To sleep — perchance to dream …
Sleep was priority one in my life back when I was working red-eye shifts. Four days a week, back side of the clock, crossing time zones west and east, four trips a month. You either got expert at catching sleep where you could, or you got off that schedule as fast as possible. I did it for three years.
I had sleep down to a science. That was in my 30s. A commute from Washington, D.C., to Phoenix was the start of every trip back then. Once onboard, before any passenger sat next to me, I’d reach up, turn on my air vent and the one over the middle seat, directing both away from me to prevent encroachment and minimize stuffiness. When the cabin door closed and the safety briefing was complete, I’d make a production of putting earplugs in, to defend against conversation, then reset my watch to Phoenix time to make that mental time zone shift. Leaning my head against the window, I shut my eyes. I could sleep through taxi and takeoff, then at the 10,000-foot chime wake enough to press the button on the armrest and get that blessed 4 inches of recline (that was before airlines reduced recline to a miserly 2 inches). A solid three-hour nap until arrival. Lunch followed, then a long walk around Sky Harbor terminal. Another nap, this time in the crew Quiet room. Dinner, a quick walk, and at 7 p.m. my workday began. The first day was typically three legs, maybe to Orange County or Seattle, then Vegas, finally on to Boston or another East Coast destination. The hope was always to land just before sun-up, or at least not have to land into the rising sun. At the gate we’d shut things down, passengers offloaded, and greet the chipper morning crew as we exited the jetway. Rumpled and bleary eyed, we headed to the hotel, and sleep.
Sleep was the focus of my life then, around which all else revolved — making sure I got enough of it and arranging my days around curating ease of sleep when the opportunity presented itself.
In those days I didn’t even drink coffee. I did, however, utilize the power that is Mountain Dew — all the sugar and twice the caffeine. I had that down to a science, too. I’d drink one can, no later than 5 p.m., and it reliably kept me awake til morning. Caffeine was a potent tool, and I used it judiciously, so as not to interfere with sleep. Nowadays, I’m not so regimented, and adequate sleep sometimes eludes me. I find myself staying up later than intended, then trying to get up early. There’s a limit to how long that can go on before sleep deficit sets in. I’d developed a pretty solid coffee habit, but switched to decaf a few years ago for health. Now even that is an infrequent treat. Sleep is more important, and it cuts down on the need to caffeinated. Getting into your own comfy bed after a long day and sinking to sleep is blissful.
It should be simple: Work is over, day is done, lay down, head meets pillow, fall asleep. Doesn’t always work. The dishes, put away laundry, study, finish a paper, iron a shirt for morning. There’s always one more thing. All need doing, but the cost is sleep. It might be one more chapter, one more episode … so tempting, but not needed. And yet, we do it anyway.
Finally, the last of the laundry is away, dishes done, everything set for morning. Brush teeth, floss, wash face, get into comfy sleep clothes, crawl into bed, lights out, shut tired eyes. The book is closed, Netflix is off, now for seven hours’ sleep. “WAIT,” your brain says! Is the phone charging? The laptop? I forgot to get gas in the car! Rent is due — must remember to write check and drop off in the morning. Where even is my checkbook? I should have called my parents today. Do I have milk? And myriad other thoughts scroll by. Must not look at time. Must not reach for phone … Some nights it takes forever to turn off the brain. Seven hours becomes six-and-a-half, six, five … “Stop. Checking. The. Time,” I tell myself. Turn over. Turn over again. Flip the pillow to the cool side. Flip it again.
Beep, beep, beep, time to be up and at ’em. Groggy and unwilling, ready or not, another day begins. We’ve all had nights like that. Too short. We vow to go to bed early, or add a quick nap somehow. We can catch up on the weekend, right? “I can sleep when I die,” you hear people say cavalierly. And it may come sooner with that strategy. Sleep deprivation can kill in so many ways. Micro-sleeps in class may be embarrassing, but ridicule is the only danger there. On the road, risks are greater, a rumble strip could save your life. We see tractor-trailers lining rest areas at night. Rest requirements for transportation workers are regulated by law. I’ve studied sleep, read books on it, taught air crew about fatigue — the dangers and prevention. Good sleep prevents susceptibility to illness, improves memory, lengthens life and saves lives. But how to reliably get good sleep? Most recommendations point to a set routine. Tea, warm milk, a hot bath, a comfortable bed, read an actual book for 10 minutes, cooler temperatures, a dark room. And several don’ts: Avoid caffeine for six to seven hours before bed. No vigorous exercise, big meals, excessive alcohol or screen time within two hours of bed. Sleep drugs are not good answers, either. They may help you fall asleep, but four hours later, you’re wide awake.
If only doctors would write prescriptions such as “Get Outside 20min 1x/day,” or “Exercise enough to Sweat 30min 3x/week,” or “Eat Better most days.” We ask friends, “How are you?” but no matter how they are, the answer is always, “Fine. I’m fine. And you?” Instead, maybe we should ask, “How well are you sleeping lately?” Chances are, not as good as we want. Let’s talk sleep. Has the pandemic changed your sleep patterns? What helps? Do you like the Calm app’s rain sounds? Or the bedtime story app — soothing voices telling a tale you never hear the end of? I’ll get back to you on what friends say, but for now, I think it’s time for a nap.