Sleep Deprivation

I hate sleep deprivation. Of all the mundane physical sensations, it’s probably the shittiest. It’s also been a frequent companion. When I was very young, staying up late excited me, but my sleep reached an average of three hours by the first month of grade eight, which forever killed my enthusiasm. The following 2.5 years were a single never-ending day, a haze of social fears, sleep deprivation, and untreated ADHD. I started sleeping better afterward, but I was also self-medicating with caffeine pills, which caused occasional nights where I couldn’t sleep at all. I usually sleep for seven or eight hours now, but I stupidly, stupidly played Zelda II: The Adventure of Link until 1 AM this Tuesday, and I couldn’t shut my brain off afterward. I spent the next day at college with no sleep whatsoever. It’s a little better than in grade 11, since I take stimulants now, but it’s still one of the shittiest feelings in recent memory. And self-inflicted, no less.

Every time I have a night like that, I remember: there are people who brag about losing sleep, or think you’re lazy if you can’t get by on five hours every morning. There are times when you have to wake up early, just as there are times when you can’t get enough food or water, but it should be avoided as much as possible. It doesn’t just make you tired, it impairs you. According to the CDC,

  • An estimated 1 in 25 adult drivers (aged 18 years or older) report having fallen asleep while driving in the previous 30 days.
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving was responsible for 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries, and 800 deaths in 2013. However, these numbers are underestimated and up to 6,000 fatal crashes each year may be caused by drowsy drivers.

Sweet dreams. However, I’ve always wondered if the severe stages affect others as much as me. My senses were hyperactive in childhood, and when I stay up all night, the slightest touch feels deeply nauseating, like nails over chalkboard. I would rather suffer twenty-four hours of influenza symptoms. It sounds melodramatic, but that’s the best description I can give. As such, I’ve prepared an account of those feelings: I’m curious how familiar they sound.

For me, lost sleep affects the senses as deeply as the mind. At the beginning, it decays vigilance, it impairs memory, and it leaves eyes coarse and bloodshot, as if they’ve been soaked in chlorine. The effects are minor with one missed hour, but they worsen quickly afterward. Muscle tremors set in, punishing movement, exposure to cold, or further attempts at sleep. When they develop late at night, it becomes tempting to get out of bed, but that only makes them worse in the end.
At amounts below two hours, it feels less like drowsiness than poisoning. The brain is prevented from clearing certain neurotransmitters, and the journey begins with mild euphoria. The room seems further away, and normal thought disintegrates, removing fears and expectations that seemed overwhelming before. Plans are formed for staying awake the next day: caffeine, lots of social interaction, and sharp focus on simple chores.

But the hope fades around the time the sun rises. Hours become an undifferentiated mass, as if buried under cannabis, but my muscles protest at the slightest touch, and the world acquires a harsh, grainy filter, leaving nearly everything painful to view. When I shower, the water clings sickeningly to my face, and my shirt disgusts me as I slide it on. If possible, I hide in my room all day with the door locked, skipping meals to remain alone. You hate yourself for reaching this state again, but your only priority is forgetting you’re there. I’ll often watch Netflix or other websites to distract myself, although I have to remove my glasses, because otherwise the most attractive sets and people look highly disgusting. I’ve watched entire television seasons in a single day, which is a dubious honor. Video games can also be an effective distraction, but it’s difficult to gather enough energy, and I usually don’t perform well. Books are almost impossible to focus on. Masturbation is an option, but it produces sweat, which reminds me how shitty I feel.

If forced to travel in public, I slide my glasses in my pocket, try to avoid looking at anyone, and attempt to hide my disgust over wind, cold temperature, insects, moisture, and anything else that happens to brush my face. I don’t think I’m successful, because people often ask if something’s wrong; my grandfather once thought I was on drugs, and not legal ones (I wasn’t). I’ll complete work or chores if they’re right in front of me, but it’s physically difficult to get anything myself, or sometimes even to remember it. As the day progresses, I start involuntarily sleeping for brief moments, leaving time disjointed and spotty. It’s unsettling to become so weak, so confused by simple activities.

Often, sleep deprivation is caused by having too much work, taking too long to do it, or some insidious blend of the two. Writing is a particular culprit, because you have to focus on it very deeply, but you also have to relax yourself to really get anywhere. Otherwise, if you’re like me, you’ll spend six hours writing three sentences, and other tasks—math, laundry, job applications—will fall by the wayside, until they form a heap that can only be conquered by staying up until three in the morning. Of course, the more sleep you miss, the dumber you get, and the more you forget what you’re doing. In accordance with circadian rhythm, your energy dips between 2 and 5 PM, leaving precious little behind. You accomplish nothing until the evening, when it begins to rise, and nighttime hormones relieve stress, making you forget how tired you were. You’re tempted to stay up until three again to catch up, promising yourself you’ll do better tomorrow, or when you finish this class, or in a year or two.
Electronics are another culprit. I’ve been known to play video games until eleven or twelve at night, and I regret it almost every time. It’s easier to play for longer than I intend, but more importantly, they affect me afterward. There’s a particular sort of energy that leaves half your mind in the game, even when you’re lying in bed with the lights off. When I reach that state, it can take two or three hours to fall asleep, if it’s even possible. First person shooters seem to be the worst, perhaps because of the intensity, and perhaps because I keep my computer in my room. But any genre or console can do it. While rarer, television can have the same effect. Web browsing hasn’t induced as many involuntary all-nighters, but it’s a good way to stay up an hour or two late, particularly if I don’t brush my teeth or clean the kitchen first.

The other primary cause has been frustration over the sleep itself. It’s much, much harder to sleep well if I’m scared I won’t be able to. When I started trying to correct my sleep cycle in high school, it had been almost three years since I’d reliably gotten eight hours. The first time I tried to sleep at nine or ten, my mind wouldn’t shut off until well after midnight. I faced the same problem again the next day. My body wasn’t used to sleeping that early, and I was going to bed excited about getting more rest. Both made it difficult for my brain to shut off, and some adolescent chemistry might have contributed as well. The transition into sleep involves letting go, and my desperation pushed it away. Our bathroom also had a mold problem, requiring several walls to be cut open, and the repair company left two loud devices running there. They were necessary, but they woke me up two or three times each night.

I also had unmedicated, undiagnosed ADHD, and it was worse back then. Even when I did manage to sleep for eight or nine hours, I never stopped being tired, no matter how much exercise, caffeine, or loud music I added to the picture. My mother still smoked back then, and she rarely slept for more than four or five hours. She’d always encouraged me to go to bed earlier in the past, but this time she just wanted me to shut up about being so tired. I suspect she was still bitter about me setting my own bedtime, and I started plenty of stupid arguments myself, as you’d expect. But the end result was that no one listened, and I essentially had to relearn how to sleep in a normal fashion. It took months to accomplish.

On the positive side, I finally beat Zelda II Wednesday morning. It’s probably the hardest Zelda game, but it’s also the only flat-out RPG, with the possible exception of Breath of the Wild. And like most RPGs, you can get stronger than intended if you’re willing to spend hours grinding. I started a new game Tuesday evening, found a room in the first palace with three respawning Bubbles, and killed them for experience until my attack stat reached seven. The rest largely followed. The last two palaces murdered me even with all stats at eight, but I pushed through, and Dark Link has an A.I. oversight that makes him much easier than he appears. This could have been accomplished without missing a single of sleep, and probably more efficiently, but at least something good came of it.


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