It may seem that this blog has taken a somewhat squeaky turn of late. It feels to me as though there have been more than the usual level of whines and whinges, and less than ideal levels of coherence. This is what sleep deprivation does to you, people. It scoops your brain out with a spoon, scrambles it, maybe adds some cheese, and then stuffs it all back in as best it can. Things tends to leak out the edges. Things like sanity, optimism, and the ability to make any kind of sense.
Sleep deprivation and chronic illness have a lot in common, and the most crucial characteristic that they share is that anyone who has not experienced them in desperate detail has NO IDEA what they are like. None. Not a clue. You can empathize, sympathize and nod intelligently all you like, but you cannot possibly understand. Since I have a penchant for exercises in futility, I am going to try to give you some small inkling of how it feels.
I am not talking about a couple of late nights and leaning on a caffeine crutch. Sleep deprivation is months, and sometimes years, of insufficient sleep. I am talking about a sleep debt bigger than a modern Melbourne mortgage. Sleep deprivation carries with it massively increased risks of all kinds of charming health conditions, like heart disease, diabetes, and mental illness – even to the point of psychosis. This is serious stuff.
Chronic illness is a more varied beast, but for the purposes of this article, I am going to talk about relatively mild illnesses. These are the ones where it is possible to appear normal for hours at a time, on a good day, but that make it completely ludicrous to stay up past 9:30pm ever, and that require social occasions to be carefully rationed to avoid complete system collapse. Where catching a simple cold can set you back months. There is no imminent risk of death, but any appearance of a normal life is just that – purely appearance.
I read recently that chronic sleep deprivation is linked to mental illness in young people, and it makes perfect sense to me (of course, right now “plurdled gabble blotchits” makes perfect sense to me). Sleep is physically and mentally crucial to remaining healthy. It gives the body time to process everything from stress to dinner. As your sleep debt builds, you begin to accumulate frayed edges everywhere. Minor dramas become full scale operatic death scenes. You become easy prey for every passing virus, because your body lacks the energy required to fight back. (I swear there is a sign on my forehead that reads “Party! No immune system inside!” in bug-speak.)
Chronic illness and sleep deprivation both take a toll that is not readily visible to the casual observer. When you are dragging yourself through each day, even on a good day, you can’t afford any late nights, so social functions are strictly limited. If this goes on for long enough, people begin to see you as anti-social, or at least you fear they do. Invitations to social functions that begin after 7:30pm are a painful reminder of your limited capabilities.
As for getting things done during the day, forget it. While you might be able to manage the basics of keeping yourself clean and fed, actually making progress on anything significant becomes an incredibly dispiriting battle. Little things like organising the paperwork become mountainous millstones that weigh you down and never get any smaller, because you need any spare energy just to get the kids off to school, or to hang the washing out. Life becomes a constant trade-off between things you want to do and things you have to do. And things that are not crucial to survival frequently wind up so far down the list of what’s possible that they drop off the end.
Meanwhile you struggle with the sensation that everyone is watching you and wondering why you aren’t coping better. You become convinced that everyone around you is appalled by your messy house, your un-ironed clothes and your antisocial tendencies – because in truth you are appalled by them yourself. You just lack the energy to do anything about any of it.
I have been lucky – I have lived with both chronic illness and severe sleep deprivation and made it out the other side. But some people live with them permanently. I am temporarily back in sleep-deprivation land due to a house full of winter bugs, and it’s a dreadful place to visit. Spare a thought for the people who live there. I hope you never walk a mile in their shoes, but it might be worth contemplating their reality. It could just as easily be yours.