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Conquering my cruel mistress of sleep

Those who know me might remember my love/hate/love relationship with sleep… Really, for years I’ve considered it a complete waste of time, I got really annoyed at anything that messed with the few hours I did get. For a time a few years after high school, I found myself working two jobs, hanging out with friends, riding the bus everywhere, and not getting much sleep. The habit stuck. Starting in 1997, when I got my first “professional” job at Unisys (professional meaning working for a major corporation), I found myself working more and more hours over time. It happened so gradually, I didn’t realize it, and it often happened in spurts, like at month ends and/or quarter ends. It did train me, however, to go extended periods of time off of little sleep.

No surprise, when I started to date someone seriously, I still had to work, so what is the first thing to slip through the cracks? Sleep… Then, a few years later, I decided to go back to school for my degree, and I’m working a lot of hours, running a department, and in a serious relationship. Again, what’s left to give? Sleep, of course!

When you think about life in your early years, you have school during the week, you may stay up as late as your parents let  you, you go to sleep, you wake up early you’re tired, you go to sleep, blah blah blah, and you sleep in on the weekends. During summer break (until you work in your teens maybe), you sleep more, play with friends, etc… Then, when you’re an adult, what do your sleep habits change to? For me, I went from weekdays of getting 6-9 hours of sleep per night and then 8-10 hours per night on weekends (when possible) and then over time that evolved to 4-6 hours of sleep per night and then 6-8 hours per night on weekends (when possible). This continued for years.

Starting in about February of 2011, things changed again when work ramped up again as did some other aspects of life, and sleep got hacked into yet again. I found myself staying up 20 hours many days and on many weekend days, burning the candle at both ends.

You have to ask yourself, though, why why why? Was I an insomniac or something? No, that’s not it, I had just decided my time was more valuable than my sleep was. Was it a mistake? Of course it was. The notorious “they” say you can’t make up lost sleep, and it’s true, but you get used to not getting enough sleep, but I was so used to it, I was completely functional. People were always freaked out how functional I was running off of little to no sleep for such extended periods of time.

The funny thing, however, is that i knew I couldn’t do it forever. Starting in 2012, I stopped taking classes part time (yes, even after I graduated from college), and I got a list together of things I needed to get accomplished… a laundry list of tasks that were time consuming. Unfortunately, while I was burning the candle at both ends, I didn’t know exactly how long that wick was…. tick… tick… tick… boom! That’s the whole point of that figure of speech. You can’t function forever, eventually you will burn out. Luckily, I didn’t do any permanent damage save losing a gall bladder, which was probably going to go out anyway, but this is a lesson learned.

What can we learn from this, though, in regards to sleep?

I used to be really impatient in regards to sleep, but it was something that came quickly. I was so exhausted that I put my head down and I was out.  There have been a few times in my life I can remember having difficulty sleeping and I used to get SOOO mad when I couldn’t fall asleep. Can you remember those times? It’s insomnia… I know you can recall the feeling.

You sit there.

Your mind spins.

Why am I not falling asleep.

What’s my problem.

There’s some thought circulating the drain of my brain keeping me from falling asleep and it keeps going and going and going and going…. Eventually, you may give up, you stand up, turn on the tv, or you sit there, tense, angry, annoyed, simmering, or boiling, grrr, argh… or your own equivalent, until exhaustion hits you, or it doesn’t… Or maybe your alarm goes off and your realize the entire night was wasted.

Fortunately, those nights used to be very infrequent.

These days, they rear their heads more often, unfortunately, but I have made peace with them. If your read my last post on pain (SEE HERE), you know that my chronic pain Yoda has taught me a few things… Well, the same goes with sleep. With chronic pain comes problems with sleep. I’ve never been very good with sleep medication, because I can take half of a Tylenol PM, for example, and sleep until noon the next day, so…. not a good idea. If I take something like Benadryl, even, I can be drowsy the next day, and for someone who likes to write, it stinks! I’ve spent most of the time since I got sick, in the ER, and after being virtually unable to write, so I pretty much decided to “trade up” to insomnia. Some might say that’s stupid. I don’t.

I still do sleep, though depending on my pain level, how my body is reacting to physical therapy on any given day, etc, I may have a partial or full bout with insomnia. Similar to my bout with pain, here is what I’ve learned about NOT sleeping. It’s not all that bad. Sometimes resting can be as “restful” as sleeping. It all comes down to what you do with it. If you accept the fact that you’re spending the time in your bed to actually recover from a full day, you can find ways to do so! Sink into the bed, get comfortable, listen to relaxing music, give your puppy a scratch behind the ear, let the thoughts drain from your brain… Whatever you have to do. One of the most important elements of sleep for me is to let my mind clear, let the stress drain out, the tension go, and rest.

The funny thing about NOT sleeping (i.e. insomnia) is that time tends to pass by so slowly when you go between the various states of pseudo rest, I’ve found that when I don’t stress about it, I’ve gotten up feeling more rested; certainly more rested than I would have expected. Certainly, this is not a substitute for “real” sleep, long term, but it’s another one of those things that’s out of my control, so I choose to not let it stress me out while it remains that way.

Again, this is one of those things that may not help everyone… I used to get very ticked off when I couldn’t fall asleep, but now I choose to accept when it happens and find a way to rest despite it.

On the matter of my relationship with sleep in general, we’re on much better terms now. As I’ve spent the last couple of months with my full time job to heal, sleep and I have been in negotiations on how best to work together. When I sleep, I sleep well, I wake up feeling rested, and I do try to get a reasonable number of hours of sleep. I set alarms so I don’t go nuts, though… most of the time.

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