I’ve been thinking some more about the article in the New York Times — Rethinking Sleep — which introduces a different way of thinking about sleep: one that is actually more in agreement with what I’ve found to be true — that it’s actually more helpful to sleep less time more often during the day. And I’ve been realizing that getting hung up on other people’s definitions of what works, has cost me a lot.
Sleep has deprived me — at least, my approach to sleep has. My attitude has been that I have to have enough “good” sleep, or I won’t be able to function. My belief has been that fatigue impairs me, all across the board… from impeding my thinking and comprehension, to affecting my behavior, to making me more irritable (which can’t be helped), to making me feel like crap. And when all that’s the case, then I am less capable, I am less able to function, I am less talented and intelligent and resourceful than I could be if I were just rested.
But here’s the thing — I’m always going to be tired. I’ve realized that, over the past months, especially during my most recent vacation, when I had a week and a half to sleep and rest, but I spent just as little time resting (even less) than I do under normal conditions. There is simply too much to experience, too much to enjoy, too much to explore, to spend my time sleeping. Maybe others can, but I agree with one of my favorite Facebook destinations — I Cannot Go to Bed – There is Epic Shit Happening on the Internet. There is just so, so much to see and think and do. One of the mantras in my head has been (secretly, because I don’t want to be maudlin) — “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Because there is so much living to do, and none of us knows how much time we have left.
Not only is there so much to do and see and experience, but I also put myself 100% into most of the things I do, and when you’re going at top speed, starting from when you get up, you’re going to get tired. You just are. In fact, I’m suspicious of people who aren’t wiped out by 2 p.m. What have they been doing? Have they been doing anything at all? And if so, why are they holding back? Nobody has unlimited strength and endurance. Something’s gotta give. If folks aren’t utterly wiped by early afternoon, I figure they’ve been skating right along, taking their sweet old time, and never mind what actually has to get done. On time. Right.
What — me have an attitude? Maybe a little bit. Okay… yeah, I’m busted.
Nothing peeves me more than people who slack and don’t do diddly with their lives — not only because it pisses me off that I have to work so hard, while others laze around, but also because it seems like such a monumental, terrible, horrible waste of time. We are given certain talents and abilities, which nobody else on earth has. We are all needed, we are all valuable, we all have something to contribute, something to give. And yet countless people sit around and do absolutely nothing with what they have. It especially makes me insane when I see people who are out of work, who can’t find jobs, who sit around and do nothing all day, when they could be out volunteering or doing something truly useful with themselves to give back and be part of something larger than themselves.
I mean, there is NO excuse for that. It’s one thing, if you’re seriously injured or seriously impaired, but even then we can still do something useful and valuable with ourselves, with our lives.
And yet, how many of us sit around on our asses, watching mindless, pointless television, playing games online, frittering away our hours chatting with friends on the phone, and so on? Seriously, no one should be out of “work” because there is so much that needs to be done, with or without a paycheck. Honestly, people. We need to get a grip.
But then I think about the mindset that I was laboring under for quite some time — an idea that stopped me in my tracks, so many times, and produced the kind of behavior that I complain about seeing in others — the choice to do less, not more, the choice to favor and coddle oneself, instead of getting outside yourself and doing what needs to be done.
What was holding me back was the idea that I had to be well-rested in order to be functional, in order to be healthy, in order to use my brain. So, if I wasn’t rested, I was screwed, basically. If I was tired, I wasn’t thinking or acting or being the best I could be — in fact, I wasn’t capable of it. That was the “given” in my mind, which kept me and my dreams and hopes and activities tamped down and kept me always on edge, watching for lapses and shortcomings, due to fatigue.
Thinking back, I believe I’ve spent a lot of time commenting on this blog about being tired, being fatigued, and making that the reason (excuse) for my shortcomings. It’s been very convenient, too, because that’s the information I received from my NP, and it’s also been what I observed in my life. When I was tired, I could see issues with my thinking and cognition and behavior and ability to function. When I was tired, I had outbursts and meltdowns, temper tantrums, and freak-outs. So therefore, “good sleep” must be a pre-requisite for me to have any kind of a life, right?
Well, maybe. I mean, having good sleep is helpful, and I tend to feel absolutely amazing when I’m well-rested. But seriously, what are the chances of that always being the case? I get tired easily, I get worn out. I run myself hard, and I use myself up on what I’m doing. That initial feeling of good-ness goes away pretty quick, and then I’m left with nothing other than feeling down, and feeling down on myself about it. So, that’s only partly helpful, when I think about it.
So, relying 100% on my “sleep foundation” to function isn’t very practical. Or, it’s practical for maybe 30 minutes out of every day.
And what about the rest of my day? What do I do then? Just stop living my life? “Not a chance,” I like to tell myself. But that’s what I’ve kind of been doing. I’ve been giving up on doing more, doing better, learning and improving, because of being tired. And on top of it, when I do that, I stress myself out, because I’m telling myself “I can’t” when that’s not necessarily the case. I have it in my head that I’ll be more restless, less able to keep focused, less able to perform, more irritable, harder to handle, less capable, etc.
But that’s just in my head. Really and truly. Because when I think about it, the real mythology is that being “well-rested” is going to change anything for the better. As a matter of fact, there’s no guarantee of that. I’m just as likely to screw up, when I’m rested, as when I’m not. I’m just as likely to fly off the handle when I’m not tired as when I am, and I even get MORE agitated when I’ve had a full night’s sleep.
The thing that turned things around in my perception was realizing that even when I AM totally rested, I still mess up. I still make mistakes. I still overlook things and screw things up for myself and people around me. Even under optimal conditions, I never know if my performance is going to be up to snuff. I still need to be able to adapt and learn and change and grow. Being well-rested is no guarantee of anything.
So, where does that leave me? Basically, it leaves me looking for other alternatives to keep going, to keep focused, to keep present and on my game. I’ve tried coffee, but that fries me if I have too much. I can’t do all the sugar and carbs, because that balloons me up to an uncomfortable weight. I’ve tried exercise, and that’s helpful, but it can be difficult to work out as much and as well as I’d like, with my weird-ass schedule (which I am hoping will change before too long). Where can I get the resources, the fuel, the drive, to keep going?
Well, I’ve realized something — I have a steady stream of energy and motivation available to me at all times — and that source is pretty constant. It’s in a couple of forms — first, in the body fat I drag around with me — that’s a ready energy source that my body automatically packs on, which I can tap into. The more demands are made on me, the more my body makes provisions for it by adding fat — which I can burn to keep going.
The other source is the constant restlessness that’s directly related to how “awake” my brain is — the “tonic arousal” as they say. I am pretty constantly jazzed up over something or another, and my energy levels have been marveled at by more than one person. And the more tired I am, the more energy I actually have. The trick is, making sure I stay focused on my goals, instead of being pulled off in all directions over little distractions or anxiety about not being able to do something.
See, it’s the anxiety about my supposed limitations that keeps me down and keeps me concerned and worried, and also cuts into my focus and attention. Anxiety about being incapable or flawed or damaged or broken keeps me on edge and makes it pretty difficult to keep things simple and just relax, so I can learn my lessons. That tension literally cuts off my ability to learn and grow and adapt, to see myself accurately and self-assess my performance to the best of my ability. I cut off my nose to spite my face, by being so freaked out about not getting enough sleep.
The thing is, “well-rested” is not the beginning and end of it all. It’s just one part of the whole experience for me. It’s really what I do with my rested-ness that makes the difference — can I learn? Can I grow? Can I change? Can I adapt? And how well? And as a matter of fact, even where sleep fails me, I can direct the constant restlessness of my brain towards doing exactly those things – learning, growing, changing, adapting… being flexible and being able to modify my choices and actions when I see they’re not working out.
My tonic arousal and restlessness — if it’s not directed — can be a liability. But if it’s directed and used properly, it can be a tremendous asset. And that’s something I haven’t actually factored in over the past years of learning to live with TBI. It never occurred to me that the restlessness might actually come in handy, but it does. It truly does. It’s a constant source of energy for me, a constant source of change and movement. And if I can simply stay motivated and positive, it can be a tremendous force for positive change in my life.
Instead of making it my enemy, I need to make it my friend. I need to understand the dangers of it, and also the benefits, and act accordingly. I need to be bigger than it all, and direct it the way I see fit. Rather than being its servant, its slave, I need to be its master. And just get on with my life.
Now, granted, I still do need to rest. This is not a substitute for sleep or rest or anything like that. I still need to get to bed at a decent hour — didn’t do so great last night: I ate some ice cream and checked Facebook before I went to bed and ended up laughing hilariously for half an hour over something that struck me as incredibly funny. What’s more, I composed whole essays in my mind about this photo I saw, and in my mind I was already going on a speaking tour to discuss the socio-cultural ramifications of the lessons we can learn from that photo.
All this, in the wee hours of the morning – not at all helpful for my sleeping.
But back to the topic — I do need to keep on top of my sleep, but I have my backup plan that takes the pressure off me, in the case I don’t get enough sleep and I’m feeling behind. My body will more than make up for what I’m missing in sleep, with a combination of adrenaline and all the other biochemical substances that spur me to action. I might not be as cognitively sharp as I could be, but I’ll definitely have the energy to just keep going, no matter what. And I’ll have the resources to observe and learn and adapt, even when I’m tired. Of that, I can be sure.
Because my body has adapted that way. And I can take advantage of that adaptation.
Again, like I said, this is not a substitute for good sleep. But it is Plan B, for those times when I’m running low on energy. Our systems are built to self-sustain, and we rarely push ourselves to our true limits. Few of us even make the effort to find out, what all we’re capable of. And I’ve been using poor sleep as an excuse to do just that. I can bitch and complain about other people being lazy, but it could be that they are laboring under the same kinds of mis-perceptions that I was — that something innate to us is limiting us and holding us back, and there’s no point in actually moving on and doing anything, because we are so fundamentally flawed. Broken. Damaged. Worthless.
It’s not true, of course, but that’s what we tell ourselves. Until and unless someone else comes along who’s even worse off than us, and we see that they’re actually doing something with their life. Until and unless we take a long, hard look at ourselves, take a step back to see things for how they really are, and then make the necessary adjustments to do better… to live better… to be better.
So there it is. Sleep is good. Sleep is great. But I have a backup plan for when I don’t get enough. I don’t have to let fatigue stop me. I can just keep going. I might feel like crap and not be 100%, but I can at least keep going, lose myself in my work, and find something about myself I never knew was there before.