I read a study over the weekend that I planned to pick apart today, but I don’t have the mental energy to write about it. I’m prone to occasional bouts of insomnia, and the past few nights I’ve been thoroughly bouted. Friday night I slept perhaps a half-hour. I went to bed, took what amounted to a brief nap, then popped awake. That’s usually how it starts. I tried to convince my brain I was still sleeping by lying still with my eyes closed. My brain didn’t fall for it.
So I went downstairs and worked on a programming project until about 10:00 a.m. Then I finally fell asleep and stayed asleep until mid-afternoon. Saturday night I fell asleep around midnight and slept until noon. Last night I tried to sleep, couldn’t, and gave up. I crawled back into bed at 6:00 this morning and woke up five hours later.
This has happened on and off for decades. I’ve tried without success to spot a pattern, but apparently there isn’t one. I’ve had insomnia on low-fat diets, low-carb diets, and when not dieting at all. It’s happened when I haven’t had a drink for months, and it’s happened after a night of drinking beer or wine. (That’s the worst: feeling loopy and wide awake at the same time.) I’ve gone to bed hungry and had insomnia. I’ve gone to bed feeling full and had insomnia. I’ve stopped drinking caffeine in the afternoon, but it hasn’t helped … which shouldn’t have surprised me, because I once I gave up caffeine completely and that didn’t help either.
All I know is that on some nights, my brain refuses to shut down. Sometimes I’m thinking about a specific problem — programming challenges when I’m in the middle of a project are pretty much a guaranteed sleepless night. You’d be surprised how often the eureka! moment comes at 3:00 a.m. When it does, I don’t really have any choice except to go downstairs and try the solution. If it works, then I usually sleep.
But on other nights, I’m relaxed, happy, not feeling any pressure, yet my mind seems to be a conveyor belt of random thoughts. I watch them go by almost as a neutral observer. “Hmm, that one’s interesting. I haven’t thought about Doug Watkins since fourth grade. I wonder what kind of guy he turned out to be. That was cool when his mom took us the dolphin show. Amazing. Too bad his parents had that awful poodle. That reminds me, the girls don’t want a boxer anymore. What was that breed they said they liked? I’m not getting a dog without a fenced-in back yard, though. Hey, when was the last time the van had an oil change? Was it Christmas? We really should clean out the garage so we can park the van in there on hot days.”
Usually this goes on for a night or two, and then I’m over it. However, in my mid-twenties, I once went five days without sleeping, save for brief naps. Towards the end of that week, I was walking home from a diner two blocks from my apartment — I was too tired to cook — and stopped at the corner of Clark and Fullerton, a busy intersection in Chicago. I looked to my right and saw a WALK sign, then responded by stepping off the curb onto Fullerton. Someone behind me grabbed my belt or jacket and yanked me backwards just as a car zoomed past. The car missed me by perhaps 12 inches. I turned around and mumbled “thank you.” To this day I can’t tell you anything about who saved me … male, female, young, old, nothing. My brain had stopped processing information.
If there’s such a thing as an natural night-owl, I’m one of them. I know paleo types believe in waking up with the sun and falling asleep well before midnight, but that’s never seemed to fit with my natural body clock. I do most of my creative thinking at night. Always have. If I’m tired during the day, I start to feel better when the sun goes down.
I was perfectly happy with my sleep schedule during my days as a traveling comedian, when I rarely went to bed before 3:00 a.m. If I finished a show at midnight and was within 200 miles of Chicago, I’d just drive home. Once I drove from Nebraska to Chicago after realzing I wasn’t going to sleep.
This could be a bit genetic. I’ve had a few bipolar relatives on my dad’s side of the family. Perhaps I caught a touch, but just enough to be occasionally unipolar. I get wired up at times and can’t sleep, but fortunately I don’t get the depressions afterwards. I just go back to being more or less normal.
I suppose the upside is that I’m capable of working around the clock if I have to. While editing Fat Head, I was facing a deadline to deliver a sample cut to a distributor, and my computer decided to torture me by crashing several times per day. (This was before I bought a Mac Pro with Final Cut, so you Apple fans can relax.) I ended up working for three days and nights, leaving my office only for coffee and food, plus two quick trips home for a shower. I delivered the hard drives to FedEx a half-hour before the last deadline, then went home and slept for 18 hours.
At times like this, I’m hugely grateful to be self-employed. When I had office jobs, I had to just suck it up and go to work without sleep. If the boss says working hours are 9:00 to 5:00, that’s what they are. Now clients hire me to write programs and deliver them some weeks later. They don’t know when I work and don’t care, as long as the software is finished on time. So if I pop awake at 2:00 a.m. and know I’m going to be awake all night, I just go downstairs and work. If I end up sleeping away most of the next day, no big deal. My wife suspects I may be part vampire, but she’s understanding.
Anyway, I’m going to relax tonight, stay away from the programming so I don’t discover any problems that need solving, and try to fall asleep by midnight. Wish me pleasant dreams.