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.