My Journey with Sleep Apnea

  Heather Orr Lindstrom on the beach Portugal

On the beach in Algarve, Portugal

This is a deeply personal post, yet I feel compelled to share my journey with sleep apnea in hopes that someone who is struggling, as I have for the last couple of years, may gain insight and possibly some support for this life threatening condition. Now that I have officially been diagnosed with sleep apnea, I have met a number of other people who have said to me, "I have that." Some are treating it and some are not. Here's my story:

Scott and Heather Lindstrom

This photo of my husband and me was taken on New Year's Eve at a big birthday bash for my sister, Dorie, in Newport Beach. It was the last leg of our trip to Southern California where I was busy visiting my old stomping grounds, and writing travel posts on  Los Angeles and Santa Monica for the blog. On this special evening I remember being thrilled to celebrate my sister, connect with family and friends, and ring in the new year with my love. Despite all the good vibes, as the evening went on I remember feeling as though I was going to pass out. I simply couldn't get my breath and it was getting worse. The feeling was like trying to keep your head above water. Everything felt like it was closing in by the end of the night. The next morning, on our 9-hour drive back to Chico, I couldn't get a breath to save my life. Looking back, we should have gone straight to the emergency room. I felt like I was suffocating and like my body was shutting down. To be honest, I felt like part of me was was dying.

I've shared the story of my stint in the Emergency Room a month before, on a day I awoke utterly exhausted, with severe shortness of breath, and a massive headache during the holidays here. Fortunately, following a multitude of tests, doctors determined I did not have a heart problem or a blood clot in my lung. My symptoms persisted, some days worse than others, and the battery of tests continued: a stress test by a cardiologist, a breathing test (in a machine), inhalers for possible asthma, and medication for acid reflux disease. Nothing worked. I was beyond exhausted and still experiencing all the troublesome symptoms. The first real clue to my condition came after sleeping with an oximeter on my fingertip, to measure nighttime oxygen levels in my blood. It turns out my blood oxygen levels were very low and revealed the possibility of sleep apnea. At that point my physician set me up with an overnight sleep study at the local sleep clinic. In the end I needed three different sleep studies to determine my type of sleep apnea. My 'Fifty Shades of Grey' post  was inspired by my nights at the sleep clinic.

"I always second guess myself, and feel pangs of regret, but I always show up. When I arrive at his place, I use a secret code to gain entrance. I hear a low, deep voice, with a rich accent, welcoming me in. I’m nervous, but I can’t help myself, I know this is where I need to be.  He shows me to the bedroom chamber, makes me comfortable, in that way that he has, slow, methodical, never rushed…….and he asks if I am ready to begin."

If you've ever spent the night in a sleep clinic, you'll understand why I needed to add a humorous twist to the process.

Selfies at Sleep Diagnostic

In the end, I was diagnosed with central sleep apnea (my brain doesn't tell my body to breathe adequately at night). The other type of sleep apnea, obstructive type, is when the throat causes obstruction and prevents adequate breathing. My study revealed that I stopped breathing on average 6.7 times per hour during the night and was functioning on 86% oxygen level. Normal range of oxygen in the blood should be between 95%-100%. Lower than normal ranges can cause damage to internal organs, heart attack, stroke and death.  No wonder I had been feeling exhausted, to the bone, for the last year or more. I was waking up exhausted, with severe shortness of breath, an odd headache, and, even more dangerous, I was feeling like I might fall asleep while driving to and from work. More than once I briefly nodded off in an inter-agency meeting for a student, and I was leading the meeting. Crazy! I was having a serious struggle and I knew it.

A busy life Collage

The thing is, no matter how miserable we may feel, we keep charging on..........

Here, there and everywhere!

It was Mexico, Wine country, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Spain and Portugal for me this year, despite all of my symptoms.

Can you relate?

While in the process of exploring a diagnosis, I was charging on with my career as a School Psychologist, my lifestyle blog, my online boutique here and styling sessions in my community. During the last year I had only a handful of days where I felt normal. I'm happy to say, I made my decision to treat my symptoms, just before leaving for our 3 weeks in Portugal and Spain.  It was not an easy decision, with the machine and the mask, but the consequences of not treating sleep apnea can be life threatening. While considering my options I heard a report that a young man had died of complications from sleep apnea, and I made my decision then and there.

I chose to treat my sleep apnea with a BiPAP auto SV unit. Some folks, call it a 'hose'. I've decided to change my perspective on the device and I'm calling it my 'nightly oxygen spa treatment'.....ahhh......isn't that lovely? There were a selection of masks from which to choose. When my husband, Scott, and I looked up at them on the wall it was definitely a '50 Shades of Grey' moment, and we laughed. I was offered one in hot pink, but rather than candy coat it, I went with the slimline gray number. I don't use a full face mask, rather a band with, wait for it, 'nasal pillows'. That too sounds very spa like. Does your nose have pillows? Mine does!

Sleeping Mask

(This isn't my mask-maybe someday it will be this stylish though)

Is it fun to have to 'turn on' your machine and gear up for a night of sleep? Not really. Is it fun having to announce to your husband "I'm going to sleep so kiss me NOW!" before I have a Darth Vader moment? No, I won't lie to you. If you move wrong it sucks and blows and, at least early on, it can keep you awake. You are sleeping with a life saving ventilator after all. But stick with it. It gets easier. Wearing our spa gear to bed takes a lot of getting used to, but you know the things we do for beauty and health. We can do this, if we need to. The best thing, about making all the effort, is how I'm starting to feel. Oxygen is like love, or love is like Oxygen (remember that 80's song?. Turns out they were completely right.) Having adequate oxygen has changed my world in 6 weeks. I feel awake, clearheaded and energetic. I'm more fun, I want to have more fun, of all kinds. I'm more engaged in my world. I feel like I'm getting my life back and it feels amazing.

There are other excellent benefits to having adequate oxygen, and this is big (literally and figuratively). Three medical professionals told me, during my journey, "It's impossible to lose weight with untreated sleep apnea". A trickle of relief ran down my cheek. It really did. For some of us, who eat consciously and carefully, and yet the weight doesn't budge, there must be something else going on. I would be lying if that wasn't also a motivator to get my 'nightly spa treatment' and get rolling with it. As it turns out, the professionals were right. The hope, with treating sleep apnea, is that the body functioning improves. I'm here to tell you, the weight is coming off!! I'm down nearly 10 lbs. in the last three weeks. I look forward to sharing what I've learned in a follow-up post.

As many of us know, getting adequate sleep can be an issue, especially for peri-menopausal and post-menopausal women, impacted by hormonal fluctuations. When we don't get enough sleep, it negatively impacts every function in our bodies. The fogginess, lack of energy, word-finding difficulties, and moodiness that accompany insomnia can take a serious toll on quality of life and relationships. The inability to function productively, and enjoy life, can lead to depression. Lack of sleep makes it harder for the metabolism to function efficiently, so weight gain and other health issues occur. It's basically a never ending cycle. You find yourself exhausted, depressed, low energy, not feeling sexy, and fat! It's not the best platform for a regular work out routine, feeling our sexy best or living a vibrant life.


My personal indications of sleep apnea were abnormal breathing patterns, stopping breathing for periods of time and gasping to wake myself up. Okay, maybe a little snoring, according to Scott, but I never heard it. I have also experienced years of insomnia, especially in the early morning hours. Do any of these symptoms sound familiar? For more resources check out the American Sleep Apnea Association From the Mayo Clinic

Common signs and symptoms of central sleep apnea include:

  • Observed episodes of stopped breathing or abnormal breathing patterns during sleep
  • Abrupt awakenings accompanied by shortness of breath
  • Shortness of breath that's relieved by sitting up
  • Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mood changes
  • Morning headaches
  • Snoring

Remember this song by Sweet?  "Love is like oxygen.....get too much and you get too high.....Not enough and you're gonna die!"

Sleep apnea is not about weight or age. Thin or heavy, older and younger, all types of people are diagnosed with it. More and more children are diagnosed and emerging research links it to certain behavioral issues at school. Diagnosis is on the rise, and the consequences of untreated sleep apnea are life threatening. If you, or someone you love, experiences the symptoms listed above, it's time to check in with your doctor on diagnosis and treatment. I hope you do, like I did. It's kind of powerful to morph into Darth Vader, on occasion, and it's quite luxurious to have a nightly spa treatment.

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Does any of this ring a bell for you or someone you love?

Here's to sweet dreams.....


Heather Orr Lindstrom Signature

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