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Thoughts on sleep dep

(That title can be read two ways, both of which are correct!)

Coming into day five, and the last 24h have been predictably hard — days 3-4 of any sleep-schedule adjustment are hell pretty much no matter who you ask — but I feel good, overall.  

The other day I was working at a shop, a little nervous in the back of my mind because I knew I was sleep-deprived, and there I am holding an angle grinder.  Then the guy next to me holding an angle grinder groans and tells me that last night was his third one this week getting only four hours of sleep.  He's monophasic, so he's had his sleep cut by half for three days, while all I've done is shorten my usual core by 1/3 and kept all three of my regular naps.  

This is the world, at least the modern one:  Most people, I find, are sleep-deprived for at least a few days each week.  

I'm not someone who's always run away from sleep-deprivation, since trying to avoid it by getting 1/3 of a day of sleep every 24h never worked well for me.  I have, in experimenting and looking for solutions to how I, personally, can feel rested, sometimes run towards sleep-dep, gritting my teeth and girding all my willpower and giving my brain the ol "Bring it on!" in various attempts to overcome my sleep issues.  Many people have not done that.  Many people "know" (actually or imaginarily) that they would feel rested if they just slept 8 hours every night, so they keep aiming for that.  Which would be fine and wonderful, if they were getting it.  But many, way too many, keep missing sleep, often chronically; and they may feel sleep-deprived or not, but on a daily basis…most of them are.

Also, every once in a while someone tries to convince me they're not sleep-dep'd when they clearly are.  And this tickles the crap out of me, of course, because naw, I can see that shit clear as day now. I can hear it in their voices.  

Not all of my experiments worked, I should remind everyone.  Some of them, like, "maybe if I stay awake as long as I physically can, I'll reset my biologial rhythms and be able to sleep monophasically!", were huuuuuge disasters.  I should also add that none of those experiments have ever hospitalized me, or caused me any illness or unhealth that I'm aware of, even after ten years of, shall we say, "alternative" sleeping.  (I have, actually, nearly wound up in the hospital for sleep-dep related symptoms twice… but that was when I was a new mother, and monophasic.)  

My willingness to put myself through sometimes severe sleep deprivation has given me a bit of a reputation for somehow liking it or defending it as a practice (sort of like Indian ascetics defended hunger?) — but I don't think that's accurate at all.  I hate being sleep deprived.  It SUCKS.  It was my hatred of it and the fact that I felt it all the time, from insomnia and poor sleep, that started all this.  And if anything, all my years of switching schedules and experimenting and gritting my teeth to stay awake have only deepened my apprecation for how much sleep-dep sucks.

But let me say this again:  Almost everybody I know is sleep-deprived.  This society, with its glut of we-didn't-have-time-to-think-this-through post-industrial habits, is not friendly to sleep.  The problem of how to be and feel rested may have affected me acutely for various reasons, but they certainly aren't unique to me.

Ask the dude next to me, yawning with the angle-grinder.  He isn't on Day 3 of an adaptation, like I was then.  I'm on Day 5 now, starting to feel better already, and, if it turns out this schedule is compatible with me and works, I expect to feel almost 100% rested again in another 5 days.  If the schedule needs modifications or I have to abandon it for another one, maybe I'll be sleepyish for a bit longer; but either way, I already know how to sleep well and be rested, thanks to the other work I did.  He, though we're almost the same age, doesn't.  Nor do most people.

I get asked a lot, what do I think I'm actually promoting with all this stuff?  Some people look at what I do and assume, because I'm voluntarily wrangling heavy sleep-dep at times, and helping other people do so, that I must be promoting sleep-deprivation.  They could not be more wrong:  I'm desperate to find a way out of sleep-deprivation; to share what I've learned and to learn more about how to find a good balance between rest and energy, for maximal vitality.  I'm a fan and promoter of polyphasic sleep, "sleep hacking" and individual (and scientific!) experimentation, because I want others to be able to find a schedule that they can be rested on, like I have.  That these alternative schedules — polyphasic, biphasic, completely custom, whatever — often have other benefits, in the form of saving time or fitting better with people's schedules and goals, is completely incidental as far as I'm concerned.  Those things are nice, as are some of the other side-benefits, but I'd give them all up just to feel rested.

And I get asked this a lot too, so let me put it to bed:  I'm not a promoter of any particular schedule.  I'm not trying to sell anybody on Uberman, on my methods and tricks for adapting to it, on any of that.  Sleep is arguably one of the most individual things in the world, and I am arguably one of the worst salesmen in the world.  This is entirely about good information, which I'm passionate about, and my having some actually-useful experience to share and advice to offer, which I try to do as often as I can, regardless of whether it benefits me direclty to do so. Some of "why" I do it is the accident of my having a major experience (adapting to Uberman) to write about at a time when the Internet was bereft of such things; and some of it, I'm sure, is just because I'm a loudmouth.  But hey, the world needs some loudmouths, right?

So no:  I'm doing this stuff because I hate sleep-dep that much.  Because I think that the scientific evidence that sleep dep in the long term is bad for you is not only correct, but probably omitting a lot:  I bet it's even worse than we think to be sleep-deprived, and personally I shudder every time I meet another tech-worker or shift-worker or student or parent who's struggling by on three cylinders, feeling like shit and unable to give their best to the people and things that they love.

Right now, I don't actually feel sleep-deprived.  It's 5:41 am as I type this sentence, and I'm wide awake; no yawns, no urge to slow down or lay down — hell, I'm sitting in bed, which people who've done this know one does not do when trying to make sure you stick to your schedule no matter what you feel like — but I'm not at all worried about succumbing to sleep, even though I've had less than four total hours a day for almost a week now.  The naps work, the timing works, polyphasic schedules work if you do them correctly, and I should continue to feel better every day now.  And once I'm habituated to this schedule, I will feel less sleep-deprived, fight less inertia getting out of bed and daytime yawns and all of that, than I EVER did while monophasic.  My energy will be incredible.  –Maybe it'll just be normal, the normal energy of a rested, gratefully healthy adult human; but if so, that's a normal I never felt in my life until I discovered polyphasic sleep as a lifestyle.

But don't get me wrong:  Even though I don't feel it much right now, I *am* sleep-deprived.  Sleep-dep is like that:  At smaller doses, its effects are pretty much invisible, unless you're testing for them, or doing things at the edges of your ability, where you can see small losses in performance.  I'm good enough right this second to do push-ups, play an instrument, read a book, drive a car, or type a blog-post; but I'm not anywhere near at my best, and I can tell because I'm paying attention at the moment.  

Now, take all the yawning angle-grinders and bleary nurses and figure that they're only the people whose sleep-dep has built up to a certain level — I'll call it 50%, just because in my personal, internal scale for such things, the part where you feel a little bleary and start to yawn is about half as bad as sleep-dep can get before almost anyone will succumb to it.  Think about how many people hit 50% sleep-dep on an average day.  Now think about how many probably are at 10,20, or 30%, maybe every single day, and don't know it, because they're either not paying attention to it (accidentally or on purpose), or they, like me, have simply felt that way for so long that it seems normal.

NORMAL, I'm sorry to inform y'all, DOES NOT = RESTED.  At least in the middle-class USA, "normal" means "some degree of sleep-deprived, pretty much all the time".

Got a friend who's always energetic, upbeat and full of vim?  Who wakes up rarin' to go, and falls into a blissful slumber in seconds?  If so, I bet you a hundred dollars that people talk about how notable and weird that is.  That you have one friend who seems to never be sleep-deprived.

Sleep dep is normal.  Fortunately, a thing's normalcy has never stopped me from flipping it off.  Because sleep dep sucks, whether you feel it or not.  It makes you slow both physically and mentally, it shoves your mood down and holds it there, it's making you short-tempered and costing you opportunities and successes and increasing your chances of having a nasty accident.  And it's doing all those things to your loved ones, too.

If you had to feel hungry for a week in order to get used to a healthy diet that was going to stop you being low-level sick all the time, wouldn't you do it?  If your doctor knew about the diet and knew that adjusting to it would be uncomfortable until you formed good habits, wouldn't they tell you to do it anyway?  …Would doing it mean that you were a fan of hunger, or that you hated eating?

Right, so, that's where I'm at.  I'm enjoying having more time to write, blog posts and other things too, but I'm going to call it there (kind of abruptly, I know; sorry) and read a few more pages of this really incredible book I got, before it's time for work.  Have a great (alert, energetic, well-rested — or if you're adapting, like me, sleep-deprived but determined not to be asap) day, everyone!

Originally published at counterclockwise. You can comment here or there.

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