Last night I slept better than I have in years. It was the kind of sleep that is heavy and dreamless and uninterrupted—like what a baby experiences, swaddled tightly in a warm, flannel receiving blanket, its neck slightly damp with perspiration.
I hadn’t awakened once during the night, not even to get up to go to the bathroom. This is extremely unusual for me—or any fifty year-old woman for that matter. It seemed as if my eyes closed and the next thing I knew, I woke up to the morning sun slicing through the window shutters, painting the walls in warm, golden stripes. There was none of that feeling of desperation to have to hit the snooze button for another ten minutes of needed sleep. I felt no tired achiness behind my eyes or fatigue in my shoulders. I couldn’t believe that I actually woke up feeling rested.
With eight hours of continuous sleep I was human again, and the only trade off was that I had to strap a plastic mask to my face and leave it on all night long.
Yes—I have sleep apnea. Mild sleep apnea, as my neurologist/sleep specialist doctor puts it. It’s mild enough to force my husband out of our bed because my snoring is so loud he describes it as “mariachis playing maracas.” It’s mild enough that at times I’ve been so tired from lack of sleep that while teaching piano in the afternoon I’ve almost nodded off in front of a student. It’s so mild that it may even disappear if I lost fifty pounds and dropped out of the obese category on the weight chart.
Unfortunately, as lucky as I am to have mild sleep apnea, there is no mildly obese category on those charts—if you’re obese, you’re obese, and as much as I hate to admit it to myself, I’m obese by at least 50 pounds.
When I first began to think that I might have sleep apnea, I looked on the internet to see if I had any of the symptoms:
Excessive daytime sleepiness: CHECK
Waking with an unrefreshed feeling after sleep: CHECK
Morning or night headaches: CHECK
Heartburn or a sour taste in the mouth at night: CHECK
Swelling of the legs (actually my ankles): CHECK
Sweating or chest pain while you are sleeping: CHECK
Getting up during the night to urinate: CHECK, CHECK, and CHECK!
Off I went for an overnight “sleep-study” evaluation where a myriad of electrodes were taped to my body while I slept, like I was being studied by aliens in some sci-fi movie.
They analyzed my data and two weeks later I found out I had passed their test with an “A” for APNEA.
So my new best friend is a C-PAP machine that sits on the bedside table like some sort of menacing electronic box you’d see in a hospital room. A snake-like plastic tube is connected to a lightweight cover that fits over my nose like one of those airplane oxygen masks that drops down when the cabin pressure changes. Pink Velcro straps wrap around my head and hold the mask securely in place. A steady stream of pressurized air is blown into my airway so that I don’t stop breathing every ten minutes and wake myself up. It’s uncomfortable and annoying and I look like an awkward teenager going to bed wearing a headgear. It’s also not very sexy—just ask my husband.
The good news is that this C-PAP machine may help me lose weight. Because I’ve not been getting enough REM sleep (because my airway becomes obstructed every night while I sleep) my body has been producing more stress hormones in order to keep me breathing. This sends it into survival mode, which makes it want to hang onto any resources possible—especially my fat cells. It’s common for sleep apnea sufferers to be overweight, have high blood pressure and heart problems, so once I start getting enough sleep, there’s a chance my body will allow me to drop the weight more easily.
But as much as I hope that this machine will be the panacea for my future weight loss, I must be honest and admit that my weight problem is really just that: MY weight problem. I can’t blame it on the apnea, because I’m ultimately responsible for putting on the weight that caused me to develop sleep apnea in the first place.
I was never an overweight child, even though I remember believing that I was, especially when I entered junior high. Looking at photographs of myself at thirteen I see that I was a perfectly normal, average sized teenager. In fact, I think I looked pretty damn good! How then, did I get the notion that I was fat?
Reading through my old junior high school yearbooks, almost every comment written by my closest girlfriends includes the sentiments about our appearances such as, “this summer is going to be the best ever—we’re going to get so tan… (This involved basting ourselves with baby oil and baking our bodies at the beach while listening to the Top 40 on our transistor radios, studying Seventeen magazine like a bible.
Then we’ll highlight our hair… (This meant squeezing fresh lemon juice on our heads in anticipation of baking our bodies, sort of like a citrusy marinade that made our hair sticky and stiff in the hot sun.)
Finally and most significantly: …And we’re going to go on a diet and GET SKINNY! (This meant eating low-fat cottage cheese and iceberg lettuce drizzled with red-wine vinegar for lunch and then becoming so ravenous by five o’clock that I’d blow it by eating half a gallon of Rocky Road ice cream while watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island on television.)
Every June my girlfriends and I carried the same innocent hope in our hearts that if we carefully completed these three crucial steps throughout the summer, by Labor Day we’d achieve that perfect body and we’d finally be popular. If only we were skinny and tan and highlighted, everyone would love us the way we wanted to be loved.
But all those hours at the beach did nothing but leave my fair, freckled skin burned, blistered and peeling. My frizzy hair stayed exactly the same shade of dirty blonde, and my pants size never changed.
If only I had recognized how gloriously beautiful I was back then! If only I been taught to appreciate the strength and beauty of my body—all that time spent hating how I looked and feeling guilty about what food I put into my mouth could have been used for so many other exciting and valuable pursuits.
If I’m once again thoroughly honest with myself (which is not easy for a person fully immersed in the habit of denial) I can see that food is to me what booze is to an alcoholic. Addiction runs rampant in my family and I’m just as addicted to sugar and carbs as my father was addicted to alcohol.
My poor mother fought her own war with her body image and passed her somewhat unhealthy relationship with food down to me. She told me a story once about how in college she would starve herself all day long, then repeatedly beat her buttocks against the wall to beat off the calories. She even ran to the scale to weigh herself after going to the bathroom. Even back in the 1950’s being thin was every girl’s dream.
When my brothers and I were children, my mother was adamant about not purchasing any kind of sweet treats for us to snack on. In the lunchroom at school, as my best friend carefully unpeeled the thin, silvery wrapper of a delectable Ding Dong right in front of me, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why she wasn’t over the moon with joy to receive such a magnificent gift in her sack lunch. My mouth would salivate with envy as I watched her daintily nibble her treat. Imagine my unhappiness when I reached down into my own wrinkled brown bag to pull out a baggy of saltine crackers and pale slices of raw jicama.
I didn’t suffer from total deprivation though. Somewhat out of character for my mother, she would hand us our weekly allowance of exactly one dollar every Friday afternoon. We were allowed to walk down to the neighborhood shopping center where we could spend it how we wished. I would stand in front of the candy rack at the Thrifty Drugstore and excitedly make my selections, always choosing the same thing: A Baby Ruth, Butterfinger, Milky Way and a Three Musketeers Bar.
I easily managed to eat four large size candy bars on the walk home, and my mother was either unaware of these weekly binges, or thought it better that I get it out of my system on that one day a week. She had never been more wrong about something—to this day I’ve never gotten it out of my system.
Sweets became my refuge from the tumultuous pre-adolescent emotions that were too difficult for me to face. I stuffed my feelings as I stuffed my face. I constantly craved sugar and carbohydrates. One Christmas, someone gave us a plate of sugar cookies with beautifully iced snowmen and angels, which all sat daintily on a plate just asking to be bitten into. My mother, in her usual rigid form, whisked them away and put them in the garage freezer “for later”. “Later” for me was around 11:00 that night after everyone had gone to bed, when I tip-toed out to the garage in my worn cotton nightgown to shovel frozen cookies into my mouth. They didn’t even taste good, but I ate half the plate anyway.
My lifelong love for freshly-made baked goods was triggered one hot summer. Marilyn, the girl who lived next door, was the middle daughter of a single father of four, and she was often in charge of making the meals for her family. We were bored one day, and so she taught me how to bake and frost cakes—we must have made three or four cakes a week as the long days stretched in front of us like pieces of warm, salt-water taffy. As the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel played on the reel to reel tape player, we dumped out boxes of powdery Betty Crocker cake mix into colorful Pyrex bowls. Thus began my love affair with baking.
Spending time with Marilyn at her unsupervised house was pure bliss. Neighborhood kids ran in and out all day long as there was no mother around yelling at us to go play outside. I would stand in her cluttered kitchen, sweaty and sunburned, my bare feet black from the hot asphalt. I wore only a bikini top and cut-off denim shorts, a red bandana tied over my stringy hair. I was totally captivated by Marilyn’s ability to deftly crack eggs and measure oil. I’d never once seen my mother do this in our kitchen. The musical hum of the gigantic Mixmaster whipping up the gooey batter was like the orchestra warming up before a performance. The act of licking the beaters, buttery and sweet on my tongue, was the chocolatey encore.
The strange thing about my obsession with sugar and carbs is that it never had any effect on my weight gain until after I left for college. All the way through high school, no matter what I ate, my weight stayed exactly the same: 125 lbs. And I thought I was fat!
Then I left for USC. People talk about the freshman fifteen—well, I put on the freshman “thirty” and I never even lived in a dorm—I really packed on the pounds. My roommate and best friend even referred to me as a “Botticelli” girl because I was so plump I looked like I walked out of a renaissance oil painting. I took no offense because she was right. There’s got to be a correlation between leaving home and putting on pounds. It’s not just the dorm food—it must be the fear of change and the loneliness that goes with you when you leave home for the first time.
So my weight has consistently fluctuated for the past thirty years. I’ve lost and gained the same fifty pounds over and over and over. When I was forty-one I went to Weight Watches and lost forty pounds. I looked and felt better than I had in years, but before I made it to my goal weight, I got pregnant with my daughter Isa. The weight came back on and has stayed.
So I’ve decided to take another tack—I’m finally giving up the idea of dieting. I’m not going to starve myself any longer. What I am going to do is continue going to the gym every morning after I drop Isa off at school. I’m cutting back on the sugar and carbs. I’m going to work to be healthy, not necessarily thin. And then I’m just going to be happy with me.
I’m going to love my body, fat and all, because it’s all I have. This body of mine has birthed four children and by God, it deserves a little respect! So I’m going to treat it with love. I’ll exercise and eat healthy foods, but I’m not denying myself a sweet treat now and then.
I’ll strap on my C-Pap machine every night and breathe deep breaths.
Then I’m going to sleep all night long.