Thursday, February 23, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sleep

Yesterday, I lied on a health intake form.  No, it wasn't about my weight or cholesterol or blood pressure.  I lied about how much sleep I get.

I said I get 7-9 hours a night.  I suspect that most nights, it's more like 5-7 hours a night.  I wonder how many writers and other artists might report similar habits.

One of my colleagues with an extensive background in Psychology talked about his clients and how he tries to help them deal with their stress so that they can sleep.  His techniques wouldn't work with me.  I'm often waking up because I'm excited to get to my writing desk.  Plus, writing early is the only way I can be sure that I'll get it done.  And then I can go about my day with a lighter heart.

You might ask, how early is early?  It is not uncommon for me to be awake by 3 or 4 a.m.  Of course, most nights I'm asleep by 8:30 or 9:00.  Some nights that's not possible.  But often, I still get up early.

In her latest book The Prosperous Heart:  Creating a Life of "Enough," Julia Cameron talks about the writer Tim Farrington, author of The Monk Downstairs amongst other books.  She mentions that he's routinely gotten up 4 hours before everyone else in his house to get his writing done.  But now his children have grown into teenagers, so he's up even earlier.  He tells Cameron that he got up at 1:30 on the day they talked:  "'But I have to do it,' Tim says, as simply as one might state that they need to drink water or breath fresh air to stay alive.  I know exactly what he means" (138).  So do I.

I don't feel as sleep deprived when I'm getting up for something that I love as I might if I was getting up to feed the dogs and get the kids to school and work on reports before going to work.  I have noticed through the years that many people, especially women, talk longingly about the sleep that they wish they had.

I've noticed that many women talk about good sleep the way they once might have talked about good sex.  There's a longing, a yearning, a wistfulness, a fear that they might never experience it again.  I've noticed that many women talk about yearning for sleep the way they talk about yearning for weight loss, as a process that they understand why it's important, but can't commit to what it would take to bring about the change.

Then there are people like me, people who feel a strange shame about how little sleep we get.  Our culture prizes the people who sleep effortlessly through 8 or 9 hours.  The people who willingly get up while the rest of the world sleeps are seen as weird freaks.  So people like me don't always tell the truth about our sleep patterns.

Today I'm feeling my lack of sleep.  Last night was a late night because of Ash Wednesday service that wasn't over until almost 9:15, and then my spouse and I stayed to count money--and I hadn't gotten much more than 4 hours of sleep the night before.  But most days, I awake feeling refreshed and bright and ready for the day, even though I'm often awake several hours before sunrise.

I have friends who tell me that I can expect to sleep even less as I age.  That might be because they don't realize how little I'm sleeping now.  Or maybe I'll go from needing 5-7 hours to only needing 3-5.  Imagine how much creative work I'll get done then!

1 comment:

Jim Murdoch said...

My father also assured me that as I aged I would need less and less sleep and I looked forward to that time when I was young. Sleep has always felt like a waste of time to me despite all the rational arguments in its favour and I’ve never quite been able to shake my resentment of it. What really annoys me these days is the fact that I can’t rely on it to do its job and I frequently wake up feeling like the night’s giving me a good doing. I can sleep for eight or nine hours and want to crawl back into bed after I’ve been up for an hour. If my sleep pattern would remain consistent I’d settle my life around it—I really don’t care when I sleep—but even when I lie down to it and let my body dictate things don’t work out the way I might have hoped. For a long time I could barely get more than two or three hours sleep in a row and would end up napping throughout the day. That was tough and it took me a long time to get to the stage where I went to bed at eleven and slept through to eight in the morning but the waking up refreshed thing never happened.