaire.
How long did it take you to get to sleep?
- How long did you sleep?
- How many times did you wake up?
- Did you feel rested when you woke up?
Are they serious?
The sun was just beginning to lighten the day when I stumbled out to my car and turned the key. I looked at the clock, 6:00 a.m. As I pulled out of the parking lot the opening words to a Four Seasons song popped into my head. Oh, what a night!
A few weeks later, I was back. This time my husband dropped me off because I was required to stay later into the next day.
“There didn’t seem to be an indication of a night time sleep disorder, but I’d like to give it another try to see if you can sleep longer,” the specialist had said. “I think you should stay for a day time test as well.”
So I appeared at the appointed time and watched while I was once again prodded and poked, and taped and wired. I brought my own pillow with me this time, and some snacks to ensure that I wouldn’t get hungry before the lights went out. Perhaps that helped stave off the pain.
As before, the wires and clips prevented me from getting much sleep. Early the next morning Carolyn was at my side.
“I’m going to take some of these wires off now. Then you can walk around; go down the hall to the washrooms. Did you bring something to eat?”
Bleary-eyed, I walked down the hall. The scent of toast and coffee drifted out from somewhere and my stomach grumbled. Back in the waiting area, I munched on a bagel and cream cheese that I’d packed into a cooler bag the night before, and wished I could find a toaster to warm it. While I sipped my water (coffee wasn’t an option in the Sleep Clinic) and tried to read my book, the room came alive with the sounds of chatter and doors opening and closing as the night shift left and the day shift arrived.
Soon a new female voice was calling my name.
“It’s time for you to get back into bed, Judy. I need to hook you up to the sleep monitor, and then I’m going to turn out the lights. If you go to sleep within fifteen minutes, I will let you sleep for fifteen minutes. If you don’t I’ll get you up again.”
Well, I was definitely tired, the room was dark and silent, and all that remained of my clusters of wires were a few on my head and the one clipped to my finger. What else would I do? I went to sleep. Fifteen minutes later I was awakened.
“You can walk around, or read for fifteen minutes now,” the technician said. The routine for the next couple of hours was set. Each time I got a little more sleep, until I was finally told that I could go home.
I called my husband. “I’m ready to leave, but I’m going to start walking. I need some air and exercise. Watch for me along the way.”
The sun was warm on my face as I breathed in the fresh morning air. I ran my hand through my hair and my fingers dislodged a clump of clay, and then another. When my ride appeared, I climbed into the car and flipped down the vanity mirror.
“Good grief, what a sight I must have been to those who’d passed me on the street, a weary looking woman with spikes of gray and charcoal hair stuck together with glue, and a pillow under her arm!” My husband chuckled.
I wish I could tell you that it was all worthwhile; that a cause and cure for my pain had been found. But that wasn’t the case. I was diagnosed with “possible daytime drowsiness” which meant I shouldn’t do any long distance driving, and a slightly irregular heart rate. I was given a prescription for Ritalin to control the daytime drowsiness, despite my telling him that I didn’t understand the necessity. After only three doses my heart rate went into overdrive and I refused to take any more.
My family doctor, following due diligence, then sent me to a heart specialist who, after stress tests, Doppler tests and monitors could find only a very slight, and quite common, heart irregularity. My cholesterols were exactly where they should be. Still he felt he should give me a prescription for something, which he admitted I didn’t really need.
“Will it relieve my pain?” I asked.
“No, but it might prevent you from having a heart attack or stroke in twenty years.”
Sometimes there just isn’t a magic cure. Sometimes you have to listen to your body and do what you can. I’ve figured out some triggers for my pain and have learned to avoid them. Some days I just have to give into it and take the day off, knowing that it will pass and tomorrow will be better.
This story is one of 81 chosen through competition to be included in this Anthology of Women’s Memoirs, which was published on January 8, 2016 and was the recipient of an Honorable Mention Award from the New England Book Festival. You will find it in Reflection Pond. The books can be ordered (e-books only) on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca