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How Do Gay Bears Deal with Having Sleep Apnea?

From dealing with CPAP machines—invasive-looking masks which help one breathe during sleep—to introducing the condition to partners, there's a lot to bear with.

by David Dancer
30 August 2016, 4:00am

Illustration by Stephanie Santillan

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The gay community is endlessly diverse—we come in all shapes, colors, forms, and especially sizes. There are lean, hairless twinks, large, hirsute bears, and everything in between (and beyond, in the case of the chub and superchub gay communities; the lines between them, and that which separates them from the bear community, can occasionally seem impossibly fuzzy to define.) But larger gay men sometimes carry baggage that others don't—not emotional baggage, though there's no fucking end of that. It's often physical, and it comes in the form of a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine, a mask connected via hose to a ventilator that forces you to breathe at night if you have a condition called sleep apnea.

It's well-known that being overweight can be bad for one's health, causing everything from Type 2 Diabetes to high blood pressure and cholesterol. It can also be the root of sleep apnea, which causes involuntary pauses in breathing while sleeping that last anywhere from ten seconds to several minutes. Sleep apnea is more prevalent among men than women, and of the approximately 3 to 7 percent of the afflicted adult population, the most common cause is being overweight or obese.

It's hard to quantify how many bears have sleep apnea, but Dr. Lawrence D Mass, a physician and co-founder of HIV/AIDS health services organization Gay Men's Health Crisis, has studied the connection. He himself identifies as a bear who suffers from the condition, and has praised the benefits of CPAP machines. "It's a common problem, primarily among those of us who are stocky, husky, chunky, burly, overweight, fat,—ie, bears," he wrote in an article for American Bear Magazine. "Start talking about it in any gathering of bears and you will quickly discover that you are not alone. If the bear next to you doesn't himself have it, he will know a bear who does." There are memes about it and blogs and forum discussions for bears with sleep apnea abound.

While less invasive devices are in the works, CPAP machines as designed today are jarring upon first sight ("It took me three years to look in the mirror with my mask on," one user told the Wall Street Journal). It stands to reason that their use might stand as an obstacle in one's sex life—or does it?

I reached out to my friend Rory, who exclusively sleeps with larger, burlier men. "I'm honestly surprised when I show up at a dude's hotel room, and there isn't a CPAP machine on his nightstand," he joked. As far as interference caused by a CPAP machine in sexual encounters, he stressed that "they don't wear them while they're fucking, you idiot." They produce a sound similar to white noise, and Rory claims they have aided his own sleep. When asked about awkwardness or embarrassment they may cause, he said that "I would imagine if anyone was embarrassed about it, they wouldn't leave them out with all the tubes all over the place when their fuck shows up. There have probably been way more [big guys with sleep apnea] than I know about—they just put their CPAP machines in a drawer."

I myself remember my first encounter with a CPAP machine-using bear as if it were yesterday. Days after moving to Los Angeles, in the summer of 2010, I arranged for a late-night play date with a West Hollywood bear. When we transitioned to post-sex bedtime and spooning, I vaguely recall a murmur of "I sleep with this" before passing out. It wasn't until the next morning that I realized something was wrong as I woke up, looked to my right, and screamed. What happened to this man?! Is he in a coma? And WHAT is his name?! After learning the mask strapped to his face was to help him not die in his sleep, I was relieved... and embarrassed, to boot.

To learn more about living with sleep apnea while gay, I reopened my trusty old Bear411 account—a bear dating website—to bring the discussion to the masses.

I noted that I was looking for "chat" on my profile and stated I was researching bears who use CPAP machines. Within 24 hours, I received more than 150 messages—some more graphic than others, and many with no mention of CPAP or sleep apnea, but those are stories for a different day. I also had genuine conversations with everyone from slightly overweight cubs to rotund daddy bears on the condition and how they manage CPAP machines in their sex lives.

"When I was dating a guy and would stay overnight, I would bring [my CPAP machine] with me," said Joe, a bear from Ohio who has been using his CPAP machine for more than ten years. "You can go out and spend the night without it, but you won't sleep nearly as well as you would while wearing it."

John, a bear from Worcester, MA, told me he wasn't aware he suffered from sleep apnea until his then boyfriend confronted him. "He would complain that I would snore so bad I sounded like a broken muffler gasping for air," he said. "Once I received my machine, life was better."

CPAP machines can be expensive, depending on one's insurance provider—machines cost on average between $500 and $4,000 before insurance coverage, deductibles or co-pays—and some bears I spoke with expressed disappointment in their experiences with the devices. Paul, a bear from Pittsburgh, has had a hard time adjusting to its use, and even more frustration being open about it with potential partners. "It's not a sexy aspect for someone who already feels like an outsider in the gay community," he said. "The condition itself has definitely put a cramp on my social life."

While some CPAP users haven't experienced the same results using the machines as others, it's important to address symptoms with a medical professional to find the best treatment for you or your partner. Sleep apnea can lead to depression, fatal car accidents, heart disease, and hypertension. Dealing with a few hoses strapped to one's face and the gentle sounds of a ventilator is definitely more appealing than the potential consequences of ignoring the condition. I, as do many others, love my bears—and want them to sleep easy, so they can maul me in bed as often as possible.

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