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Needing a Vacation to the Land of Nod

Updated on April 11, 2012

Sleep Deprivation Can Promote Irritability, Uselessness, and Possibly Jail Time

I’ve been hallucinating again. I’d like to say the pink elephants are induced by my being a 20 year-old college student and imbibing in illicit substances, but alas, the flickering shadows and voices are the result of chronic sleep deprivation on my nearly 43 year-old body and mind.

Most experts say you need 7 to 9 hours of sleep to function properly and maintain good health. I’m not disagreeing with this assertion – it sounds like an awesome freakin’ idea. But how many mortals do you know that can achieve that much sleep on a regular basis? Whether you’re a working drone, parent, student, or any sentient carbon life form, most of us at one time or another have experienced a significant lack of quantity and quality of sleep. And anyone who has either lacked the opportunity for sleep or has grinded their teeth for weeks on end due to insomnia, knows that sleep deprivation can pretty much ruin your mood, productivity, and even your overall physical health.

Sleep has always been my treasured yet elusive lover. I daresay sleeping is my all time favorite activity, trumping sex, reading, traveling, and even benders in Las Vegas. Some comedian once said that you know you’re officially an adult when you actually want to go to sleep. If that is indeed true, I’ve been an adult since puberty. And you can pretty much always find times here and there as a teenager to sleep in or cop a snooze after school. But with each year of life that marches right over you, the nods get fewer and further in between. My war with sleep deprivation began in college. Being poor and not wanting to owe $50K in student loans when I got out, I worked an average of 30 hours a week in college (and yes, my cumulative GPA reflected as much). I worked before, after, and in between classes, and every weekend while my classmates went skiing and scarfed down pizza and beer. When I wasn’t working or attending class, I was usually at the local Perkins or IHOP downing two pots of coffee and a pack of cigarettes in one sitting while trying to catch up on homework. And being in my late teens and early twenties, if I did have some time off, it was spent at a nightclub or with the boyfriend du jour. I probably averaged 5 hours of sleep a night the entire pathetic six years it took me to graduate. It was much less than 5 hours during finals and midterms, and those were dark days indeed. One time I stayed up for three days straight to avoid that horrible, nauseating feeling of having to wake up to a blaring alarm when I wasn’t ready to leave the bed. I figured I’d risk psychosis and just stay the eff up and skip that particular experience. That 72 hour stint of forced semi-lucidity may explain a few things about my personality…

Then comes the “real job” and all its accompanying stress. Overloaded calendars, narcissistic bosses, and rogue office equipment often follow one home at the end of a 10 hour day, and it wasn’t unusual to spend 2 hours in bed stewing about the staff meeting before finally drifting off into twitching relief. And if it wasn’t work chasing off my dreams, it was a troubled personal life or finances. And then comes the biggest sleep quasher of all – offspring. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since I was probably a month pregnant (i.e., I didn’t yet know the shell shocked existence ahead of me). Sleep deprivation lasts long after those first two months or so of having a newborn release blood curdling screams every 2 hours to be fed and changed. I firmly believe you have one ear cocked in your kid’s general direction every moment following childbirth, making real sleep impossible. I suspect it’s something similar to PTSD, where you’re always waiting for and reacting with a jerk and shudder to every unexpected noise. Even though my daughter is approaching 3-1/2 years old, I’ll still jerk awake instantly if I so much as hear a coo or peep out of her in the other room.

And on the rare nights I’m not particularly stressed about something and my daughter is sleeping through the night, my body will invariably betray me. If one position is comfortable for my always aching back, my arm will go to sleep or I’ll get the “crazy legs,” or Restless Leg Syndrome or whatever. And now it would appear that menopause is hurling itself in my direction, so I can add night sweats and hot flashes to the mix. Nothing like finally being in a deep sleep and being awoken by the sensation that one’s internal organs are on fire and yet having cold and sweaty skin. Funny how a night can be both endless and too short.

A chronic lack of sleep makes you do bad things. You start abusing caffeine. Anything exceeding 5 cups of coffee a day only results in the shakes and a burning stomach, not increased alertness. You start having zone-outs that last anywhere from a few seconds to an hour. You become forgetful and spacey. A couple of weeks ago I put the scissors in the fridge and the cheese next to the yarn. I’m even more irritable than usual, and that’s a frightful thing indeed. And I’m hallucinating in broad daylight. Nothing interesting in lieu of Hunter S. Thompson head trips – more like seeing dark moving objects in the corners of my vision and hearing strange snatches of voices which are often syntactically correct but impossible (e.g., the toaster plied the undulating closet door to snuff out the flower….). WTF?

While there’s often little I can do as far as the opportunity to get enough sleep, I’ve certainly tried to mitigate the insomnia problem when I do have a few hours to get some ZZZs. Several years ago, after having insomnia for weeks and after falling asleep twice at a stoplight coming home from work, I figured I’d better see a doctor. He gave me some Restoril, which did work on occasion. I’ve also tried Ambien, which works like a charm. You talk to the gods and dead relatives for a few minutes and then it knocks you the eff out for hours. Good stuff, but I always worry about taking something like that very often. The desire for sleep is countered with the fear that I’ll be one of those people you read about on Ambien that drives across town in their pajamas to buy donuts at 4:00 in the morning and has no recollection of it. My mom tried Ambien once, and Dad said she spent a half hour talking to a cup and saucer.

So I wake up every morning after playing the Snooze Game four or five times and I’m so tired I’m literally weaving as I brush my teeth. By the afternoon I’m fantasizing about sleep when I’m supposed to be finishing a chapter or conjuring up dinner. Imagining that I’m on vacation in Tahiti and splayed out on a king size bed with crisp white sheets in a rattan furnished room overlooking a turquoise ocean, listening to the waves and sea birds and smelling salt air and tropical flowers…. I mean, is there anything as deliriously pleasurable as sinking into a comfortable spot, knowing there’s no specific time you have to wake up? Dream on, and now get back to work.

I know a lot of the problem is simply not having enough hours a day to set aside for sleep. Between having one full time job, another part time job, and a toddler, most of my time is spoken for. And when the work is done and my kid is in bed, I know I should go to bed, too. But those few hours after the computers are shut down and she’s actually asleep are the only time I have all day to myself or to spend with my boyfriend, and I treasure them.

But even when I do collapse into bed these last several weeks, I just lie there with a racing heart and grinding teeth. There are plenty of methods besides pharmaceuticals one can use to improve their chances of a good night’s sleep, and sometimes they’ve even worked for me:

· Make your room as dark as possible. Turn the illuminated clock away from you, and invest in some blackout shades or curtains.

· The room needs to be on the cooler side, so set your thermostat down and use a small fan, both for the cooling effect and the ambient noise.

· Turn off the TV and music, as they can not only disrupt REM sleep, but can induce some bizarre and unsettling dreams when they become incorporated into your nocturnal roaming. I once fell asleep listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall and jerked awake when it was over thinking I was dying in a foxhole after running from the police.

· Take the phone out of your bedroom. The last thing you need is a middle-of-the night text from a drunk friend pondering their existence or a wrong number from Baltimore waking you up.

· It might seem heartless, but kick the animals out of the bedroom. Your groaning, farting dog or bladder stomping, ear chewing cat can find somewhere else to curl up. They’ll paw at the door for a few nights, but will eventually get used to it.

· No caffeine after noon. That afternoon coffee, tea or soda may be tempting, but caffeine can stay in your system for up to 12 hours.

· No alcohol right before bed. A drink or two might put you to sleep more quickly, but ultimately it disrupts the deeper stages of sleep.

· Don’t go to bed with an empty or full stomach. Hunger and indigestion can be distracting.

· Try some melatonin right before bed, about 3 mg, from your local vitamin aisle. It’s been my experience that it helps you fall asleep faster and most definitely can produce some intense dreams.

Again, sometimes these methods work, and sometimes I still spend hours trying to fall asleep but ultimately just amending my imaginary to-do list and ruminating over the status quo. So in the meantime I guess I’ll just do my best to keep up the ruse of playing a human being during the daylight hours and hoping that I come back in the next life as a pampered housecat that does nothing but doze 18 hours a day. I think I could live with pooping in a box for that kind of life.

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