It’s Sleep Month, so we asked our dreamy friend Penn Jillette — best-selling author, health transformation success story, and the taller half of the longest-running headline act in Vegas — if he could tell us more about his nights. Read on for the 411 on his sleep groove, including his enduring love affair with a trusty traveling CPAP machine.
Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Love
By Penn Jillette
I don’t know if I slept at all from the time I was 18 to the time I was 30. I didn’t want to. I was just crazy ambitious, or maybe just crazy. For the first couple of those years, I was living on the streets and hitchhiking, and I’d sleep in a sleeping bag on a golf course or on a beach until my alarm clock of a timed lawn sprinkler or law enforcement officers woke me up. After that, Teller and I were just trying to get our show together and traveling to fairs, driving all day, setting up a show, doing a show, and then driving all night. More success meant trading some of my rare sleep for morning radio exposure. Broadway was finishing shows at midnight and then getting up at 4am to do Howard Stern a few times a week. I didn’t care about sleep, but when I did get a few hours, I slept deep and woke up refreshed. It was rare, but healthy sleep. I don’t know if it was the sleep of the just, but it was the beauteous sleep of the just-exhausted.
I got older and fatter and finally hit just plain old and fat. Both of those snuck up on me so gradually that they were hard to notice. When I did notice, I was tired all the time. Every time I sat down, I would fall asleep. I never woke up rested, never. I felt awful all the time.
Years before I lost all the weight with the help of my trusty Withings scale, my doctor suggested I might have sleep apnea. I was set up with a sleep test and, as with most tests in my life, I failed spectacularly. You know I exaggerate more than anyone in the world, so I won’t make up figures, but I was waking up as often as they ever saw. At the time, I was coughing all the time and sometimes I used cough syrup to get to sleep. It would calm the cough and knock me out. I was way unhealthy. I wasn’t getting any real sleep, I was just knocked out. I was getting no REM. No time to dream. Let me school you a little bit: There are two kinds of sleep apnea—central and obstructive. I don’t remember which one I have, and I threw away the paperwork—see, you learned a little something about me. Whichever one it was, it was no way for a cool rocking daddy in the USA to live. We all need to dream.
I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. The doc who diagnosed me said it was his favorite thing to diagnose because it’s something they can honestly fix. Most things in medicine take a long while to fix, and the fix is rarely as good as you want. But CPAP machines work overnight. Just overnight.
I strapped the stupid embarrassing mask on my face, and it gave me Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, and I slept like a dead pig. A dreaming dead pig. It knit up my raveled sleeve of care, lickety-split. I went in for another sleep test this time with my CPAP and I passed this time! I was REMing like a motherhubbard bald Michael Stipe. It was amazing to dream again. It’s like what America will feel in a few years when we’re all allowed to dream again.
I have never felt relief like the CPAP gave me. Now I think sleep solves everything. I want everyone to take a nap. I want everyone to have a CPAP. Every argument I have, I figure at least one person is tired. I want everyone to be rested.
Now that I’ve lost over 100 pounds (with Withings keeping me on track with weight and blood pressure), the docs say that I may not need the CPAP machine anymore. I guess I’d like to stop using it. It is a pain to take on the road. (Why the hell doesn’t Withings invent a better CPAP machine like they invent a better version of everything else?) My fancy-ass machine automatically adjusts the pressure and as my weight went down, so did my CPAP machine pressure automatically. My CPAP machine is going down with me , but even without the Withings version it’s still worth fighting with TSA for. That’s a lie, I have a luggage company that just FedExes my luggage, so I don’t carry anything but my computer, Kindle, and iPad through TSA.
I still love my CPAP. I love the sound, I love the feel. I love the continuous positive airway groove. I think I even like the fashion. I look good with a plastic alien sitting on my face. I tried part of one night without it and, well, I just can’t quit you yet. CPAP, I love you. When something changes one’s life so completely, it really does lead to psychological dependency, and it also seems I still have the physical dependency. Weight loss doesn’t always solve everything—I lost over 100 pounds and I still fight with TSA.
Look for any gizmo that might help you tell if you have apnea, and if it’s at all likely, get to a doctor! If there’s any chance you have sleep apnea, get tested and get it fixed! We all need to dream again.
I think I’ll strap it on and take a nap right now.