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Sleep Deprivation: Ignorance Is Definitely NOT Bliss

A lot of people cheat on sleep, and get away with it for the longest time. Willpower and youth can make unhealthy living a breeze, and denial can make you blind to obvious signs of a problem.

I remember being just a few years old, maybe 7 or 8, having a friend sleep over. We stayed up all night, probably because we weren't supposed to. I don't think I slept at all the next day either.

In my early teens, I was still getting good grades (mostly over 90%) in spite of sleeping just a few hours a night. I think I started going to sleep late because I sometimes had difficulty falling asleep, so I waited until I was tired before going to bed. Around 13 or 14 years old I was playing a lot of video games and watching a lot of TV, I would sometimes stay awake almost the entire weekend glued to the computer, perhaps mostly skipping two nights in a row. In the Icelandic equivalent of junior high, I actually remember waking up standing in the shower not knowing how I got there.

In the Icelandic equivalent of high school/college (four years of school after 10 mandatory school years, 6 through 15 and then 16 through 19 years old) I was really starting to show obvious signs of chronic sleep deprivation, desperately trying to stay awake in "boring" classes and losing interest in life. Everything was as if seen through a haze. I had no drive to exercise and abused food in obscene ways, such as drinking 3L of soda daily. As I got older and started desperately wanting female companionship I would wander the clubs downtown on weekends, with friends or alone, sober (driving) or drunk, waiting for sex to happen. It never did (duh) and I went home at 5 or 6 am disappointed. Sleeping 3 or 4 hours a night, staying up until 3 or 4 am playing video games and waking up at 7 to go to school only to spend 80% of my concentration on the difficult task of staying awake, I was there only for the mandatory attendance and since school and homework was "boring", I could only "start" the day after dinner, when finally I could do something "interesting" like playing games or watching TV.

Needless to say I barely got through those four years with passing grades and at the university level I could never keep pace with the 4-5 different subjects at the same time and the extremely demanding workload, being so out of sync with my self. A few crash-and-burns later I was still not registering sleep deprivation as an important contributor to my problems. I blamed the educational system, mandatory attendance at early hours or social pressures and my diet, all of which are imperfect but far from being the root cause. I worked on my diet, sometimes made headway with exercise for months at a time, tried supplementation and different types of work but never any significant focus on sleep.

The most extreme sign of my chronic sleep deprivation was drowsy driving. I mastered drowsy driving. Rarely was I driving while NOT being drowsy. On my way home from work or school, stuck in traffic waiting for movement to happen, driving home from a night downtown, waking up after 2-3 hours of sleep to drive my mother to work and then going back home for more sleep. I would use tricks almost every day, like keeping my leg stiff, singing very loudly along with the radio, moving frantically in my seat but just barely holding on to consciousness through extreme measures. This did not register as a serious problem.

I remember one incident in particular, I was driving home after dropping my mother off at work, I was so tired I actually fell asleep at the wheel. I had been drifting to the side of the road, usually when something catastrophic almost happened I would get an adrenaline boost (I guess) and would make it all the way home wide awake, but this time I just blacked out in spite of all my "mastery" and woke up when someone honked their horn. I had driven through a red light, miraculously still on the right lane without crashing (luckily this was at 6 am so there was just one other car in the vicinity).

I once worked for an elevator company for a summer, talk about danger of falling. This was physically exhausting work and I would routinely catch myself falling asleep while standing, having to regain balance by grabbing hold of the next something. I started showing up ten or twenty minutes late while working as an electrician at a construction site, because I couldn't get out of bed in the morning after maybe six hours of sleep (between around 1 am, or even later, and 7 am), "fortunately" I was such a workhorse that I got away with it.

I've only recently begun seriously working on my sleep but already I feel like I've discovered a miracle cure. I have earplugs and a mask, take melatonin, lock the door, silence the phone and try to set the alarm as close to 10 hours later as my schedule allows. I'm working night shifts, reversing my circadian rhythm completely every 7 days but I've never felt more rested because I'm actually getting a "passing grade" in sleep 70% of the time. I've begun to lose weight, depression and anxiety are subsiding along with worrying and negativity, memory and concentration are coming back and I'm starting to get the notion that perhaps (just perhaps) life is not just a struggle we are stuck with.

I never thought I would be a textbook case of anything exceptional, since I always felt my life was uninteresting, painfully average and insignificant, but I could probably enter the Guinness Book of World Records in the category of denial and stubborn compensation. Had I heard sleep was important? Of course. Had it registered? Obviously not. Why? Who knows. If anyone sees themselves in half of this excessively long abstract of my life story, trust me, you do not want to know where the road ends. Turn right, NOW, and get some sleep.

PS: I've been told I'm smart, in fact I managed to get through my "middle" school by cramming for each test for only a few hours each after 1 year of no studying (permission not to attend classes or turn in schoolwork, just take the tests after the final year), and actually graduating. Think what I could have done with my life if I hadn't ruined it with sleeplessness.

Kevin: What an incredible story, thanks very much for sharing it. I'm thrilled you've seen the light of how enormously a low sleep debt can impact your life. I'm positive others can relate to what you've written here, and I hope they heed your advice.

Did you find yourself reading this visitor-submitted story in stunned disbelief? Does it hit close to home anywhere for yourself? Share your thoughts using the "Post Comments" link below.


Comments for Sleep Deprivation: Ignorance Is Definitely NOT Bliss

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Dec 07, 2011
Hello fellow icelander NEW
by: Anonymous

Reading this only made me want to sleep ;) I've been up for 20 hours, time to sleeeeeeeep

Jan 10, 2013
I can't when I tell myself I can? NEW
by: Anonymous

Same. What keeps me on this ongoing thing, where I almost, if not definitley feel as though I'm dying. What happens if you push yourself beyond your control. To keep myself going in life thats what i always ask myself. If you are running continuously, if your mind tells you to keep going, so you try, when you are stopped, do you die? what happens? What stops you? ...and how? what if you have so much hurt that will never go away 100% never go away, then what happens if you keep pushing? ..harder, more and more, which becomes your daily life? At this ongoing cycle...i guess you would die? when you lose control, literally to keep moving....even when half the time you are even unaware of doing just that?!

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Welcome! This site is continuously being created by students of Dr. William C. Dement's Sleep And Dreams course at Stanford University.

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