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Sleep is for Sissies
More Americans--by choice or necessity--are getting by on less
By WALTER KIRN
Monday, Dec. 20, 2004
The difference between night and day is not what it used to be for Tony Warren. After a couple of years of steady shift work, the 27-year-old Atlanta resident--a part-time waiter and full-time graduate student in computer engineering-- has embraced an existence of almost nonstop wakefulness that would turn most normal human beings into drooling, hallucinating zombies.
"My shifts are from 5 p.m. until 3 or 4 in the morning," he says. "When you get home late like that over and over again, then you just can't fall asleep as easy. So you stay up an hour. Then an hour becomes two hours. Then the next thing you know, the sun's coming up as you're going to sleep." Eventually, Warren says, "you start to realize it's daytime and you could be doing something with your time, like schoolwork or whatever. Now it's easy to stay up. I can go a day and a half without sleep as long as I keep my mind active. Sleep becomes annoying once you realize how much you can accomplish."
The inability to sleep is called insomnia, but what do you call the unwillingness to sleep, as in Warren's case? "Somnorexia"? Perhaps it's time this condition had a name, because in this age of flexible work schedules, all-night dining, round-the-clock cable news and home espresso makers, it may be far more common than people suspect. For certain restless, overscheduled Americans intent on squeezing more labor, more fun, more family time and more sheer activity from their lives, the traditional 24-hour day has become an anachronistic inconvenience, much like the sit-down evening meal. Though early-to-bed Ben Franklin might not approve, the famously sleepless Thomas Edison probably would. Why else invent the lightbulb?
Joanne Gonzalez, a suburban Dallas stay-at-home mother and Martha Stewart-- like domestic perfectionist who worries about the darkness or lightness of the toast she serves her two young daughters, starts her days at 5:30 a.m. and ends them ... well, when the stimulants wear off. Immediately after waking, she starts the first of several loads of laundry, sees her husband off to work, fixes breakfast for her kids (she calls them "very high maintenance, very demanding") and then herds them into her Volvo station wagon for a long day of lessons, camps and therapies. At night, she makes dinner for the family but not for herself. She says she's just too harried. Not until 10 p.m. or so, when the children are in bed and the house is finally quiet, does the speedy Gonzalez relax--if you define relaxing as mopping the floors, doing yet more laundry and reading e-mail until 2 a.m.
The secret to Gonzalez's freakish stamina is the triple grande vanilla latte. "I'm totally a coffee junkie," she says. "If I can smell coffee around me, I must stop and have one. And now there are Starbucks inside Target stores and supermarkets, which makes it harder to resist." Gonzalez estimates that she consumes a pot of coffee a day, but she refuses to speculate about the sums of money she drops at the Seattle-based coffee chain. So dependent is Gonzalez on caffeine that she says she can't remember conversations until she has had her morning cup of joe.
Besides the old reliable, strong coffee, the voluntarily sleepless have other ways of keeping themselves upright for long stretches. Shannon Gragson, 39, of Princeton, Texas, used to take large doses of Metabolife, the over-the-counter diet supplement, before her doctor prescribed a combination of the antidepressant Prozac and the narcolepsy drug Provigil. Carolyn Moncel, 36, who works as a virtual assistant from her computer in Paris, France, fuels her 16-hour shifts with two or three liters a day of Coca-Cola supplemented by 10-minute naps. Betty Sanders, who has worked the graveyard shift at the Dallas U.S. Postal Service Processing Center for more than 18 years, has rejiggered her entire metabolism. She eats dinner at 5 p.m., hits the mattress from 7 until 10, and naps for 15 minutes during her 4 a.m. break. She clocks out at 8:30 in the morning and, except for a one-hour snooze, soldiers on until evening, tending to the needs of a husband who suffers from kidney disease. Then the cycle begins again.
Such stories raise a basic question: Is the waking life actually worth living--or does it feel like a miserable, gray limbo of red eyes, dragging limbs and foggy thoughts? My own experience with Provigil, which I took for several weeks a few years ago during a season of heavy deadlines, convinced me that simple wakefulness is no replacement for genuine restedness. After two or three 18-hour days of writing, the quality of my work collapsed even as my fingers kept on typing. Though some switch deep inside my brain was stuck on "on," my soul and spirit had gone numb, incapable of emotion or creativity. I felt as if I were encased in a full-body cast that allowed me to neither lie down all the way nor sit up truly straight: a mummy man.
Hardened veterans of the nocturnal lifestyle seldom report such problems, and quite a few of them, like Tony Warren, claim they have drastically reduced their need for sustained periods of pillow time. Jason Hensel, 32, a Dallas magazine editor and musician, admits to occasionally daydreaming at work but otherwise has few complaints about a routine that others would find grueling. After putting in nine hours at his day job, Hensel rehearses with his band until 10 p.m. or so and then either heads out for nightclubs or settles in for a late night of DVD viewing. For Hensel, four hours or less of sleep is not only adequate--it's optimal.
"When most people say, 'I feel groggy because I didn't get enough sleep last night,'" says Hensel, "I would say, 'I feel groggy because I got too much sleep.'"
Like many of those who choose to walk by night and to go on walking the following day, Hensel is dogged by the sense that life is short and that too much shut-eye just makes it shorter. "During work," he says, "sometimes I feel that there's so much out there I could be doing." That attitude can take obsessive forms. Kaye White, 48, of Oak Park, Ill., markets McDonald's Happy Meals during the day, then sometimes stays awake until 2 a.m. baking cakes for friends. Once, for a stretch of several weeks, she devoted her extra time to drawing elaborate decorations on her children's lunch bags. "I have a weird compulsion to be superwoman," she says.
Though researchers agree almost unanimously that far from granting superpowers, sleep deprivation dulls the mind and nervous system--rapidly, profoundly and invariably--many people still insist that they are the exception. For them, the perceived satisfaction of heightened productivity, extra hours spent with friends and family, and uninterrupted late-night sessions in front of the computer or television outweigh the supposed benefits of unconsciousness.
Are they right--or does the altered state brought on by caffeine, fatigue and lack of slow-wave sleep merely make them believe they are right? It's a question they might do well to ponder--if only they had the time. --Reported by Anna Macias Aguayo/ Dallas, Paige Bowers/Atlanta, Simon Crittle/ New York and Leslie Whitaker/Chicago
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