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by John Welsh

Sleep apnea is a condition where you literally stop breathing in your sleep. Your brain gets too relaxed to continue the intake of air, which is a very important operation. One necessary for survival, in fact. I was diagnosed with sleep apnea when I was 19. So the next time you blow something off to stay in bed, don't feel too guilty, because my brain is so lazy it actually turns off the mechanism that keeps me alive.

I don't die because this is temporary -- my brain exits the deepest stage of sleep and bumps me back up to the next stage of consciousness, where my brain can manage consuming oxygen, the most basic of human functions. Since I can't go through one full sleep cycle without my brain trying to kill me, my sleep gets interrupted, and I am constantly tired during the day.

I found this out when I did a sleep study, where they put those electrodes on your head and monitor every brain wave you have, but stop just short of holding you down and frying you. The study lasted one night and one day: eight hours of sleep at night, then a fifteen minute nap every two hours during the day. After that, they ripped the electronic Big Brother nodes off my head and sent me on my way.

The results came back, and I, in fact, had sleep apnea. It's now just something I live with. (Listen, I know you all want to donate to a Kickstarter or something -- it's about as serious as this famous case of Graft vs. Host.)

One beyond awesome side effect of sleep apnea that Nurse Ratched and the sleep people never talk about: I can control my dreams because of it.

Lucid dreaming, as the phenomenon is known, always gets the same amount of consideration: treated as a novelty. A reporter will say in a puff piece, "so, you know you're dreaming? What's that like?" The name Stephen LaBerge will inevitably come up. Sleep paralysis may or may not be mentioned, as will the capacity to remedy nightmares. Richard Linklater's Waking Life gets a nod, but then they spend more time talking about the rotoscope animation than the thoughts therein. Then they discuss strategies to help yourself lucid dream, and end with a condescending, "Boy, that's really something. Back to you."

I have a personal, untested, bulletproof theory about why I specifically can lucid dream, and I hope this applies to others because I'm rarely right about anything. Since I live with the condition that I do, the dreaded sleep apnea, the bane and beauty of my existence, I've developed a correlation that could never be disputed with science or research or truth. Here's what I think, nay, know:

- We go through different stages of sleep in one sleep cycle, and go through several sleep cycles a night.

- REM sleep is the deepest of these stages, and the stage at which dreams occur. At least ones we can recall in the morning.

- REM sleep is also when my brain freezes like a Windows 98 PC trying to run RealPlayer.

- My brain bumps me up to a lighter stage, where I am more conscious, so I can breathe.

- There is a crossfade between stages of sleep.

- In that crossfade between REM and the more conscious stage, I get the best of both worlds -- dreams and awareness.

- Party on.

I wake up, and I am in a harmless mind playground. I can make myself do whatever I want. I fly. I breathe underwater. I see people I will never see again. It is. The tops.

Something they don't tell you about lucid dreaming: it becomes very difficult to let go of your grasp on reality. Physics still applies unless you try super hard to ignore it. If you think too much, you wake up, or even worse, forget that you're dreaming, and fall back into waiting in line for a churro at Coachella with that bouncer that asked for backup ID the other night. It's a zen-like state, but you don't have much time until you just naturally wake up. A peaceful hurriedness.

One nap I took freshman year of college had a profound effect on me. I was floating about, exploring my dream surroundings, maintaining a delicate balance between consciouses, when I found my uncle who had recently passed away. I selfishly imposed on him a ridiculous question, something that people have been pondering since the dawn of human thought, something so absurd to ask that I'm surprised I pieced it together at all. "Uncle Tommy," I said, "what's the meaning of life?" He looked me square in the eyeballs, stood up straight, and said with full confidence and bravado, "The relationships you have."

Another thing they don't tell you about lucid dreaming: you wake up exhausted. You are physically, emotionally, and mentally drained. Immediately after my encounter with my uncle, my eyes snapped open, and I felt cemented to the bed. I skipped my next class. I skipped dinner. I had tapped what drives me -- and maybe what drives everybody else. I was a changed human.

I now believe in the collective consciousness. I believe if we embrace lucid dreaming as something transformative and revelatory, and not just a Radiolab short, we can make steps towards making insane fantasies -- like shared dreaming, or communicating with coma patients -- realities.

After all, what is real? What we spend one half of our lives doing, awake? Or what we spend the other half of our lives doing, asleep? Why not both?

Image courtesy of Jennie Faber


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John Welsh is currently a mailman on Long Island with an expensive certification to teach high school social studies. He enjoys podcasts, crossword puzzles, and the idea of waking up early. He also plays guitar in the band This Good Robot. Contact him at john.welsh [at]