Saturday, February 09, 2013

Sleeping

I've been working on a Thomas Jefferson post and it is taking more time than I thought. Plus, dammit, I have been so busy working.  So, yet another two weeks go by without a post.  I plan on working on TJ for another week or so and do one of my rare autobiographical pieces this week. This one is about - sleep. Or lack thereof.

I'm sure I've touched on this before but I am the man who does not sleep. At least I used to be.   I sleep some now since December, 2009 and not complaining. By many people's standards, my solid five hours a night, if I'm lucky, does not seem like much. But it is far more than I got most of my life.
I'll start from the beginning. I used to wake up a lot when I was little. They thought it was asthma that would keep me awake. I never believed it but never had a reason not to either. When I was old enough to understand it, what other people described as asthma did not seem to me to be what I had experienced, and it was gone by the time I was three.  I also had a lot of nightmares when I was young. No idea anymore how many but some of the most vivid I I can still recall. Have other people experienced that?  Anyway, I was awake a lot as a little kid, but it never occurred to me why.

As I got older, I didn't sleep much either. I remember always being tired my entire life. Always. I did wonder about it a bit, but not all that much or with any real analysis. When I was a teenager my mother said I must have permanent mononucleosis. Can't say I blame her as I never seemed like I was fully awake.  I would nap for a while every day after school, but not enough to make me wakeful. When I woke I would be sluggish the whole night until I went to bed and then I'd be awake most of the night. I'd think a lot. It made me philosophical.  Then, a teenager, I was old enough to sneak out of the house. I would wander about the streets and local park. A friend's sister noticed me a few times looking out her window and dubbed me "The Ghost."  The Ghost would have been kind of cool nickname if it stuck, but it didn't.
And, I was still tired. Ironically, I was in pretty good shape. I owe that to youth I suppose. I could run around Eisenhower Park (6.2 miles) without even breathing hard, but I remember thinking one day while I was doing it that if there were a couch on the side of the park, I would have been happy to jump on it and take a nap in a second.  Seems like an odd thought. I should have been pumped up. But, not really. I was exhausted. I think I have experienced what others call a runner's high as a youth, but not very often and certainly not since I became an adult. 

Some random thoughts: In home room in high school I would often lay on the radiator trying to sleep. I had no ambition whatsoever and little competitive drive, though I loved sports.  I might try to win, sometimes even very hard. Some people thought I was competitive. Basketball was a little more important to me and I was motivated to try harder in that.  In general though, I did not care all that much about winning.  I tried running track and early on it seemed like I might have potential, but I was still sleepy and something worse, during a race once I realized that everyone cared a lot how they did but me. There were some other factors involved not so important for this post, but I did not do especially well. My coaches were a little puzzled by me (many people were) and then just gave up. Why would I want to be good or the best at anything?  Even stuff I was good at through some luck or natural ability would never be worked on with any effort. I believed that if you practiced something or learned how to do it well, it was like cheating. Ridiculous, of course, but that is how I felt. I now realize it was probably exhaustion, or at least much of it was rationalizing my lack of ability to make an effort.

Often in school I would be overcome by sleep. When I could I would wear a parka, that is a great big winter coat with a hood. I would pull the hood over my head and try to sleep in class with my head down. It was easier to sleep sitting up than laying down. Still is. That's because my abnormally large uvula (I'll get to that) was not covering my tiny little breathing tube in my throat in that position.  I also could never breathe out of my nose, which seemed permanently clogged. Well, sometimes a little, one nostril at a time. It wasn't pretty, that's for sure. 

Sometimes when I was called on in class, although that was rare once the teacher got to know me, I would come out of a stupor and say something brilliant like "huh." I remember being in a French class, twelfth grade (could have been eleventh) and being called on I responded as usual. One of the girls in the class who I wasn't real fond of anyway said to the teacher, "Why does he always do that?" as if I was faking.  I don't blame her for not asking me directly. I was kind of (very) strange, painfully shy, and not that many people spoke to me anyway. Strange in high school gets multiplied by a factor of at least three. While they discussed me as if I wasn't there, I thought someday they'll find out there is something wrong with me which explains why I was so tired all the time.  There was no such thing as chronic fatigue syndrome yet - at least as far as I knew, but I've always doubted that was real anyway. But, the real answer to her question is is obvious now. I didn't sleep. 
Another time we were asked to write a poem in a creative writing class. I am a really bad poet. But, I wrote something called "The Steady Sleeper" that seemed a little inspired.  It was about someone who slept a lot, if you can't figure that out without help. Can't remember much else about it and I doubt there are any copies unless my teacher for some bizarre reason has one laying in a box in his attict with a million other student efforts. I knew it was about me, but I don't think anyone else in the class would have. Perhaps the lack of sleep also explains why my favorite fictional spy is Lawrence Block's Evan Michael Tanner - The Spy Who Never Slept.  They are great books worth reading by anyone who likes the genre, but, perhaps there is a connection at least to why I was attracted to it when I saw the title. I also got a kick out of the scene in the movie Elf where the lead character (Will Ferrell), a human raised as an elf in the North Pole (a great Christmas movie - don't listen to anyone), is asked if he had a good night sleep. "Yes," he says, "a full forty-five minutes." (and yes, I'm paraphrasing; leave me alone). Of course, the character was wide awake. I never was, but I identified with him completely. 

I know in high school that there were some who thought I was a drug addict. That explained my behavior to them. But I had never touched a drug. Others just thought I was strange and others, I guess (my sister says, anyway), depressed.  I actually enjoyed high school, or at least aspects of it (not the actual school part) though I know many people hated it who performed normally academically. I was just sleepy.
This did not change as I got older. I still don't know how I graduated high school. Oddly, Bear and I graduated ranked right next to each other exactly in the middle of the class. He had his own problems, but lack of sleep wasn't one of them. We laughed then that half the class was dumber than we were. It seemed amazing to us that they could do worse than us because we would do nothing at all to get good grades. Literally nothing.

In college I did better, though certainly not because I was awake, and good enough in law school. I found that doing the tiniest bit of reading was a great advantage because it seemed almost no one else (particularly in college) did any. When I became a lawyer I stopped being lazy to the extent that I was a bit of a workaholic.  For many years I worked 60-80 hours a week because I felt I needed to know everything about it. Being awake all night actually helped there as a boss of mine discovered when he came into the office at 3 a.m.  I would work holidays and weekends. Still sleepy though. Always sleepy.
Yet, I pretty much led a normal middle class life. Well, fairly normal. People still find me a little strange.  But, I worked, played, dated, skied, traveled, raised a kid, bought and sold a house, etc.  When I was still young I realized that lack of sleep did not kill you. At least quickly, it wouldn't.  I doubt very many people who don't read my blog or know me real well ever realized it. No telling what effect it has had on my life span, if any. 

There was a time period where I was addicted to coffee, which helped keep me from falling asleep while working or driving. If I didn't have a cup in my hand I could sip from I would start to drift to sleep from exhaustion during the day. I actually did fall asleep more than once when driving.  I won't even count the 24 straight hour trip to Florida when I started dozing while heading into Orlando, because that makes sense. But, I recall around the mid-90s once driving home from work -- a 45 minutes to an hour trip -- and I had no coffee with me. All of a sudden I knew I had to get off the Expressway.  I pulled into the service road, stopped the car in the lane I was in, put the car in park and fell asleep. I think it was just for seconds. It happened again to me just before I moved to Virginia when I was there on an apartment hunting trip. In desperation I exited the interstate, pulled into the first parking lot I saw, put the car in park and slept for somewhere between a few seconds and twenty minutes.

I notice in life that when you talk about your problems people assume you are complaining. But, I'm not complaining. We all have our crosses to bear and that isn't even my own worst physical problem.  Other people have far, far worse problems than I have had and some don't even get to live. I've always felt very lucky. Other than a striking lack of ambition, not sleeping really did not affect my life much. Maybe it even explains why I am attracted to some particulars philosophies to some degree and developed some life strategies that I feel have helped me, but that is not the type of thing we can ever really know for sure.  Actually, it helped me get quite a bit more reading in than most people have time to do and I sure like that. It certainly helped me at work to be able to prepare longer than other people. Who knows what life would have brought if it was different? Maybe I would have wakefully been bounding across a street somewhere and been run over by a truck. Perhaps I would have been more upset during life's little upheavals.
So, fairy tale ending here?  Somewhat. In 2008 I was in Va. just one week and was getting into bed (why bother, you ask? I don't know -- my bed was always layered with books and I'd mostly read or look at the clock every minute or so).  My phone rang around midnight. Not the best time to get a call. "This is the Clarke County Coroner's office." "I guess my brother is dead," I said.  He was. My 52 year old brother, Mark, had died in his sleep, his hands folded angel-like under his head (so they told me).  Sounded to me like that thing I kept hearing about on the radio -- apnea. I knew I had it because my gf told me that I snored like crazy and would often stop breathing. But, I never really paid attention until then.

So, I called an apnea clinic. Had a meeting. Got tested. I slept, they said, about one and a half hours  that night.  Seemed like a normal night to me.  I woke every minute and twenty seconds on the average once I "fell asleep," for lack of a better word. I tried the C-Pap machine. Couldn't use it at all. So, I went and saw a surgeon. He drew a picture for me so I could understand. You can't breathe out of your nose at all, you know (for that he did not need a medical degree)?  This is what you should be breathing out of in your throat -- imagine two quarters side by side. Here's what you are really breathing out of -- picture a dime. On top of that when you lay down, your abnorally large uvula covers your breathing tube. Abnormally large uvula? That is not every man's dream organ to be especially large. My entire life, most of the things that you read above, all flashed through my mind.  I had a real answer for the girl in my French class all those years ago. 
I had two surgeries in 2009. The first repaired my deviated septum and he also took out a couple of nasal thingees I didn't even know people had. Then, towards the end of the year, he cut up my throat, removing my tonsils and about half of my uvula (you get used to it, though I do choke on food more so than I used to - turns out I also had a high placed tongue, but there was nothing you can do about that. Who has a high placed tongue? Is there anyone reading this who even knew such a thing existed? What genes I inherited). They warned me it would be a spectacularly painful surgery, but I sneered at it - hah, I live with pain -- I  laugh at pain. Wrong. It was horrifying.  I tried -- and I'm not exaggerating this -- to convince myself I was a Nazi torturer, torturing myself, so that I'd be happy enough to sleep for a few seconds that first night at home.  I doubt I slept for more than a few minutes for three days after which I made them put me back in the hospital for a few hours by threatening to eat all my Oxycodone until I felt better. They gave me a shot and I was able to sleep perhaps two hours. Oh, and we forgot to give you this throat lubricant to help you through the worst week of your life. Really sorry.  Unfortunately, the painkillers, which were as powerful as they could give me,  also gave me some visitors in my head -- a really quarrelsome couple who just wouldn't stop arguing with each other or me. After my one week check up, I stopped taking the painkillers on my own except for the over the counter stuff. I preferred agony than continuously argue with those two.

My apnea went from a 40 on the scale to a 2. In other words, instead of starting to have heart attacks in a few years, which is what I was told would start occur if I didn't do something -- to no apnea at all.

And then, well, after a month or so recovery, I started to sleep.  Not 8 hours. I can't do that. But, four or five. If I wake up and it is 4 a.m. I am literally joyful, very happy.  I don't mean I spring out of bed, but I know it was a good night.  It's still not enough, of course, but I don't think you change a lifetime habit of not sleeping so easily. But, many people, particularly men I know, sleep as little or only a little bit more than I do now.  I don't think it is all that far off the average even if my own little insignificant other sleeps about 20-25 more hours a week than I do.
Going from an hour and a half to five hours is good stuff. It's great. Sometimes, maybe once a week I even take a nap for an hour or so. Seems to be all I need.  And, it has changed my life, even if subtly. I've written before about the weight loss that came along with being awake enough to deal with the hunger (10/2/11 Dieting -- the great adventure) and enabled me to work out much harder (though, still, I have to admit I hate every second, of every minute of every hour of that).  And, it's nice not to be always falling asleep when I am working, reading or studying.  Same work, same friends, same life philosophy. Same most stuff. But, I'm much more awake and that makes everything easier.

There's no punch line. Sleep is great. I like it. Once, in the depths of my sleeplessness in the 1990s I told some co-workers that sleep was better than sex. Everyone laughed. But, I could get sex (well, you know, sometimes). I couldn't get sleep. Try it some week on purpose and you will see what I mean. Someday, I hope to sleep 8 hours a night regularly. I doubt it will happen and I am fine if it never gets better than this. 

I know you are glad you now know more about my life. When my biography is published in 2026, and you need to go to sleep yourself but just can't put it down, at least you can skip this chapter. 

4 comments:

  1. There may be some that won't believe a word of it, but I lived in close proximity to most of it and attest to its veracity. Though I tremble at the thought of an upcoming Jefferson hack job. You've threatened a Jefferson blog for a long time, and the threat may be more effective than the reality as I get indignant at just the possibilities. I suppose there's not talking you out of it. Most likely, I will ignore for the sake of my own peace of mind.

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  2. For once I have little to say in reply except, oh, the Jefferson article is coming and hell is coming with it.

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  3. Ya you definitely used to be a snorer! I think you frightened away bears one time on a canoe trip.
    -Don

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  4. Bears are generally afraid of insomniacs as are pumas and soufflee chefs.

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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .