Sleep apnoea means I feel tired all the time. Is this terrifying mask the only answer?

Adrian Chiles

I read somewhere of a handy acronym GPs often use. Tatt: tired all the time. And I’ve been extremely Tatt for a while now. I just thought it was the way of things, what with getting older. I never feel as if I sleep particularly well, but rarely do I lie awake all night, either.

But then a couple of months ago my night-time antics were described to me thus: “First there’s lots of snoring, then it’s like you can’t get your breath, and you’re struggling, gasping and grunting. And then your body seems to go into a sort of spasm, quite violent (especially hands), then you finally take a big desperate breath which is very loud, and everything shudders.” An attractive picture, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I asked a couple of GPs I know what they made of this and both said it smacked of “pathognomonic or obstructive sleep apnoea”. No, me neither. Off I went to my own GP who agreed, and told me all about something I might need called a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. The picture she showed me of said machine was frankly alarming, featuring a mask strapped to the head with a hosepipe coming out of it snaking towards some kind of box that, apparently, could be “quite noisy”. She also said: “It’s a bit of a nightmare, but people say it changes their lives.” An appointment was made at a sleep clinic six months hence. In the meantime I remained decidedly Tatt.

A fortnight later, I was sharing a room with the comedian Dom Joly in a hunting lodge in a forest in Serbia (long story). I had never heard snoring like it. Neither had poor Dom, who had spent half the night awake listening to me. We must have slept in relays. “You,” said Dom, “have definitely got sleep apnoea; I’ll email my specialist.” Dom, it turned out, also has apnoea and is a CPAP devotee. As we were travelling, mainly on foot, he hadn’t brought his mean machine along. I wished he had.

Two more sleep-deprived weeks later, I found myself sitting in front of Dom’s sleep specialist. He looked through my notes, nodded gravely and said he felt pretty sure I had sleep apnoea. I was sent home with a device to which my chest and finger were tethered for two consecutive nights. The data thus harvested was sent back to the clinic and I awaited the firm diagnosis, that I was by now hoping for. I take medication for hypertension, reflux and couple of mental health issues and the sleep man had said apnoea was probably at the root of all of these.

The firm diagnosis was duly made. Apnoea means your throat muscles relax and close up and you stop breathing. Your heart soon starts struggling and (to some extent) you wake up with a start, often with your pulse racing. No wonder I was Tatt, as this was apparently happening to me about 20 times an hour. The CPAP machine, as I understand it, kind of senses when your throat is closing and blows it open.

I have been using my CPAP for two weeks now. I fall asleep quite overwhelmed with serenity. Then at some point, two or three hours later, I awake in a panic, tear the mask off and go back to a troubled sleep. And that’s all I have to report at this stage, other than the sad fact that I remain decidedly Tatt.