Sleep is my enemy

In Improbable Mutterings on November 7, 2011 at 3:24 pm

One of cinema's most famous insomniacs, Fight Club's Narrator/Tyler Durden.

Have you ever read a study in the popular media that made you feel like a freak? At some point, we all stumble across testimony by experts, revealing that some inherent, chronic, recurring, or simply preferred part of your existence is abnormal and unhealthy, and may even lead to an untimely death. For some people, it’s body type, or how much salt you like in your foods, or how many “casual” drinks you have in a week, or how many hours you spend seated per week.

For me, it’s sleep. But do you know what? I sometimes wonder what life would be like without it entirely.

I’ve always had a troubled relationship with sleep. I hesitate to call myself an insomniac, though by definition, I easily fit this diagnosis: for most of my life since adolescence, at least once or twice a week, I will either be unable to sleep, or will only sleep for two to three hours per night. A “good night” is 6 hours, which I do get a few times a week. The rest of the time? It ranges from 2-5, depending on the night.

And if you believe the studies, this means I’m headed for trouble. Many of these have shown that getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night leads to an increased level of mortality. True, most of these deaths are related to co-morbidities, but no insomniac is likely to be out there claiming that their condition is misunderstood or is a healthy alternative to regular sleep.

So where does my insomnia come from? I hesitate to use the “inherited” hypothesis, but there is evidence to suggest that insomnia may run in the family. My mother is a regular insomnia sufferer, so I suppose it’s possible that my case falls into this category.

On the other hand, it’s likely that many of my instances of sleeplessness are caused by stress. There are certain triggers which are guaranteed to keep me staring at the ceiling and punching my pillow: if I have to teach a class, I always want to be prepared and get stressed; if I have a major upcoming deadline, I get stressed; if money is tight, I get stressed; if I don’t know where my new contracts are coming from, I get stressed. This pretty much guarantees that at any given time, I’m stressed, and it’s mostly career- or money-related. This doesn’t bother me, especially: I’ve never known a time when I wasn’t at least slightly stressed. I honestly don’t know what not feeling stressed would feel like.

My difficulty in falling asleep has meant that I tend to go to bed much later than normal. This may be a way to ward off disappointment or a raw reflection of my own sleep needs (which may genuinely be lower than average) – I’m honestly not sure. When working late, I find I focus very well: my body is tired, but my mind is burning and alert, and so I accomplish more than I do at the peak of the day, when I am full of energy and the distractions are plentiful. I suppose this suits the stereotype of the writer, but it can be hard on the relationship, when two people have such wildly divergent bedtimes.

Untangling the hard-wiring from the habit is an immensely difficult task for me. I’ve gotten to the point where I like staying up late, even to work, and even when I’m on a three-day, zombie-level-fatigue stretch. At night, when the rest of world is asleep, I’m still going ahead full-steam, kicking ass and taking names. Even the following day, working on little to no sleep, I can function at near-normal levels.

I don’t like to call myself an insomniac because I loathe the feeling of being pathologized: your pity for my bleary-eyed state is best saved for those who are actually sick or ill. Whenever I mention that “I only slept for one hour last night,” people make cooing noises and close in for a hug. Whoa, Nelly! I’m not Tiny Tim; this happens once a week, at least. I appreciate the thought, but I’ve learned to cope quite well, thank you very much.

So, as you can tell, I can be very defensive about my sleeplessness. This may be in part due to the constant barrage of information telling me that I’m built the wrong way, or that my lifestyle is utterly inappropriate. Take a look through any health section of any newspaper or online advice column, and you’ll find the fingers wagging about anything that might be fun or enjoyable in your life.

You know what? I love coffee. And I love liquor. I don’t love either as much as I used to love them; in fact, I’d call my consumption of each quite normal, by my any reasonable standard. Does my body adapt to them less well than those friends? Probably. But I’ve tried to cut both of them out, and substitute them with any number of flaky and ultimately useless herbal supplements: none of them worked in the slightest. Cut out caffeine? Still buzzed and awake at 4 am. And I don’t drink regularly during the week, so it ain’t that either.

Sadly, the standard recommendations don’t even stop at prohibiting mundane vices: apparently, you can’t even win with exercise. If you do it too rigorously in the evening, it can interfere with sleep. Great! Who among us has time to do a full “rigorous” workout in the middle of the day? Night time is often my only available space to devote to physical activity. And I’m not about to stop the little exercise that I do in order to catch a few extra Zs. I’ve even tried meditation, but the only message I get from that is “don’t think.” Oh yeah? I’ll get back to you on that, Buddha.

But so what? If I’m unwilling to make radical lifestyle changes (mostly true), and this genetic-link business isn’t going anywhere anytime soon (also true), and that I’m likely to remain a writer for the foreseeable future (OK, sometimes I wish this part would change), then what are my options?

Sleeping pills? No way. Maybe I’m just being bull-headed, but I’m not one to medicate myself unnecessarily. I’m probably on the cusp of what would be considered “necessary” as an insomniac, but until that line is crossed, I won’t be dosing myself into La La Land.

I’m partly content to live with this situation as-is. Why? Because I find sleep terribly uninteresting. I know I’m not supposed to say this, but I think that, short of suffering any further negative consequences, that I’d love to give up sleep entirely. I’m just not somebody who bores easily: there is always something to do, something to read, something to watch, some idea to explore. I doubt that in my time on this planet I will run out of ideas or new things to do. I hold a grudge against my human constitution, which requires me to daily coax these ideas – and the rate at which they occur – into submission. Sure, dreams can be fun. But I’m rarely “guaranteed” a good dream; more often than not, I don’t even remember the dreams I do have. How cheap is that, brain? You can do better; at least give me a souvenir (besides the guarantee of sanity).

You know how some people fantasize about having super-powers? Mine would be to be able to function normally without sleep. Think about it: such a small, bothersome little thing on the surface. For most people, especially those of you who enjoy sleeping, it would seem more like a curse. But for me? I’d be extending my world – my experience of life! – by at least 25%. That’s amazing to me: we measure our lives in years, but how much of this is spent lying prone on mattresses? Someone who lives to, say, 80, really only “lives” 50 of those years. Forget carpe diem, try carpe noctem: seize the night!

I acknowledge that all of this is a little desperate-sounding – a rationalization for what is undoubtedly an non-ideal state of affairs. If I succeed in changing at all, it will be for the sake of my relationship, which means more to me than a few extra hours of work or reading or playing video games. Alice is supportive of my strange habits and impossible resilience against sleep, and I definitely owe her the benefit of the effort. But the situation with my insomnia is so profound, I sometimes feel like I’m unravelling myself to find the root of the problem.


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