What It's Really Like to Be a 20-Year-Old College Student With Obstructive Sleep Apnea
The sleep disorder usually affects middle-aged men.
My sophomore year of high school, I was tired all the time. I would describe myself as sluggish, just constantly tired and moping. I was a swimmer, and I could feel myself getting exhausted faster. My body felt weaker than it ever had.
I was also experiencing really bad headaches. I was prescribed medicine for them, but it didn’t help much. My doctor thought maybe it was a vision problem, so I had my eyes checked and got eyeglasses. But they didn’t really help that much either. I also felt super anxious. To sum it up, I felt terrible most of the time.
My boyfriend at the time had recently been diagnosed with sleep apnea. He told me he had some of the same symptoms I was having, but sleep was never something my doctors or my family had really thought about that much. To my knowledge, I didn’t have any issues with sleeping. But my family encouraged me to talk to my doctor about it so we could figure out what was going on with my health.
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I was a lot younger than most people diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea (most people with sleep apnea are male and are diagnosed over the age of 40), but my family and I figured it couldn’t hurt to go get tested anyway.
I went to a sleep center through Northwestern Medicine where they put electrodes on my skull for overnight sleep testing. I was pretty nervous leading up to it, but everyone was awesome. They even allowed my boyfriend to be in the room with me the whole night. He came with his CPAP machine—short for continuous positive airway pressure, which is used to treat sleep apnea—and it really helped me feel more comfortable.
The test tracked my heart rate, movements, and brain activity to analyze my sleep. The results showed that I wasn’t achieving different sleep cycles nearly as fast as a normal person. I was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, which is when your jaw and throat muscles relax and cut off the airway in the back of your throat. Sleep apnea causes you to wake up often throughout the night, although you may or may not be aware of it. I wasn’t getting restful sleep or hitting those important sleep cycles that are restorative, which is why I was feeling tired all the time.
Prior to being tested, I had never considered or even discussed the possibility of sleep apnea with my doctor. My doctor doubted that I needed a sleep test because I was so young. It was a surprise to me that this had never been looked into as a diagnosis for me, but I guess it is just that uncommonly diagnosed.
I honestly felt relieved when I received my sleep apnea diagnosis. I had been working for years to resolve my headaches and general weakness, so to finally be able to have an answer for my questions and concerns was incredible. I had begun to feel helpless; my diagnosis was the first step in the right direction to help my physical and mental health.
I started using a CPAP machine at 16, and I have used it every night since. I still have the same machine: It’s compact and cute with little flowers on it. I use a mask that covers both my nose and mouth because I also have really bad allergies. I fill it up every night with distilled water that keeps the air moist. (I also have to clean it every day.)
When I first started using it I felt awkward—I was self-conscious about my CPAP machine and what other people would think of me using it. It took a few months for me to get used to sleeping with it on too. But my mood was significantly better. I wasn't getting sick nearly as often (I used to get sick eight to 10 times a year). It's been amazing to see how restorative sleep has also restored my immune system.
Having obstructive sleep apnea has made me more conscious about how much sleep I get. I can't just pull all-nighters. My CPAP machine tracks my sleep every night. Now, I try to get as much sleep as possible each night; I usually get between six and eight hours. I definitely can tell if I don’t use my sleep apnea mask at night. I have trouble focusing in class, I can get headaches, my eyes struggle, and it can be difficult to maintain a conversation if I go just one night without it.
After my diagnosis, I also started eating healthier as I tried to maximize my health. Knowing that I had a diagnosis was a huge motivator for me to start seeking out healthier habits.
I'm now 20 years old and a junior in college, and I've had to inform roommates that I use a CPAP machine to sleep. I've approached it like, “Hey, if you lean over and see a fighter pilot mask on my face, this is why.”
Socially in college, I'm not really able to go out and allow myself to sleep over at friends' houses. My CPAP machine is portable and I can travel with it, but it's more of a convenience thing. I can't just crash wherever I want. It holds me accountable to my decisions, which is also a good thing.
But one of the hardest things about my obstructive sleep apnea diagnosis was that it impacted my career choice. It automatically disqualified me from serving in any military branch, something I was really interested in, specifically the Air Force. It was very disappointing and something I've had to come to terms with, but I hope to get into detective work or victim advocacy. I'm currently studying psychology and criminal justice, and I think it will be just as exciting and rewarding as the military would have been.
When it comes to dating, I’m more self-conscious about my sleep apnea than my partner has been. My partner is not bothered at all by it. My CPAP machine is just...there. There’s nothing I can really do about it, and it’s just something that I live with. I was really nervous when I was younger that I would encounter a partner that would have an issue with it.
My obstructive sleep apnea diagnosis was life-changing. I enjoy swimming again as a hobby. My energy levels have gone way up and I feel so much better. I definitely encourage anyone that may be struggling with the same symptoms I had to talk to your doctor about it. It's worth it to get checked out. Even if you don't have obstructive sleep apnea, many people have undiagnosed sleep disorders that need to be taken seriously. It may require sleep testing, but it's not as scary as it may seem. You can feel better.