“Is it normal to be so tired that you’re at that point where you’re seeing moths out of the corners of your eyes?” I asked my housemate a few weeks ago. “Because I think I’m there.”
She gave me a weird look. “That has literally never happened to me,” she said slowly, “And I did a lot of coke when I was 24.”
I’d been preparing for my trip to Croatia for a week or so, continuously pushing back on assignments and necessary arrangements and packing until I found myself zombie-ing through my workweek, running on 2 hours of sleep fumes a night and passing out for ten-minute snatches of shut-eye whenever I could. “Just get to vacation,” I chanted to myself like a mantra. “Just get to vacation.”
By some miracle, I made it. I spent the last two weeks sleeping on the marble beaches like a slug, reading “Anna Karenina” and feeling bored but content. The manic, daylong stretches of fatigue seemed like a distant dream. “I’ll never be tired again!” I thought to myself as I crammed my mouth with grapes, half-dreaming. For once in my life, I thought, my goddamned sleep debt bar would be out of whack in my favor.
And a week after getting back, I’ve been feeling so drained I can barely see straight.
Apparently, even sleep bombing oneself doesn’t make up for literal months of stumping around on little-to-no REM time. Even when I consider jet lag as a factor, the specter of exhaustion that settles over me like a cloak whenever I sit in a chair that’s too comfy or room that’s too warm is a little alarming.
When I was in college, the class most freshmen took to fulfill their breadth credits was a massive, overwrought Psych 101 course taught by one of the premier experts on sleep, Dr. James Maas. Psych was mostly full of shit, at least the way Dr. Maas taught it, but my friends and I all came away with two major lessons: that your sleep deprivation adds up like a credit card bill, and that you need 9.25 hours a night to start making up the funds.
These fact-nuggets, which I learned at the beginning of school, stayed with me throughout college. Every time I heard the birds start to chirp at the end of an all-nighter, I’d think, “There’s another 8 hours in my sleep debt bank.” Even when I was staggering through stimulant-fueled 40-hour stretches of thesis-writing frenzy my senior year, there was always a nagging voice at the back of my skull: “You need 9.25 hours to function. You need 9.25 hours to function.”
As bizarre at it is, that morbid sleep-hour counter has kept ticking until present day. I imagine it quietly swelling with all the sleep I’m not getting until, one day, it bursts and I collapse on the ground to sleep for 30 years. We know I can feel guilty about practically anything; why shouldn’t I feel guilty about my sleep debt?
So imagine my surprise when specialists in sleep medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern declared the sleep debt model to be largely defunct. According to Dr. Gregory Carter and his colleagues, my vague idea that, someday, I’ll be able to just hibernate my way to a clean sleep slate is full of delusion.
Even my weekly strategy of “stocking up” on the weekends is actually completely ineffective: Trying to sleep off a hangover on a Sunday morning is totally going to fuck up my pre-coffee consciousness on Monday mornings. And I'd bet that Dr. Carter would be seriously disapproving of any attempts to nap during the day, too. What gives?!
On the one hand, this is a bummer in that it basically guarantees that I’m going to end up looking drooly and dead-eyed 3 nights out of 7 or so. I liked the idea that if I managed to sleep until noon on a Saturday morning, I was building up energy reserves like the world’s most uninteresting superhero.
On the other, though, it’s a tiny bit of a relief: if I know I can never actually make up my debt, might as well stop fighting it, right? (This is why I make a giant wincing face every time anyone asks to check my credit.)
Turns out that the only way to possibly stave off the madness of Thursdays at 2 pm is to go to bed extra-early on those weekend days, avoid alcohol and caffeine altogether, and probably stop obsessively checking Craigslist missed connections before bed. And for me, much like flossing twice a day and not eating on public transit, it just ain’t gonna happen.
At this point in my life, I think I’d rather be just a little sleep-deprived than spend my nights and weekends channeling every Crossfit trainer the country has ever birthed. If that means my sleep debt counter begins to rival that of the last four U.S. Presidents, so be it.
I will try to avoid getting to the point of the whole peripheral-vision-moths thing, though. Those things are no joke.
Kate is sleep-tweeting at @katchatters.