Insomnia, apnoea and paralysis: The terrifying sleep disorders plaguing Kiwis

  • 28/11/2018

It's Sleep Week on Three's The Project, meaning it's time to talk all things shut-eye. Today we're looking at sleep disorders and the havoc they can wreak on people's lives.

Jamie Bowen is a comedian by day, and by night he struggles with chronic insomnia.

"If I'm not medicated I can get one or two hours," he told Three's The Project. 

"I think my longest stretch was about three months. At that point you're at the end of your tether. You're kind of going through your little Fight Club moment."

The protagonist of that film experiences such chronic insomnia that he ends up hallucinating [spoiler alert] an entirely different person.

"I think it started happening as a by-product of, or potentially the cause of, mental health," Mr Bowen explains about his own situation.

"My depression was kicking me in the head and the more I was struggling with that, the worse the problem got. If you added things to it like kids or family or responsibility, which I've managed to avoid throughout my whole life, I don't know how you would function.

"That's when people snap and kill their families, that's how that happens."

The World Association of Sleep Medicine says sleep disorders like insomnia cost New Zealand at least $40 million a year in lost productivity.

Sleep apnoea is another common problem that affects 9 percent of Kiwi adults. Sufferers repeatedly stop and start breathing as they sleep - sometimes up to 50 times an hour.

"The person doesn't experience deep restful sleep," says Dr David White. "The outcome is that people suffer obesity, hypertension, stroke risk. The consequences, long-term, are very severe."  

Dr White - also known as Dr Nose - has developed a ground-breaking breathing device he hopes will alleviate the disorder.  

"Typically sufferers don't know they've got it unless they're showing symptoms of it. The first people who know are bed partners and members of the family that hear the person stop breathing, typically the snoring stops, as they're going through a choking episode."

Narcolepsy, sleepwalking and restless leg syndrome are all conditions that endanger a restful night's sleep. But possibly the most terrifying disorder of all is sleep paralysis, a feeling of being conscious but unable to move.

New York-based photographer Nicolas Bruno has turned his frightening experiences into art. 

"I'll have this really ominous feeling when I wake up," he explains.

"I'll be observing around my room and I'll get this huge pressure on my chest. From there I start to get really anxious and that's when weird things start to happen. Maybe a figure's floating above my bed or I'm being slowly dragged off my bed or something is in the corner of my ear, screaming. It's generally pretty terrifying.

"I really had no way of speaking about what was happening to me until I started making art about it and self-portraiture, and expressing what I've been going through.

"There are so many instances of it and so many people are suffering from it around the world without really knowing what they're going through. If the medical community really grasps it and finds ways to explore and learn more about it, it would help a lot more people."

The Project host Kanoa Lloyd also opened up about her experiences with sleep paralysis.

"It's like you half-wake up from a nightmare but the nightmare's still playing out in front of you. You think 'All I've got to do is roll over and I'll be fine,' but you just can't."