I first wrote that in the opening paragraph of Horn back in 2007, when a kind of restless sleeplessness was one of the first things I knew about Miriam Aster. It was a trait we shared, to some degree, if only ‘cause I’m the kind of person who resists sleep like the plague. I enjoy being up late. I prefer being a night owl. I’m used to living with a kind of self-inflicted exhaustion when I found myself having to engage with other people’s daylight-focused schedules.
These were the stories I told myself, and for the most part they were true, but they ignored stuff: the weeks where I’d wake up repeatedly throughout the night, desperately needing to urinate; the nights when I’d wake myself up ‘cause I snored so loudly; the times when I’d go to bed and get a full eight hours sleep, but still wake up feeling exhausted as hell.
They were just bad nights, I told myself. The problems never stuck around long enough to be noticeable. Besides, I was a freelancer and I lived alone. I could make up the sleep debt with an afternoon nap if I wanted too.
Then, somewhere between 2011 and 2013, I developed this habit I jokingly referred to as stress-based narcolepsy whenever I started working long hours or hit particularly stressful periods. I’d drive home from the office, settle down to watch a movie or TV show, and be asleep on the couch within seconds. No real warning behind it – I didn’t even feel tired beforehand, necessarily – but it happened enough that my flatmate noticed.
No big deal, I told myself. I’m working hard. I’m adapting to being at an office. And it never really lasted more than a week or two, so I assumed it was situational.
I don’t remember when I started dozing off while writing. I do know that it happened at write club a couple of times – I’d literally fall asleep for a few seconds while my fingers were on the keys, waking up to a page of text where I’d held my finger on the J key while I’d slipped into a series of microsleeps.
It’s a testament to my own stupidity and ability to rationalise things away that this happened for over a year before I admitted that there may be a problem. This, despite the fact that I went on holidays with my sister in 2013, and shared a room with a friend of mine at the 2013 World Fantasy convention, and both of them pointed out there was something truly ugly going on with my breathing when I slept.
A lot of this is because it just seemed so stupid to admit that I had a problem sleeping. An actual problem, not a self-imposed one. Sure, something ugly happened when I slept, but I’d always been the kind of guy who could keep a house away with my snoring. Sure, I felt tired, but I’d always felt tired and it was often my fault for keeping erratic sleep hours.
So things kept getting worse while I pretended they weren’t. I slept through alarms more than I used to. My habit of dozing off at write-club turned into a habit of dozing off at work. What’d been the occasional period of sleeplessness had become a nightly thing. I was exhausted all the time, regardless of how much sleep I got the night before. I stopped going to stuff I was invited to, ‘cause I’d either have to leave early and admit there was a problem, or I’d stay later than I should and pay the price for days.
I stopped driving anywhere that took longer than twenty minutes, ‘cause I was seriously paranoid about falling asleep while driving my car.
It’s when that finally happened – I dozed off for a few seconds while stopped at a traffic light – that I finally went to a doctor. We went through the processes you go through when such things are said, ruling out possible-but-unlikely causes until we settled on the likely one, given my age, my weight, and the fact that I’ve been treating pizza as its own food group for a few years: Obstructive Sleep Apnea. The muscles in the back of my throat constrict the airway while I’m sleeping, forcing me to stop breathing repeatedly throughout the night.
It would be nice to say that having a name has changed things, but the truth is, it hasn’t.
For one thing, the best treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnea is weight loss and establishing a regular sleep routine. The good news is that it’s really effective; the bad news is that it takes time, while you continue to feel pretty crappy and exhausted.
For another thing…it just doesn’t seem satisfying enough. I keep finding myself looking at apnea and thinking, really? This? This is the thing that’s making me feel like this? This is the excuse I’ve got to offer people when I shrug off their social event? It’s the thing I get to tell my boss, when I’ve slept through three alarms and arrived late for work? The moment I open my mouth to try and explain, all I hear is that phrase: I don’t sleep well. I feel a little tired. It seems insufficient, you know? Everyone feels tired, these days. No-one gets enough sleep. What makes this different?
I’ve read estimates that one in five people suffers from sleep apnea in some form, which seems kind of impossible. How are that many people getting through life like this? How are they explaining it to other people? I wouldn’t have believed it was a big deal, not until I really hit the wall and felt how bad it was myself.
I don’t sleep well, not anymore.
It seems like it should be such a simple thing to fix, but it isn’t. It get fixed by time and sensible steps: fixing bad habits, working around the limitations, tracking the hell out of my eating habits and sleeping habits. I schedule nine to ten hours for sleep, most nights, and it’s just barely enough to keep me awake the following day. I eat meals consisting of chicken breast and Brussels sprouts. I make notes about what I’m thinking and feeling whenever I fall back into old habits and, say, order pizza or purchase a pack of cookies from the shop intending to eat the entire thing in one go. I assume I’ll need to drive to work at least once or twice a pay cycle, on account of my unreliability when it comes to getting up and out the door in time to catch my train.
I schedule less writing time, which pisses me off no end, but I figure less productivity now is better than a prolonged lack of productivity in the long term.
What I haven’t done is accept that this is my life for the next short while. I didn’t tell folks, outside a small handful of people who I do freelance projects with, who mostly needed to know ’cause I was getting harder and harder to track down. I still try to skirt around the issue when I know I can’t go somewhere, instead of just saying, look, sorry, I’ll need to go catch up on sleep. I still try to pretend its not an issue and write ’til one AM from time to time, even though that’s a bad idea. I still get frustrated by the limitations of being so goddamn tired all the time, since my default state is now “I need a nap.”
But when exhaustion started kicking the shit out of my wordcounts in March – particularly when it came time to record my numbers for the 600k Challenge – I figured it was time to start admitting this and figuring out work-arounds. ‘Cause I don’t want to use this as an excuse not to write this year – I want it to be a hiccup that’s overcome.
If my favourite tactic of working longer and harder is no longer an option, it may be time to try that “working smarter” thing people are always talking about