The Joys of Sleep

When I was still working, sometimes it seemed that the only time I could really sleep was on weekends, or at least one day of the weekend, the one where I wasn’t running errands all the time.  Otherwise, I awoke to an alarm clock that went off far too early to suit me.  Of course, I stayed up quite late, often till past midnight.

But then, I am a night owl.  I think I always have been.  It’s not just that I enjoy staying up late, but that I really function best late at night.  But the world runs on a different schedule, and as a working member of society, I had to comply and fit in.  Of course, as an academic, I found a schedule that was more flexible.  I rarely had 8 a.m. classes — 9 a.m., perhaps, but not earlier, not if I could help it.  It would take me forever to wake up.  But then I was managing on 6 hours of sleep at best, and only during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina did I finally get a sleep study which established that I did indeed have sleep apnea, a rather severe case.   I’d get 6 hours, but I awoke constantly,and I rarely achieved REM sleep (I averaged about 5% per night).  Then came the CPAP machine, which provided me the REM sleep I was deprived of.  What a difference that machine has made!  Within days, I felt refreshed and clear-headed.  How I’d managed to function still astonishes me.

Adapting first to sleeping with a full mask that covered my nose, and then to a different mask with nose pillows, I began to refer to my nighttime gear as my Frankenmask.  When my sister and one of my cousins and I are all together, we can compare our CPAPs.  Clearly the literature is accurate when it recognizes that sleep apnea often “runs in the family.”

Now I sleep through the night.

Just how valuable sleep was became so clear to me while I was living with Dad.  During the last 6 months or so of his life, I rarely got more than 2 hours of sleep at a time if I were with him.  I really used weekends, when my sister Kay came in, to sleep.  A lot.  And for months after his death, I slept often and long and late.  I’d spend entire days sleeping and reading and sleeping more.  As though I could make up for all the hours lost, I took advantage of the opportunity to sleep whenever I felt like it.  That was, I’ve come to believe, not just for the physical loss of sleep but for the emotional losses of months.  Healing takes a long time and comes in many different guises.

And in retirement, I don’t have to set the alarm clock if I don’t want to.  I can simply stay up until I’m ready to sleep, and wake when I want to.

Sometimes that’s exactly what I do.  Of course, that means that I might not get up until 10 a.m.  But unless I have a meeting or an appointment, I can set my own schedule.  Just what schedule works for me is something I’m still exploring.

If I simply stay up and read until I fall asleep, that might be 2 or 3 a.m.  Then I sleep for 7 hours or so, rise and dress and go about my day.  The problem is that sometimes I don’t want to get up at all, and simply decide to make a really lazy day of it and stay in bed, read, and sleep in a cycle that owes nothing to the clock.  That’s okay, too, but not for too long.  I could easily become a hermit, following such a non-schedule schedule.  My own body-clock seems to revert quite easily — and quickly — to this pattern.

Instead, I have decided perhaps it’s best to get up by 8 a.m. and spend an hour or so reading the papers, then spend some time writing.  This still surprises me, and I’ve yet to see if it works, but I’m going to give this semi-schedule a shot.

Even so, the seduction of sleep is often difficult to resist.

Naps were not things I usually took, not during the school term.  Maybe occasionally, maybe during semester breaks, but not usually on a work day unless I was really, really tired.  In summers, though, which I spent in Greece, I quickly adapted to the daily afternoon nap.  And now I find myself napping if I want to.  When I was a child, certainly before I entered school, my mother made me take naps.  Why do we stop that lovely habit?  Just because of work.

Some days, naps are absolutely necessary. Some days, they’re not.  Today was one of the days when one was necessary.  For whatever reason, I felt tired and drifted off while I was reading.  Of course, I did get up for an 8 a.m. meeting, and then had coffee with a friend after that.

Sleep, though, has become such a pleasure.  With the CPAP and REM sleep, I dream often.  Spectacularly, at times.  Vivid colors, wild plots.  Sometimes the dreams are so real I awaken and am not quite sure where I am or what’s going on.  Sometimes the dreams are science-fiction wild.  At times I keep a dream journal to record them.

I don’t have to wait for weekends to indulge an all-night reading orgy followed by an all-day lie in.

But tonight?  It’s only about 10 p.m. and despite a lovely nap this afternoon, I am yawning and feeling the need to crawl into bed.

My dogs are sitting at my feet as I type this.  But the minute I get up, they’ll be right at my heels, following me.  They’ll jump into bed when I get in, curl up on either side of me, and drift off as I read a bit.

Shakespeare has Macbeth speak of sleep as

“the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravel’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast-”  (Macbeth, Act II, Scene 2, lines 36-40)

And that’s just what sleep does — daily it is the “death” of each day, resting us from “sore labor’s bath.”  It is balm to hurt minds.  I love that it is “great nature’s second course,  /Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”  This really emphasizes the vital role sleep plays in our lives.  It is not time wasted, not at all.  It’s when we recover so that we are ready for the next day.  When we’ve suffered through great physical strain and emotional turmoil and loss, it provides a depth of healing and restoration that sometimes we think we’ll never truly get.

So even though my day hasn’t been especially difficult or even full, I am ready for a new night’s feast, for my second course.  My Frankenmask awaits.

As my mother used to say to me, “Good night.  Sleep tight.”

Dream well.

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