Those who know me are aware I have a number of physical/psychological challenges that are stacked pretty high: I was born with cataracts and am color-blind, I have Essential Tremor, have had life-long problems with social anxiety, and probably other crap I’m forgetting. They all tend to combine in unfortunate ways: for example, the tremor is embarrassing, which increases the social anxiety, and under that stress, the tremor increases in severity.
Well, for the last 5+ years, there’s been a relatively new problem that I’ve determinedly ignored. Actually, it hasn’t been entirely “ignored,” so much as “partially unnoticed, but when finally noticed, ignored.” I didn’t even realize it was happening for the longest time, and when other people tried to point it out, I either laughed at or argued with them. Only a few weeks ago did I finally, fully accept it as a reality.
“It” is memory loss. Not just memory loss, of course; there’s been deepening depression, inability to focus, listlessness, confusion, and so on. But memory loss is the biggie for me. My brain, the data it holds, and the connections I’m able to make between discrete bits of information, are really the only things about me that I’ve ever liked. And they have been slowly melting away.
For the first few years, everyone else thought I was simply being lazy or belligerent when I failed to do agreed-upon things, recall important stuff, etc. And I kinda concurred with them, although I wasn’t quite sure why I was being lazy and belligerent. It was just… happening. I would fall into periods of what I thought of as “writer’s block”, where I just couldn’t seem to create anything, whether it be code, conversation, or prose.
During the next phase, people not named Roger started to detect something a bit.. off with me. I would swear that I had never participated in a conversation in which I had actually been actively involved. Food I had eaten and enjoyed on a number of occasions would be recalled as unpleasant or uninteresting, when recalled at all. There always seemed to be someone contradicting my version of events. This routinely pissed me off, to the point that I began insisting that my memories were accurate, even on the odd occasion when I could see they were foggy or fragmented. And any time one of these people had the misfortune to actually misremember something themselves, I seized upon it as proof that I was right about everything else.
Which brings us to the last couple months. I finally went to my GP, complaining of depression, constant drowsiness, and inability to concentrate. He sent me to a sleep specialist, and I went along with the recommended sleep-study… didn’t really think too much about it, but I figured if there was any chance it would get me out of my funk, I’d play ball. I spent the night in a little faux-bedroom, hooked up to a bunch of sensors and computers, and was told I’d hear from the doc about my results in a few weeks.
While waiting for that, it happened. A client of mine started having trouble with her email server, and I went to work trying to figure out what could have gone wrong. It was so mystifying that I asked my network engineer of a wife to have a look, and she went poking through my configuration.
At one point, she looked up from her laptop and asked if I’d made sure my client’s mail app was configured to use a certain port number. I looked at her blankly and said, “Of course not. I’ve never even heard of that port number being used for outgoing mail. Why would I tell her to use it?”
“Because that’s how your server is set up,” she replied.
“Bullshit,” I thought, and nearly said. Despite the fact that she knows way more about this specific topic than I do, I assumed she was somehow misreading the settings, and logged in myself. I was wrong. “Motherfucker. How the hell did the port get set to that? Did you do it?”
“Um, no.” She was getting exasperated, and I was starting to take a dickish tone to cover the confused and worried feeling developing in my gut. “Why don’t you ask [the client] for a screenshot of her settings?”
I did, and the client patiently complied. The results were just unfathomable. There in her settings was the port number in question, one that she would have never guessed or chosen on her own in a million years. It was insane, and that confused/worried feeling I was having turned to dread. I popped into Gmail, did a search for that magic number, and a couple seconds later, just stared at the results.
Two years ago, there I was, sending the client a message, instructing her to use this new port number and explaining why I had changed things. I talked about all the research I’d done on the topic, and the steps I’d taken to resolve her long-ago problem.
And I didn’t remember any of it. Nothing. It wasn’t like something I’d forgotten and found again. It wasn’t a frayed thread of thought that had disintegrated in places. It wasn’t even an empty space that I could define relative to things I could remember. Reading those emails was like looking into the past and seeing someone else use my name and mannerisms to carry on an interaction that never happened to me.
Maybe it doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but it was. Scared the shit out of me, in fact.
A couple days ago, I finally get to see my sleep guy, and he laid it out for me.
- Within a minute of falling asleep, I stop breathing.
- After that, I stop breathing an average of once per minute the rest of the night.
- In total, while asleep, I spend more time not breathing than I do breathing.
- In an attempt to protect itself, my body proceeds to awaken me hundreds of times each night, hoping my conscious mind will force a breath into my lungs.
- During this time, my heart rate is shooting up and down chaotically.
- My blood oxygen drops to dangerous levels for the duration.
After seeing the test results, he was shocked at how functional I seemed during my initial interview. “Most people in this condition,” he said, “would be completely ‘zombified’.” Yeah, he really said “zombified”.
He went on to explain that some (if not all) of the depression, confusion, and –most significantly– memory loss was the result of brain damage incurred over many years of nightly oxygen deprivation, my brain cells slowly dying as my collapsed airway starved them. He further explained that if I don’t want a heart attack or dementia, I have to strap myself into a CPAP machine every night, and for the foreseeable future, make sure I’m getting at least eight hours of sleep a day.
Oddly enough, the diagnosis doesn’t worry me at all. Compared to that moment I spent looking in disbelief at an email I can’t believe I wrote, I’m positively giddy. Maybe the reality of the last fuck-knows-how-many years just hasn’t sunk in… maybe I’m eventually going to “get” that I burned precious years in a daze, and will never be able to get back some moments that would have otherwise been important to me.
But for right now, it’s a relief. I know what to do next. I know what I need. I know when to be wary. I don’t have to keep being a prick to preserve my stupid pride. Now that I know the contours and hand-holds, I can see ways to extricate myself from the hole I’ve lived in for ages.
And seriously, folks… if you snore so loudly that other people can hear you through multiple walls on the other side of the house, get yourself checked out. It’s not a funny quirk; it’s your life.