03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is Sleep All It's Cracked To Be?

Out of my deep respect and admiration for Arianna, I decided to take an assessment of my sleep habits. I have always had an odd relationship with sleep. I force myself to avoid going to bed early, as if I have somehow just agreed to do something unproductive. So, I clenched my jaw and dove into the deep end of the water by examining my "issues" regarding why I avoid sleeping as much as possible. Is it possible that I am one of those people who have "sleep issues"? Well, I hadn't thought so - until now.

Pondering where my disdain for sleeping began, I recalled all too clearly a grades school lecture in which a well-meaning teacher attempted to enforce healthy sleeping habits early on in our young lives. She broke the day down into three eight-hour segments: work, relaxation, and sleep. And then she added the equation that I now realize became the root of my so-called sleep disorder. She said that if we lived to be 75 years old and followed her pattern of breaking up the day into three eight-hour segments, we would have slept 25 years! What? Sleep 25 years? Are you kidding me?

Well, my 10-year-old brain locked in a decision right then and there: I am NOT sleeping away 25-years of this lifetime. No way. I immediately recalculated that eight-hour pattern of hers in such a way as to get a few more years of conscious life out of this lifetime. If I slept only five hours per night or less, I would extend my waking life by as much as five years. And if I lived past 75 years old, I figured the sky's the limit so far as extra time on this planet is concerned. That did it. Sleeping was out; coffee was in. (Well, maybe not coffee at 10 years old but by college, the caffeine-filled mug became an extension of my right arm.) It seemed like the decision took hold instantly because from that point on, I became a "night owl." As a college student, I preferred to study into the wee hours of the night and this habit became my style of work once I became a writer. Eventually that style of work became a lifestyle. As a self-employed writer, I have the freedom to organize my time a bit more independently than people who are more scheduled though my life is still dominated by schedules and deadlines as well as travel and workshops.

And workshops like travel schedules have set hours, which means I have to rise early. But here's the odd twist for this particular night owl - usually night owl's sleep late into the morning, thus getting in their "zzz's." I discovered while in my 20s, however, that although I avoided going to sleep (which is different than going to bed, if you get my inference), I also preferred to get up fairly early, which made the habit of avoiding sleep a potential crisis. I say "potential" because until you begin to pay the price for this absence of sanity, you actually believe you are doing just fine.

As much as I hate to admit this, aging eventually began to chip away at my resilience so far as avoiding sleep until I could barely function and then getting up early in the morning and feeling "bright-eyed and bushy tailed," as they say. My long- standing pattern of late productive or fun nights combined with energetic early mornings seemed to enter into the cycle of diminishing returns somewhere in my late forties. I wondered if I needed more vitamins? (As if 30 vitamins a day isn't enough). Exercise? (Forget that). I finally figured out the culprit - I needed a new mattress. And so I got one. It never occurred to me that I actually needed to use the mattress - (aka SLEEP). The thought of sleeping more truly never occurred to me even though by this time in my life more than a few of my friends would on occasion say, "I think you should get more sleep." A sleep-related comment generally came after I put my purse in the refrigerator or left the house with my robe on thinking it was my coat. Their explanation for this type of behavior was, "She obviously needs more sleep", whereas I always replied, "You just don't understand how busy I am."

Now really - if I saw someone put her purse in the refrigerator and she said to me, "I'm just too busy," would I think that was a substantial excuse? Hardly. I would think that person was exhausted, unfocused, maybe even depressed or bi-polar or anxiety prone - or possibly hungry. But, who cares? When it came to me "misplacing" my purse in the refrigerator must certainly have a logical reason because until, oh, last month, I could still not comprehend that my absent-mindedness, my short-temperedness, my bouts of exhaustion, were all due to a chronic, desperate need for sleep - simple as that. My body, my mind, and my spirit needed to rest, to cease being pressured by all the demands that I put on myself constantly, mercilessly and quite frankly, without an ounce of self-compassion.

I don't know if I can actually pull off an eight-hour night, at least not immediately. But I am committing to getting to bed before midnight each night this month - which, by my calculations could add as much as two hours of "zzz's" time to my night. Now that is an enormous accomplishment for me. It represents a life-changing challenge to say the least. But I am inspired by this experiment in sleep - and that's what it is for me, an experiment - because I also consider it a gift of self-compassion.

I may well discover that sleeping is everything it's cracked up to be. I'll keep you posted on my progress.

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