It’s not terribly long ago that I began to sleep what the medical profession call ‘normally’. Their definition of normal and my own, were poles apart. Their normal was a recommended seven to eight hours a night.
Medical recommendations sometimes pass me by and that was one of them – my norm was four and a half, to five and a half hours a night. I couldn’t make it to the recommended golden hours of zzzzz’s….. no way, no how. Besides – I’d been like that a life-time.
My ‘normal’ was so hard-wired, so entrenched and so deep-rooted, I thought I had to be one of those people who were at the short-sleeping end of the scale – however extreme.
Now I am convinced that it was unresolved anxiety was the under-lying cause. As a result of my lifestyle, I was running harder and faster to stand still, to meet what I experienced as increasingly inhuman demands – demands that are common in many corporate environments and organisations and in modern living. Work-life balance – was possible………. in theory.
It wasn’t just me though – I saw a lot of over-wrought people out there. There was a macho culture about not ‘needing’ a lot of sleep. In some subtle way, we began to reward ourselves for our bravado, comparing notes about sleeping and not sleeping – the long hours culture gathering speed. Arriving early and leaving late was a perverse signal of loyalty and dedication, of commitment. It was a form of grotesque inverted heroism in some and absolute control freakery in others. Sleep deprivation was a sort of sado-masochistic bloodsport.
Some people would claim, to ‘have slept like a baby’, which begged the question.” So did you waken up, bawling and incontinent?”
To paraphrase an old joke about voting patterns in Northern Ireland, I tended to waken early and often – So what’s changed?
It’s been a long slow process in many respects – better sleep was an unexpected but welcome side-effect of other major changes in my life. A few years ago, I accepted redundancy. That came at the end of another major upheaval – the end of a marriage.
The thing is, major life events are often predisposing factors for stress and depression – the consequence of which, might result in further disruption to sleep. What I noticed instead, was that better rest and better sleep just happened. At first, I’d sleep a few extra hours in the afternoon – I’d feel ‘floored’ and that I had no choice but to do so. I feared that sleeping in the afternoon would compromise sleep at night, but in the round, it didn’t. The more sleep I got, the more I needed. When I could give in to sleep, at whatever hours of the day, it usually resulted in better energy levels for getting things done, AND, I slept better at night. The end of the marriage and the end of the job, far from exacerbating the problem, was the starting point of recovery on a grand scale – even though that process has been both, slow and profound.
The job itself was not a bad job, and indeed the marriage was not a ‘bad’ situation either, but they fed each other and fed off each other- and the impact on me was increasingly corrosive – they augmented each other in some grotesque pincer movement. I wasn’t fit for it any more. Over time, the gap between what I wanted and needed for myself, and the demands of working life and the marriage, just polarised. It was ultimately crushing.
I could have continued – bad circumstances can often feel more safe – ‘better the divil you know, than the divil you don’t……‘ but to do so, was taking more and more effort and evoked greater and greater anxiety levels. Besides, when I looked into what the future might be were I to continue, the picture was a mediocre existence at best.
I know now, I would have had to shut down too much of my own life-force, too much of my humanity, just to continue. It might have looked like I was alive, but I wouldn’t have been. Dying inside is a slow, horrible death – it is a waste of life.
There are attractive hooks, which help to keep us in places we don’t want to be – salary, pension rights, sickness pay, holiday pay, employment rights, sometimes even status – ‘security.’ It’s slavery of a sort – the subtle sort, we opt into, strive for, desire and then get trapped by. (Just a thought)
It would be easy, in a way to conflate, marriage, job and me, and take on all the blame – that I was the common denominator – and just not coping. Equally, burnout is too throwaway a term for what happened – it makes it sound like a personal failure – a weakness. It isn’t. Taking those types of judgement out of it and looking at it differently, what I know now, is not sleeping was symptomatic of a deep malaise. I was accommodating so much that didn’t sit well with me any longer. I rationalised lack of sleep as ,’that’s just me……’., when I should have dug deeper to understand the underlying causes.
What I know now, is that it was a barometer of my own well being. It rectified as soon as the things which needed addressed, changed. For me, that has been an added bonus. It wasn’t something I anticipated.
Organisations would do well to pay heed to organisational cultures that predispose, precipitate and perpetuate machismo about low levels of sleep and give attention to the explicit and implicit ways this is fostered.
For individuals, I would say, pay attention – it’s not ‘just you’ and on this one, I’m inclined to say, the doc’s have got it right – you do need sleep. If you’re not getting enough – something has got to change. You’re worth it.