Sleep is not my friend. We have a very strained relationship. As a general rule, I never fall asleep; I need to work for it. It has been this way my entire life. As a very young child I stopped taking naps in the afternoon. My parents tried, of course, but they said they could hear my babbling and playing virtually the entire time. I was a good kid, or at least not a destructive one, so my lack of napping was seen as a funny quirk and nothing more.
I remember attending daycare before kindergarten, so I must have been four or five at the time. We had a designated nap time. Everyone would lie down and have a nap. I did it, because I always listen to what I was supposed to do, but I never actually slept. I remember lying on my side, observing the darkened room, watching the caregivers walk around periodically and checking everyone. I rarely if ever fell asleep during this time. Not that I didn’t want to: falling asleep for an hour is far better than lying down quietly and not sleeping for an hour. I just couldn’t do it.
As I grew older, this only intensified. After about the age of eight, I could not fall asleep unless I had been awake for 16 hours. My bedtime was 8 PM. I remember this, because when I turned nine it got stretched back to 9 PM. Anyway, if I ever slept-in on a weekend, say, that pushed my effective bedtime back. You could put me in bed, and I would do it, but I wouldn’t fall asleep until I hit that 16 hour mark.
Note that this gives me eight hours of sleep a night, so it’s not as if I got less sleep than I was supposed to. Indeed, I probably got more sleep than many kids who stay up late. The problem wasn’t the amount of sleep, it was getting to sleep. I couldn’t do it. My mind never shut off. Often I didn’t even feel tired. Sometimes I knew, intellectually, that I needed to go to bed early, say because of an early field trip the next day. This knowledge did nothing. I could not force myself to sleep.
Perhaps the most striking example occurred when I was nine. I suffered a vicious flu, which was par for the course. I was always sick as a child. This particular flu shot me down for about two days, and I slept the vast majority of that time, lost in fever. When my fever broke and I woke up, I felt okay. I had mostly recovered. It was also 5 PM. What followed was almost comical: I did not fall asleep that night. My mom told me to go to bed, to get more sleep so I feel better in the morning. I went to bed, and I spent the next several hours staring at my ceiling. I got up two or three times just to walk around and go to the bathroom, but I never fell asleep. My mom came in at around 5 AM and was surprised to find me are alert and awake in bed.
What did I do all that time? The same thing I do these days when sleep refuses to come: I think. Sometimes I have epic daydreams. Sometimes I ponder the meaning of existence. Sometimes I curse sleep. No, not sometimes. That’s a constant.
If this were my only sleep issue, I could probably deal with it. I would ensure I always wake up early and get my 16 or so hours in. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. I also suffer insomnia. This was far worse as a teenager and during my university years. My adult self seems to have overcome this, or at least lessened its frequency. Now when I stare at my ceiling at 3 AM, I can think, “Wow, this hasn’t happened in a while.” I currently live this right now.
As a teenager, I ran on precious little sleep. Again, it wasn’t a choice. Some nights I couldn’t fall asleep because of insomnia, and whenever I didn’t fall asleep, I’d either sleep too little and get no benefit or sleep too much and wake up sometime in the afternoon. That means, of course, I’d be awake most of that night until I get my 16 hours in. I would fall asleep at 3 AM and then either need to wake up early so as to go to bed at normal time, or get a full ‘night’s’ sleep and again wake up sometime in the afternoon.
I usually opted for a third option: not go to sleep at all. I’d stay awake until bedtime the following night. This means I would wake up at a normal time and get back to my old schedule the next day. The downside would be I sometimes come close to 30 or even 40 hours without sleep. One terrible time I tried this but then had insomnia that night. That nearly shattered me.
For all that, though, I lived normally. I got decent marks at school, and often I got my best marks during my worst sleep periods. Some people don’t go to sleep because they need to do homework. I did homework when I couldn’t go to sleep. I also trained the hardest at martial arts during my teenage years, and my lack of sleep did not seem to hamper my recovery.
This week, I am experiencing the effects of insomnia again. This is not full-blown insomnia, thankfully. Sometimes I cannot sleep at all, but that has been very rare the last five years or so. Right now, it’s simply taking me very long to fall asleep. I’m likely getting between four and five hours of sleep a night the last week, and it’s interesting to see the effects it’s had on me.
The first day, Monday, I was fine. I had an extra pot of tea but otherwise did everything normally. It was a good day, actually. Tuesday I started to feel a step slower in some situations. My mind was a tad duller, my reactions a half second behind. Wednesday I had my second wind and felt great until mid-afternoon, and then I crashed hard. I finished my day off and crawled into bed, but still the sleep did not come. On Thursday, I felt like a zombie. Actually, most zombies could move faster than me that day. I hadn’t felt like this in a long time, but I had felt like it, and memories stirred.
This used to be pretty close to my default state. This was my old home, this feeling of grogginess. Grogginess isn’t even the right word. I felt … devoid of colour. Imagine the brightest, best painting you know, and now start draining the colour from it. It’s not for black and white, but it’s close. It appears drab, dull, uninteresting, nothing like the great painting it was. That’s me. I am a fraction of myself, and yet I am still myself. I just need to get that colour back.
It’s amazing to feel or recognize certain habits returning as I manoeuvred through this state. For example, when people talk to me about something unimportant, chit chat, I go into an automatic idle mode. I’ll make a few guttural, one-line responses, and I’ll nod my head during appropriate pauses. All of this is done automatically, and it lets me essentially refuel during this time. Rather than trying to engage in this conversation, spending vital mental attention that I simply don’t have any more, I go through the motions and exist in an almost unconscious state. It’s almost like waking meditation, in that my mind is completely empty and devoid of thought. People think I’m listening, but really I’m just conserving my limited energy.
Everything feels less when you are this tired. I’m not even sure if tired is the right word, either. I’m simply drained, which is different from tired. Good things make me feel less happy, and unpleasant things feel less unpleasant. It’s as if I’m distant from my own life. It’s hard to focus. Mental work in particular feels superhumanly hard. I can feel my mind slipping even as I’m writing this. The paragraphs are no longer organizing themselves, and I cannot see the clear structure I normally have when writing even an informal piece.
I’m going to stop now, even though they’re so much more I could write about sleep. I’ll save that for when I am more coherent. I will leave with one last thought: feeling like this is terrible, in its mute way, but it also highlights how much better you feel after a good night’s sleep. The absolute worst I ever felt occur during my worst insomnia, and I thought some very dark thoughts. Getting enough sleep dispelled those thoughts and made the day truly seemed bright again. I’ve always remembered that experience, and I try to use that. No matter how bad or hopeless something may seem, I will not act on it or give up until I get a full night’s sleep.