Annie Reed (Meg Ryan) is the romance-enthused journalist in Sleepless in Seattle. Driving between Baltimore and Washington, Annie becomes infatuated with Sam (Tom Hanks), a lonely widower bearing his soul on a radio show. With daring speed, Annie abandons her boyfriend, Walter (Bill Pullman), and becomes entangled in a slightly saccharine romance with Sam.
In the Christmastime setting of the film, Annie seems somehow reasoned in her actions. Annie (and the audience) have a distaste for Walter. Walter is a downer. He seems perhaps detached, less intense than Sam. But his fatal flaw is a humidifier at his bedside.
Walter would have been fine—even marriage material—but not with that humidifier and those allergies. Thank goodness Annie stalked Sam and dodged that Benadryl-laced bullet! A humidifier? Walter might as well have been in Boko Haram. Good riddance!
Quietly judging Walter for decades, my life took a turn of events in which Walter’s humidifier took center stage.
Ever since graduate school, I was told that I snore. Some neighbors in Stockholm once mentioned that they could hear me from next door. A roommate on a school ski trip was hopelessly annoyed. I figured that this was a function of fatigue and alcohol, both of which are cornerstones of graduate studies.
In paramours that involved frequent overnight stays, I had some snoring complaints, but these were usually joking or just for eye rolling. There were no threats of Annie Reed-style departures.
On two occasions, I saw sleep specialists to ensure that I did not have some sort of correctable deformity. Both offered reassurance. I did not smoke, was not a heavy drinker, unexceptional of figure, and did not have some sort of problem with nasal or oral anatomy. If I snored, so what? My dog snores.
I experimented with every possible remedy: an “oral appliance” that essentially inflicted enough pain so that one never falls asleep. I tried costly anti-snore pills of dubious origin. There were nasal sprays, nasal strips, nostril inserts. They all made their way to the rubbish bin quickly.
For reasons I cannot entirely explain, the symptoms worsened over a short span of time: less than one year. I had moved countries, gained a few pounds, deeply stressed, and was working absurdly long hours. I noticed that I would somehow hear myself snore and awake myself at night. My fatigue progressed, and I was nodding off while driving. I drew the line when I almost wrecked my car while a friend was in the passenger’s seat. I’d rather not be a homicidal driver.
Again, I sought medical advice. I was told the obvious: I worked too hard; and thus when I slept, it was both insufficient and of poor quality.
I argued again of my concern for sleep apnea. I knew from my own practice that it is underdiagnosed, undertreated, and deeply dangerous. I had probably ordered 100 sleep studies in the past year or two. “A-ha!” I would think to myself, “A wise diagnosis. You have helped the patient and protected the public! Bravo!”
Little did I know that I was creating Walters. (In the film, it is most likely a humidifier, but a 2017 Walter would be sleep apnea material.)
The sleep study itself was conducted at home. It was comparatively benign: a small nasal cannula that fell out constantly, pulse oximeter on my finger that slid off every few minutes, and an awkward chest strap. Since I usually sleep on my stomach or side, it was oddly painful, but I endured.
A sleep study in the “comfort” of your own home. What could possibly get in the way of good night’s rest?
The results came soon, and I was told I had severe sleep apnea. I was mortified. But I had the idea that if I treated it, life would be so much better. The stress of work would dissipate, I would be overcome with renewed energy, libido, and my world would be like some sort of television ad for detergent: everything refreshed and renewed.
The ads for sleep apnea equipment were compelling. Erstwhile continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) had given way to the gentler “autopap”. The machines were heated, humidified, and easily transported. It would be like a user-friendly iPod that would ensure a brilliant night of rest, and greater joy during waking hours.
The language in the ads referred to “dreams,” “pillows,” and “rest.” Through the genius of modern science, I would glide into bed, warm and humidified air granting me peace, resilience, and vigor.
The ads never mention Walter.
The “Dream Machine” was far larger than I had expected. Although it looked innocuous, that changed as soon as one attached the tubing. The cheery saleswoman had assured me that this machine would be effortless and unobtrusive. Using a nasal mask, it would be the least cumbersome. Moreover, it would “ramp up,” leading to increased pressure over time, adapting to my own tolerance. I fell for it.
I brought all the equipment home, and I made room for it at my bedside.
The machine would also report my adherence to my phone, so that I could see my “grade” for the previous night. If I did not feel judged enough for having the machine, I could feel judged by the machine itself.
The minute I put on the mask, I thought of an oral surgeon. Perhaps around age seven or eight, a dentist told my older sister and me that we would both need to have six teeth removed simultaneously. This was somehow a prerequisite for orthodontia, which is a painful experience to share some other time. (I am sure that Walter had braces well into is 30s. He probably still has them.)
The tooth extraction was not painful, but it was terrifying. The oral surgeon had a strange, alien demeanor. He was accompanied by a disinterested assistant with flaming red hair. He put a nasal mask on me that fed oxygen. Without warning, he pressed his whole hand over my mouth and jaw, then switching the line to oxygen mixed with nitrous oxide. I wanted to fight back, but I was powerless.
I had nightmares for years about that experience; and I still think about it now. I suppose gaseous induction of anesthesia spares the drama of putting IV lines into children, but there must be a better way to than to hold my mouth and jaw shut until I was rendered unconscious.
I told myself that the lovely, quiet, “Dream Machine” contained nothing but air and water; I would not be held restrained against my will. Soon I would just see the stars twinkle and the Man on the Moon would grin in approval.
The “Dream Machine” was at its lowest setting. It smelled like ozone (the machines are cleaned through ozonolysis.) It jammed air into me with jarring force. I adjusted every setting to reduce it to “gentle breeze” rather than its default, “tornado outbreak.”
I did eventually fall asleep, intermittently taking the mask on and off.
Sensing distress, my dog jumped on to the bed, licking my hands. If he could speak, I’m sure he would have said, “Master, this is a bad idea.”
On about the fourth night, I slept only 90 minutes.
The next morning, I found myself lost in mid-sentence, a patient asked me if I had narcolepsy. I fell asleep at my desk, waking up to a screen full of commas.
Over the course of the first week, I had hit my head multiple times on the shower door, the tap, and almost yanked an entire towel rod off the wall. I’d woken up on the bathroom floor and on the couch in my living room.
Every morning, I would fall asleep and hit my head on a water glass or cup of coffee. I would wake up when the drink spilled. Each morning meant wiping off the spilled liquids and cleaning the carpet.
Not only did he lose Meg Ryan, but he would no doubt be stuck with a “Dream Machine,” shoving air down his throat with breakneck pressure.
I asked a friend, “Who would wear one of these?”
“People who want to live,” he suggested. Point taken.
Again, thinking of Walter, I pointed out that nobody famous or attractive would be relegated to a “Dream Machine.”
“Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds, and Ryan Phillipe do not have CPAP machines.” I quipped. “Zoe Saldana: definitely not a CPAP owner.” “Do you think Emma Stone goes to bed at night with one of these? Emma Watson?”
“Prince Harry does not have a CPAP machine.”
“You don’t know that;” my friend replied.
“Can we call Buckingham Palace and ask? What about Kate Middleton?”
Instead of pestering Buckingham Palace, I turned to Google. “Celebrities CPAP,” I entered.
The Ryans and the Emmas were not on the list. If Nicole Kidman wore a CPAP, she was keeping it under wraps. There was no mention of Idris Elba, Alexander Skarsgård, nor Amal Clooney.
The list featured Roseanne Barr, Rick Perry, and Rosie O’Donnell.
This was not uplifting news.
Right now, I am dreading even entering my bedroom. I have a beautiful, big bed with fluffy pillows, and layers of pressed white sheets. I now associate that room with the suffocating ozone smell of the “Dream Machine.”
Although I will consult with my own doctor, I am taking my dad’s advice: “Why don’t you lose a few pounds and not think about it so much?” He went on: “If the mental anguish of the machine is that bad; don’t use it.” And—of course—“hitting your head so frequently is probably not so good for your health.”
Indeed, I tried a night without the “Dream Machine.” I fell asleep in an instant, delving into all of the REM sleep I had been missing. I awoke calm, awake, and steady. And unlike my nights with the machine, I awoke without a headache.
Annie Reed, I know you’re fictitious, but you should have been kinder to Walter. I am sure that he was unhappy with that machine at his bedside.
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