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My Enemy: Sleep

September 13, 2011 at 10:12 pm

When I was 20, I spent much of that year getting about 4 hours of sleep per night.   I was in school at the time, and I was younger, and that sort of thing was more or less the norm.  And somehow I was able to function that way.  Maybe not brilliantly, but somehow I managed.  I did well in school, and worked on the side, and found time to have friends.  That isn't to say it was fun; it did catch up with me from time to time.  (Like the time I slept through a presentation my lab partner and I were supposed to give at our Experimental Methods class.  The problem being that I had the poster.)  But somehow, for the most part, I knew that as long as I had at least 4 hours of sleep I could make it through the following day.  Painfully, perhaps, but I'd manage.

I've never been a big fan of the bona fide all nighter.  I did that only rarely.   Even so, I didn't get a lot of sleep that year.

Until near the end of the academic year, when I contracted a very mild case of mononucleosis.

And that was the end of the nightly four-hour naps.  I don't know that it really was the mono that permanently changed my sleeping habits, but in my memory that's when things started to change. Probably it wasn't quite so clear-cut as this, and maybe it was just my body deciding it wasn't going to take the abuse any longer.

Either way, it was like somebody flipped a switch.  Suddenly—and to this day—the absolute minimum amount of sleep I can average is 6 hours.  Less than that for several nights in a row and I feel it.  I feel it majorly. 

That's not to say I adopted a more intelligent and responsible sleep pattern immediately after that year.  I distinctly remember some pretty late nights in my final year of college, and the year after that was far worse.  But I knew my limits and did what I could to try to ameliorate the sleep deprivation.  (Although, looking back, I'm convinced I must have spent several years as a shambling zombie.)   After that, the sleep situation was much better.  I was still working hard, but the demands on me were no longer such that I had to sacrifice sleep to get things done. 

And, you know what?  I found that I enjoy sleeping.  It's nice. 

For the past few years I've been having the opposite problem to my student days:  I have the time to sleep, and the desire, but my body won't cooperate.  I have become a raging insomniac.

I know myself well enough to know that I have a better chance of falling asleep if I start relaxing about an hour before I go to bed.  (Which sometimes cuts into the writing time.)   And I'm careful not to drink caffeinated tea before I go to bed, and I never drink coffee at night.  I don't remember the last time I drank a can or bottle of pop.  (Yes, I say "pop" instead of "soda".  It's where I grew up, okay?) 

But that's often not enough.  I'll read in bed for a while, and then I'll start yawning and rubbing my eyes, so I'll turn off the light... and about 40 minutes later I'm wide awake again.  And I stare at the ceiling for a couple of hours.  I might manage some very light dozing.  But lately I can't even get that.  I'm stuck awake.  Staring at the ceiling gets boring after a few hours, so often I don't even bother to try to get back to sleep when I feel the futility of it.  I get up and read, I get up and work, I get up and watch a movie. 

Two nights ago I spent the entire night wide awake.  But I tried to make the most of it.  I read.  I did a lot of work on the research notes for my current writing project.  I finished migrating data to the new computer, and even installed the rest of the software I wanted.  I bought new software, a package I've been wanting to test drive, and worked through the 2-hour training tutorial.  I cleared out my email. 

I try to make the most of my insomnia.  Ever since I was a little boy, I've enjoyed being an early riser.  I try to look on insomnia as being an exceptionally early riser.  There is a serenity to the early morning unmatched by any other time of day.  It feels…hallowed, somehow.  Even as a kid I felt that same reverence for the special time of the day before sunrise.  Every day is born with vast potential waiting to be realized.  But we're usually asleep during that most magical part of the day, when the world is silent except for songbirds anticipating the dawn. 

But it's one thing to seek out a sacred morning for oneself.  Quite another to have it foisted upon you when you have a full-time job.


Jo Anderton September 14, 2011 at 5:33 am
I've always had trouble getting to sleep. Once I'm there, brilliant, great, I love sleeping. But getting to sleep can be a bitch. Down time between writing and bed, peppermint tea only after about 3pm, only ONE coffee a day, no soft drink (aka pop/soda) at all... yes, I know these well. I've gone to beautiful places to watch the sunrise to try to put a nice spin on the whole experience, but it's damned hard when you have to function the next day! While I was away I bought this ayurvedic stuff that's supposed to help. We'll see...
Ian September 14, 2011 at 9:28 am
Down time between writing and bed, peppermint tea only after about 3pm, only ONE coffee a day, no soft drink (aka pop/soda) at all... Wow, we really do have a similar routine. I recognize all of these. I hadn't ever thought to take advantage of the sleeplessness to go watch a sunrise, though-- that is a superb idea. I do enjoy watching the sun rise over the mountains from my writing office, but I think the next time I have a really bad night, I'm hopping in the car. And welcome back from your vacation! I'm envious. Hope it was absolutely wonderful.
Alex Brown September 14, 2011 at 3:45 pm
I fucking love sleep. I do my best writing in those moments just before falling asleep (I can't tell you how many times I've jolted out of bed just before dozing off to write down a new scene or chunk of dialogue) and in that glorious period of ecstasy right when waking up when my mind's all fresh and I can break down a troublesome plot point without getting tangled up in other concerns. Then again, I don't have to be at work until 3pm so lie-ins are standard op. In college I rarely slept. Junior year was spent closing down Scottish pubs and getting up early for class; senior year spent staying up until 3am processing data for my thesis and heading to work at 6am. Don't have a clue how I survived. And now I'm a boring old woman who falls asleep while watching "The Colbert Report" because my 10 hours of sitting around and occasionally pretending to work has knackered me out. Such a lazy bunny am I. Insomnia's usually a sign of severe stress. I didn't sleep much as a teenager for that very reason. Maybe take a few days after World Fantasy and chill out in San Diego?
Ian September 14, 2011 at 9:57 pm
Then again, I don't have to be at work until 3pm so lie-ins are standard op. Why do you mock me?!? Our college experiences were very similar. I closed down my share of pubs, too. Oh, those carefree days working for the Health Department... Oh, wait, you meant something else, didn't you? If you think you're bad, just be glad that your energy level isn't so low that commenting on your own blog is the last thing you manage to do in the evening because it wears you out so much. How sad is that?!?
Brit September 14, 2011 at 10:56 pm
Oh, sleep. It would be so nice to have. (The worst part is that I become unproductive during a bout of insomnia; can't focus enough to read or write or do much of anything beyond lie in bed.) Have you tried a sleeping pill regimen? It's, well, not totally effective, but works to some extent.
Ian September 15, 2011 at 9:31 am
I'm right there with you-- I hate that feeling of not being able to use the time productively, and yet not being able to sleep it away, either. Gah, the frustration. Which only makes the problem worse, of course. You have so many things on your plate right now I'm amazed you're able to get any sleep whatsoever. And what with the job situation it must be stressful as all get out. I was taking Benadryl at night for a while, but after some time it stopped helping and might have even been making the problem worse. I was warned there can be long-term health effects to taking it for long periods of time. I'm planning to see a doctor, though.
Brit September 15, 2011 at 8:52 pm
Oh, yes, that warning was spot-on. The extra ingredients in the Benadryl can mess with you. Good luck with the doctor! (After bouts with nearly every prescription out there, I ended up settling on the over-the-counter "sleep aids" plus melatonin tabs. It works, for the most part. Most prescription sleep aids can cause hallucinations and delirium, which is, ah, not what I want in my life.)
Tengland September 16, 2011 at 8:26 pm
My problem ... mmm ... hmmm ... what?! oh, yeah ... what was ... ah! Sleep. Lack thereof. Not a problem. My problem goes the other direction. I can sleep anywhere, including on a ferry trip down a big famous river. Caffeine? I sneer in its face! (Bet I could hit dreamland right after a Red Bull, but I don't want to try for reasons not associated with sleep.) Um ... ahhh ... I'M AWAKE! The answer is the Mason-Dixon line! Huh? Oh ... uh, yeah, I fall asleep at the drop of a hat. Before the hat hits the ground. Although, every once in a while I do get hit with night's worth of insomnia. You do have my sympathies on that, yes. Lack of sleep ... is ... y'know ... a hmmm ... ummm .... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
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