I feel great. I mean really great.
I realize that many people sleep six or seven hours each night and think nothing of it. For me, this is a feat, and vital. It’s the difference between a room in shadow and a light switched on.
My house has been in shadow for much of the past 18 years.
Single parenting and sleep deprivation
Any parent with little ones knows what it is to lose a night’s sleep, or several, or to suffer the effects of interrupted sleep for months on end. If you’re a single or solo parent, or your spouse travels for work, you may find yourself rarely getting a break, or possibly surviving with no assist at all.
While they drop off considerably, those sleepless nights don’t end at infancy. They occur at various stages, as well as when children are stressed or sick.
Sleep deprivation? It comes with the parenting territory.
Then there are your worries – financial problems, job concerns, relationship issues. These are periods of situational sleeplessness, but for most people, they don’t last indefinitely.
That wasn’t my case. Something else was going on.
For those suffering from sleep disorders, the storyline plays out very differently. For me, it took more than a decade of strange symptoms before doctors diagnosed Restless Leg Syndrome. During those years I routinely worked 70 hour weeks in a corporate career (like many of my colleagues). I traveled, socialized, and studied – accepting that significant amounts of sleep were never part of the nightly equation.
None of this was a problem, or so I thought, until I added children to the mix in my mid-thirties.
And all of this was taking place long before sleep deprivation was making the news as a national problem of growing dimension.
The convenience of sleepless nights… for awhile
Being able to function on little sleep can be useful, especially when juggling family and career. But as my children slept through the night, the fact that I didn’t became increasingly problematic. A night’s sleep was something I couldn’t even imagine. Anything over four hours, or two or more nights of sleep, and I felt like I’d hit the winning lottery ticket!
I am by nature high energy (helpful), and don’t – or didn’t – need as much sleep as friends, co-workers, or for that matter, my spouse.
I told myself I was perfectly fine. I propped myself up with coffee. Both are a temporary fix; neither alleviates a serious underlying problem.
Squirming through the night
Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) is irritating (literally), but manageable. I’m fortunate that I have no daytime symptoms, and I’m otherwise (knock on wood) quite healthy. However, the prolonged sleep deprivation caused extensive problems. I was tested for all sorts of things (a variety of frightening diseases), and then dismissed, told that I was fine.
During those years, I continued to fuel my lifestyle on caffeine, sugar, stubbornness, and my children’s needs. I put my nights to good use: I worked extra hours, I wrote, I read.
Some nights I wandered the house aimlessly, frustrated and exhausted. I would sit in the front room, open the drapes, and stare onto a dark street as dawn approached and I felt defeated. Other nights I watched my children sleep, and envied them their stillness.
Consequences of sleep deprivation… my narrowing world
Are restless legs – or any sleep disorder – impossible to live with? Of course not. Worrisome? Absolutely.
Prolonged sleep deprivation leads to potentially dangerous consequences, and in particular for some of us, affects cognition.
Aches and pains? We find ways to deal. Excessive hunger? We wonder why we’re gaining weight or cannot lose. But for me, memory loss, fogginess, irritability and impatience – these were the worst.
When you miss one night of adequate sleep, how do you feel? Now imagine a year, two years, ten years of too little sleep. Imagine your mind and body shutting down, inexplicably.
Chronic pain, chronic fatigue
Fibromyalgia is just one of the conditions that may exist coincident with RLS. It is a slow descent into pain that feels like it’s rooted inside your deepest tissues. Chronic fatigue is another unwanted companion, strapping its weights to your limbs, fogging your reach for reason and words, and dogging you relentlessly. It may send you to bed where it keeps you for periods of time. Depression follows.
And to those who say “you’re depressed, that’s why you’re tired and in pain” – I say – “Bullshit. Try being tired and in pain from the moment you wake until you sleep, and see if you aren’t depressed.”
What else happens? Relationships falter. Jobs are at risk.
And parenting? Unless you have a superb support network, you’re in for a rough ride as are your children. You struggle to stay focused. Your multi-tasking abilities fly out the window.
The upside to a diagnosis
Sleep disorders can generally be identified by ruling out other causes, along with a brief stay in a hospital, and a sleep study. When my restless legs were found to be the problem, I was easily treated. My nightly routine of two to four hours of sleep went to six hours, occasionally seven, and over several months, pain faded and the haze lifted. A careful balance of nutrition, exercise, and moderating stress keeps me sleeping, and therefore, feeling and performing well.
When my RLS was diagnosed 10 years ago, and a tiny dose of medication alleviated the chain of events that move legs and cause premature waking, my nightmare eased. I was lucky. I recuperated quickly, and the lights were suddenly switched “on.”
Vigilance… and stress
There are still periods when things go awry. These past months, the restless legs have been no laughing matter, once again taking their toll on my sleep and my life.
Stress. Extreme, unyielding stress. All too often, I’m back to four hours of sleep a night, though I console myself that it isn’t two. Still, I wake to pain and worse, fatigue that dogs me all day long, because four hours of sleep is insufficient. Not only for me – for anyone.
Occasionally, and I don’t know why, I am the happy recipient of three consecutive nights of sleep. And that’s enough to improve the picture immeasurably. Whatever tonight brings, I can’t predict, but today, right now, I feel great.
- How do you handle your sleepless nights?
- What brings them on, and what helps banish them?
- How do you manage extreme stress?
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