Sleep is not a luxury


I’m fascinated with sleep. Scientists have been puzzling—for years—over why humans need so much of it to stay healthy. Recently, I read an article in the New York Times that detailed an intriguing theory that is being proven out in research.

The super-condensed version is that our brains generate lots of waste protein while we think and reason during waking hours. Trashed proteins pile up by the end of a busy day. There is a clean-up system at work that sweeps through and tidies up as we sleep, much like a night-crew efficiently cleaning an empty office building. Cerebrospinal cleaning fluid flows through our brains at a greatly increased rate when we sleep, penetrating deeper. During the day, the fluid can only shine up surface mess; maybe because the brain is so busy with other tasks.

Of course everyone, or most everyone, knows that sleep is pretty essential. Every new parent goes through that fog of stupidity that comes from severe and prolonged sleep deprivation. Students fry their brains with all-nighters, then crash hard. Still, until recently, no one could figure out why a nightly rest period was so crucial. Turns out (spoiler alert) that ongoing sleep deprivation could be a huge contributor to Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases.

Which bears out my own credo: “Sleep is not a luxury.”

This was not always my credo. And even after I embraced it, sleep often eluded me. For a long time, I couldn’t sleep effectively. Turns out that sleeplessness and depression are twin evils—off and on, both have bedeviled me over the years. There’s a school of thought that the two issues are intertwined, part and parcel of each other, which makes sense to me. There’s an interesting exploration of the linkage in an article in Psychology Today.

Depression mutes memories, drains the blood from whole months. My strongest recollection of how it felt to be deeply depressed is summed up in this poem I wrote about ten years back:

Remembering: Depression

Sleep calling me,
pulling me down like a drowning child
pulling me under into dreams thick as blooming algae.
Suspended in the watery dark
In the airless depths
I’m sinking
too spent to struggle
for the surface
for the green glow of life above.

I slept a lot when I was depressed, but never felt rested. My dreams went on and on, depleting me. I now realize both my sleep quality and my dream quality were disordered by depression, but no one told me that then.

Lately, I am especially grateful for healthy sleep and the gift of dreaming. That’s what I’ll write about next: dreamland, an area ripe for exploration.

To sleep, perchance to dream…oh, definitely.

Black ice

I turned.

The car kept going straight, as if the steering wheel were a toy. We slid across an invisible glaze of ice, heading straight for the concrete barrier wall at the curve of the on-ramp, picking up speed. I braked and turned into the skid. The ABS brakes rattled; the car’s rear end swung wide, fishtailing. I steered gently the opposite direction then back the other way, just a touch, willing it to straighten its course. And it did. We got past the ice. Merged into thick traffic and went on, like nothing had happened.

Life is full of slippery spots, split seconds when things can either stay on course or spin out of control. Those scary times when a doctor tells you they don’t know what’s wrong, much less if they can fix it. Or that they do know what’s wrong, and can’t fix it. Or that it’s too late for fixing.

Terrifying times when you feel like you’re sailing towards a wall, too fast. With no way to stop. And yet, suddenly, you’re expected to merge back into the stream of life, ready or not.

That’s how I felt, years ago, when my father died. After the other-worldly bubble of the funeral, the world accelerated and I had to find a way to merge— to emerge back into normal life, when my whole world had just spun three-hundred and sixty degrees. At eighteen, I’d never experienced such a shock. I’d had more minor ones: two grandparents had passed on. My best friend had lost both parents already at that point, so I wasn’t a complete stranger to death itself. It was horrible, but at first, I was in shock, numb.

The merge is what caught me by surprise. The expectation to return to normal when normal as I knew it was gone. I remember thinking “How? How do people DO this?” And feeling inadequate that I didn’t know how, that I wasn’t okay.

In my family, as in a lot of families, the solution was to soldier on, bravely. Not to show weakness. Not to talk about it, because talking about it would just hurt, right? So I ignored the raw emotions that coursed through me, tried to pretend my deep grief didn’t exist. It was time to be done with that business, and so I was done. I drove full-speed into the fast lane, thinking I could outrun the pain. It didn’t work out so well.

Now I know better. You will hit some sort of black ice eventually. Yes. Go ahead. Merge! Life doesn’t stop moving. Be gentle. Let yourself recover in the old-lady slow lane, give yourself time. Merge with unwiped tears running down your blotchy cheeks, hands sweaty, face a snotty mess. Breathe deeply, until your heart rate steadies. Steer right into the pain. There’s no way around it in the end.

On long messy first drafts

Life is one long messy first draft. The narrative arc is, if you are lucky, a long one.

It struck me today: this is why I like writing fiction. It allows me to polish dialogue, to give my characters just the right words and actions to drive the story to its conclusion. Yes, fictional characters make messes of their lives. Otherwise, they’d be pretty dull.

But their missteps are choreographed, like a ballet. Effective fictional characters— the likeable ones, anyway—are entertaining and engaging, making colossal mistakes, then finding their way to a better place. Good fiction often pivots on that magical quality of transformation. I think that’s what makes me want to run backward sometimes. If only I could edit out my circular meanderings. Things would happen faster, more dramatically. Like watching slow-motion videos of flowers unfurling. Look! The ugly bulb has pushed through the heavy earth and burst into bloom, right before our eyes.

In real life, flowers wilt. Flowers smell. Flowers die. Sometimes they fail to bloom, and sometimes they are crushed by a booted heel at their tenderest, and never quite recover. Real people, myself included, can be mean, can be clueless, can be lost, can be stupid—hence the urge to wish for a really, really big red pen.

I see now that I’ve been wishing I could workshop my life story. It’s a time-sucking trap. I mean, what IF I’d begun writing in earnest at thirty, or forty? How much better would I be by now? What if I’d known which things to worry about and which things to let run their course? (Oh so plain now, in hindsight!)

What if I’d learned sooner that so many of the obligations and material things I thought I were vital to a good life were actually entirely unimportant to happiness; in fact, wanting them drove me to work harder and lose sight of more vital concerns and joys.

As my dog-owning friends say when their dogs pick up something unhealthy: “leave it!”

This is the year for me to let go of that unhealthy yet seductive urge to hold onto the past, to let go of wishing I’d done this or that differently. It’s time to focus on the now, to save the red pen for work, and let life unfold moment by moment—messy as hell, sweet and imperfect.

Into the future

Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.

– Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment


It’s January 1, 2014.

Last night’s countdown has me thinking about the ultimate countdown.

According to the Federal Government’s Life Expectancy Calculator, I have 33.4 years left on this planet, but that doesn’t factor in family history (big negative), health history (mixed bag, that), lifestyle (pretty good right now, but all those years of smoking…).

After playing around with a few more calculators, it turns out that current lifestyle seems to weigh heavily into the forecast. According to the more detailed calculators I tried, I’m looking at about 40 more years. Yikes. I could conceivably be here to toast in 2054, when my older daughter will be over 60! Hard to imagine what the world will be like by then. Will I still be shuffling around, under my own steam? Or living in a crazy mixed up state? (By which I mean, worse than I currently am!)

The bigger question: How many active, mentally-with-it years do I have left? None of the calculators I tried factored in dementia in near relatives, or the death ages of parents. None of the calculators predict quality of life.

Perhaps spiritual author Eckhart Tolle has it right—quit thinking about the future, live in the now.

Tolle says that the future is just a mental construction. This moment is all we really have. I agree to a point, but have trouble (clearly!) sticking to the now in practice.

If I don’t cultivate mindfulness, one of these days I might cross Clifton Avenue, distracted, thinking about what the world will be like in 2054, wondering how much will change during my theoretical lifespan. If I’m not careful, I might wander into a busy intersection pondering whether the rain forests will be gone entirely, if the oceans will be a cesspool of toxins, if the divisions between rich and poor will have balanced out, or grown cruelly sharper. Lost in the future, I won’t see the bus of NOW bearing down on me.

I imagine time stretching out like warm taffy in the second I snap into the moment, realizing it is my last. Perhaps in that moment, the secrets of the universe will become plain. Or maybe there are no secrets? Maybe Eckhart has it right. Maybe I need to learn how to be present, how to stop myself from jetting into the future or sinking into the past.

I’ll worry about that—later.