Sleep Debt

Darrell recently wrote about sleep issues and the lack of sleep caused by his current health problems. Hopefully, his latest surgery went well, and we're all anxiously awaiting his next update. While he's dealing with real concerns, and admirably so, I still find myself managing imaginary ones.

I haven't written about my anxiety in a while for several reasons. First and foremost, I don't want to scare off the two or three loyal readers that are still sticking around. Also, while putting these situations into words is therapeutic and helps me make sense of the inexplicable, it's equally bad to dwell and reinforce the notion that there is a problem. Most importantly though, I've gotten a handle on it again.

To recap, a few years back, I had a dizzy spell while running on a treadmill. The anxiety response kept my heart pumping long after I'd left the gym, and I had to pull over and call my parents to come get me. After months of doctors and tests found nothing wrong, it was clearly a panic attack as the first doctor guessed, albeit before examining me which made me doubt her. In the interim, I began having variations of these spells while driving, and for a few months even needed my dad to drive me to work. Sometimes they'd strike while in large meetings. Basically, any stressful situation in which passing out would be embarrassing or dangerous made me feel like I was going to pass out. I'd feel lightheaded or tingly. I'd feel like I wasn't getting enough air. Occasionally it would get to the point that my heart was racing, though never as severe as the initial incident. And once I had any of these sensations, those would cause more worry and I'd get stuck in a vicious loop. Eventually I learned to distract myself, and once I had enough successful trips or meetings under my belt, I didn't even think about it anymore.

Earlier this year, the problem resurfaced, first while stuck in traffic during a snowstorm, and later while in a meeting with my new company's CEO. In both instances I felt trapped and thought how bad it would be if I passed out, which of course triggered the very feelings I was worrying about. At one point on an expressway I didn't think I was going to make it to the next exit, and my heart pounded until I pulled off to the service road. I finally went to a doctor for a general checkup since it'd been about four years, and after a clean bill of health I started feeling better again. I changed my eating habits and cut down on fast food. I started walking every day as the weather got nicer. And I found that if I chewed gum, the sensations subsided. I don't know if there's any physical connection between stress and chewing, but even if the result is purely a placebo effect, that's fine when my problem is likely psychosomatic.

I tackled more than a few stressful meetings or my daily commute. As band season kicked in to high gear and my dad had cataract surgery on one of his eyes, preventing him from driving, I was ferrying musicians everywhere from Brooklyn to Staten Island and all over Long Island. I survived highways and bridges and hour long drives, and it made the half hour commute to work during the week seem like nothing. If I could play a six hour procession, I could also handle sitting through a one hour meeting. When the weather got too hot to walk at lunch, I found a new gym. I started slow, but as I pushed my limits every day I regained confidence and energy I thought I'd lost. I wasn't 100% myself yet, but I was closer than I'd been in months.

Driving to work on Thursday morning, I climbed a steep hill with a sharp curve and a concrete wall. I've been driving that road my whole life, because my current company is located in the town where my father grew up, where he still owns a lot that we tend to. I thought about how bad it would be to lose control and slam into that wall, and something clicked. My breathing seemed to stop and my heart began to beat faster. I couldn't take my hands off the wheel to pop in a stick of gum, so I concentrated on the radio and the clock, calmly reminding myself that I was triggering panic over a portion of road that took less than a minute to get past. The moment passed, and like Bruce Banner holding back a transformation, I was fine. These situations are no longer strange or unfamiliar, nor do I suspect they indicate some underlying serious physical malady. I know what to do when they happen, though I had to wonder why after a few decent months it nearly happened again.

So, with this in the back of my mind on Thursday, I focused on getting through a slew of corrections from a meeting the day before. I was further stressed by the fact that I was paired with the slow writer on this particular mailing, though I've learned to keep things moving and put little “copy to come” blocks on my designs rather than wait for him. He's a good guy, but I'm glad they rotate teams from mailing to mailing and I normally work with writers who are more deadline conscious. When one of the managers came running in to my office at 3:30 shouting, “Do you know you have a meeting NOW?!”, it definitely threw off my groove.

It was a planning meeting for my next mailing, which I technically don't start working on for another two weeks. Neither my writer on that assignment nor myself had been invited to the meeting, so it wasn't our fault that an e-mail or two got lost in the shuffle. After dropping what I was trying to get done and rushing to a crowded conference room, I was agitated. At one point during the meeting as I felt warm and my ears were ringing, I opted to try a stick of gum. I noticed my hands were actually shaking, and hoped no one else noticed and thought I was on drugs or something. After about ten minutes of chewing, I regained my focus and composure.

This brings me back to Darrell's post on sleep. I've been thinking a lot about sleep debt, how a lack of sleep can have adverse effects over time, and you can't “catch up” by sleeping late on the weekend. I average 5, maybe 6 hours of sleep a night during the week, and with a busy band schedule I couldn't sleep late on the weekend even if I wanted to. If lack of sleep isn't causing my spells, it certainly can't be helping them. The first time I ever passed out was during a class in college. When an intestinal birth defect was diagnosed and removed when I was 25, I wondered if that earlier incident wasn't an early sign. But I also wasn't getting a lot of sleep in college, between classes and staying up late to finish assignments after I got home from playing at basketball games with the school's pep band. To this day one of my friends insists that I fell asleep while standing rather than passed out, and I may never know whether he's right or wrong.

So, Thursday night I forced myself to go to bed earlier. I “cheated” and found a way to write a full-length post in a fraction of the time. I forced myself to turn off the computer. The internet would still be there to read the next day, and Ginormo Sword would still remember my game progress. Watching one DVD instead of two would be fine. When I awoke on Friday morning, my sleep debt certainly wasn't erased, not after one night of about 7 hours worth of rest and a good dream. But I did feel better than most mornings. Normally, my arms are completely numb and my head feels very tight. I yawn constantly, and every stretch causes a blood rush. I was tired, but not impeded.

Friday was a much better day than Thursday, and I'm going to try to go to bed earlier every night and see if it makes a difference over time. The next week is going to be insane and I'll need all the rest and clarity I can get. Saturday night I have a parade. On Sunday, I'm catching a 6 AM bus to a gig out of state, and if I don't get home too late I may try to make a cameo appearance at the tail end of a friend's long-overdue housewarming. I'm not sure that last bit will happen. Last year I was gone nearly twelve hours for the gig, and even with napping on the bus I was exhausted when I got home.

I know I'm only 33 and work a desk job, but I've also been thinking about using some vacation days to actually rest. July and August are notoriously busy, and the days I do take are usually to fulfill some band commitment. The band leader of the Italian group I play with the most has also developed this annoying habit of locking us in to dates based on the previous year, assuming that we'll have all the same jobs and giving us schedules as early as April so we don't make plans with our other bands. We found out the other day that a few jobs in August aren't happening, and we already turned down another band leader for a date we would have been free for. But there are dates that are definite, such as a July 16th feast that's always on July 16th, no matter what day of the week it is. So my next “vacation” day next Wednesday will be to play a six hour gig, and a few weeks later I'll be taking another day off for another gig. That should be it for the weekday jobs though, which means by the end of August I can start looking for openings in my regular schedule to take a day or two for myself.

I don't want to be selfish or irresponsible, but I can't help wondering if the cumulative effect of working almost constantly for twelve years is taking some kind of stress toll. Some things can't be changed, but I certainly don't need to stay up until 2 AM every night. Being an adult does not mean one can forego a bedtime. It just means that it's my decision and, as I get older, I think it's becoming a more important one. I don't think I'll miss an hour or two out of my day, and perhaps putting those hours toward sleep will make the waking hours that much better. I've accrued a bit of a debt, and it's past time I paid it.


Blogger b13 said...

I can't seem to get to sleep before midnight and usually stay up till 1 or 2 am. Every once in awhile I'll pass out in the early evening for a few hours. If that doesn't help me "catch up" I'm in BIG trouble.

7/12/2008 12:44 PM  
Blogger MCF said...

Yeah, that's my schedule EXACTLY, except now that I'm back in the gym, I get home too late to squeeze in a nap before dinner. I think it's catching up to me, so I'm going to have to bite the bullet and just turn off the computer by midnight, 1 at the latest.

7/12/2008 2:00 PM  

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