Sleep habits of the grudgingly mature
Here’s a pressing question: Does the need to pee wake us up, or do we wake up for another reason entirely and then decide to pee?
And another one: Do we wake up early because our eyelids have thinned out so that even the first light of dawn penetrates, or do we wake up early because we went to bed early?
I’ve always been a morning person. I’m out of bed at dawn because I crave a cup of tea, because my mind is fresh and eager to work, and because I go to bed early after waking up early, so the cycle goes.
Actually, I wasn’t always an early-morning person. It began when I became a mother, when the day started with the rising sun, when I learned to sleep less deeply to keep one ear tuned to the night sounds of my kids, when I couldn’t obsess over a broken night’s sleep because the next day’s needs were at my bedside, shaking my arm, wanting breakfast.
And anyway, what’s with the eight-hour dictate? Historically, it dates back to the Industrial Revolution, when Conventional Wisdom divided a 24-hour day into equal thirds for work, rest, and sleep. But do we really need those full eight hours? Recent studies state that seven hours work just fine for most people, even six for some of us as we get older. And if those hours are broken up, four and three, or three and two and two, that’s okay, too.
I just tested this out. We had been planning to travel this Thanksgiving and eat, with family, at our very favorite inn in Woodstock, Vermont. At the last minute, our plans had to change. I learned this Monday afternoon at 4 and was at my local supermarket at 7:15 Tuesday morning – because if we don’t go away, guess who hosts? I’m ready to pass that torch, let me tell you, but there’s a whole other blog. For now, suffice it to say that I wasn’t a happy camper slogging through the supermarket, and once the food was stashed in my fridge, I refused to give it another thought. My Wednesday was relaxed – a little work, a little tennis, a little reading, dinner out with my husband. I think I wanted to pretend, for as long as possible, that we were still going away.
That little fantasy lasted until 2 AM on Thanksgiving day, when I woke up after four hours of sleep and realized that, other than buying food, I hadn’t done one thing. Not. One. Thing. Granted, there would only be 8 of us. Still, I would normally have pre-cooked things like squash bisque, stuffing, cornbread, apple crumble, and mulled cider. I might have even made the salad and covered it tightly. None of that this year.
Realizing this, I had a mini-panic. Knowing I would never fall back to sleep then, I got out of bed and set my 2 AM table – good china and silver, water glasses, wine glasses, candles, linen napkins pulled through ribbon rings, serving plates set nearby. When I returned to bed an hour later, I was tired again but satisfied. I fell asleep for another three hours. Thanksgiving Day was wonderful, and I was no more tired than anyone else by its end.
I wasn’t thinking of being tired, therefore I wasn’t tired. For me, there’s definitely a psychological element to it. Another recent example? After a night of broken sleep because I was anticipating taking an early flight to visit one of my sons, I got out of bed at four-thirty to shower, pack, and head to the airport. Debarking at the end of the flight, I hit the ground running and was busy all day, but didn’t think of being tired until later that night, when everyone else was tired, too.
Bottom line? When physical energy lags in we grudgingly mature, mental energy can give it a boost. My sleep may not be as smooth now as it was a decade or two ago. But the more agitated I grow about waking up, the more trouble I have falling back to sleep. That’s why I love the idea of embracing insomnia. Occasionally, I sleep badly, totaling only four or five hours. If I get out of bed convinced I’m in for a bad day, I am. Conversely, if I get out of bed telling myself I’m just fine, I am. A mid-afternoon nap is nice. If that isn’t possible, though, no sweat. I simply tell myself that I’ll sleep the next night. And I do.
I’m simplifying this, of course. There are scientific reasons, both physical and psychological, for poor sleep. Sleep apnea is one, but there are others that are just as troubling. If you suffer from one of those, I feel for you.
Blessedly, I only suffer from age. How about you? How do you sleep now, compared with how you slept 20 years ago? What wakes you up? Is your daily functioning affected by how much you sleep on a given night? And if you do embrace insomnia and climb out of bed, do you read? Fold laundry? Do crossword puzzles?