There is a reason sadists keep sleep deprivation in their torture arsenal. As Dr. Kelly Bulkeley writes at Psychology Today online:
”...prolonged sleep deprivation is an especially insidious form of torture because it attacks the deep biological functions at the core of a person’s mental and physical health.
“It is less overtly violent than cutting off someone’s finger, but it can be far more damaging and painful if pushed to extremes.”
For the past four months or so I have rarely slept more than two, sometimes three hours a night and often fewer. It is only for the past week that I have been able to return to a normal amount of sleep and can now make some sense of the distress I have been living with since January.
It is hard to overstate the misery one suffers during the other 21 or 22 hours of the day with only two or three hours of sleep at night.
During those months, it took days, even weeks, to work up the energy for the normal chores of daily life. Mopping the kitchen floor, vacuuming the carpet, doing the grocery shopping required such effort that I skipped them for long periods of time.
I shortened fitness workouts from 45 minutes to 30 to 15 and then none although I did manage the shortest time once or twice a week. I stopped walking any farther than the car and trash bins. Physical exhaustion along with a deep, aching ennui was ever present.
The mental fatigue was even worse. It did not seem unreasonable to me when I found myself thinking (frequently) that every news writer online had lost the ability to put a coherent sentence together.
My brain was so foggy that I couldn't always follow a simple news story on television and it was hard to pick up the thread of what I was reading after turning the page of a book.
Writing this blog came to feel impossible; I thought about quitting. There is a growing list of stories I have wanted to do that take a good deal more research and other work than, for example, writing something like these descriptive paragraphs of a personal event.
But I could not concentrate enough to gather the information, let alone organize it along with my own thoughts into a coherent form to write it. Even keeping track of the URLs of links to include with the stories seemed unachievable.
None of the above symptoms are news to sleep researchers. Here are some of the consequences of sleep deprivation from WebMD's section on the topic:
• Significant reductions in performance and alertness
• Memory and cognitive impairment: inability to think and process information
• Inability to sustain attention such as to watch movies
And those are just the short-term effects. Here is WebMD's list of some of the long-term consequences of chronic sleep deprivation:
• High blood pressure
• Heart attack
• Heart failure
• Psychiatric problems, including depression and other mood disorders
• Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
• Mental impairment
• Injury from accidents
In regard to blood pressure, throughout my life I have sometimes been rejected from donating blood due to low blood pressure. Now, for the first time in my life, it is higher than normal.
Certainly my attention has suffered, there is no doubt my cognitive ability has waned and although no one would label me a happy-go-lucky sort of person, my world view has been much darker than usual.
Even the obesity consequence has affected me. Without changing my diet (exercise has next to no impact on weight), I've gained eight or nine pounds since January. That doesn't sound like much unless, as with me, it is tacked on to my 120-125-pound average.
Further, according to WebMD,
”Studies show an increased mortality risk for those reporting less than either six or seven hours per night. One study found that reduced sleep time is a greater mortality risk than smoking, high blood pressure, and heart disease.”
Having lived with another, less destructive sleep disorder, I'm not unfamiliar with this information but only as research material until now.
Here is what happened:
One night in January, I was shocked out of a dead sleep by a huge, loud noise that sounded like it was next to me in bed. For a few seconds, I was frightened that someone was in the room with me but no. It was thunder-like snoring coming through the wall from the apartment behind mine. The best I can describe it is that it's what walruses sound like. As it turns out, that's a close match which you can listen to here.
I've lived in this apartment for six years. In that time, never once – not ever – have I heard a peep through that wall. Not music, not TV, not people talking, nothing. Suddenly, it was as though someone had torn down the wall – it was that loud and felt that close to me.
After 15 or 20 minutes of the din that night, I dragged my blankets to the living room to the sofa. I discovered sleeping there might work when you're 25, but maybe not at 75; I woke in the morning unable to turn my head to one side due to a pain - probably from sleeping crooked – that took two weeks to heal.
Meanwhile, I returned to my bedroom. Not a single night went by that the snoring did not wake me. I tried sleeping in the guest room but even with the doors closed, the godawful snorts and groans wakened me.
I began to go to bed each night in a mental crouch, waiting for the roar to begin. It never failed. I tried to get to sleep before it started, which was usually about 2AM, but the rescheduling didn't work because my entire circadian rhythm was now screwed up.
I no longer had a wake/sleep schedule. Mostly, I had an awake schedule without a sleep section to it and as far as I could see, no recourse.
If there were a loud party disrupting my sleep, I tried to reason, I would let it go for one night. If it continued a second night, I would say something. But what do you say about someone snoring? It's not something they can control.
Twice in the ensuing months, I knocked on the door of the apartment without a plan – just hoping I would figure out what to say when I met the neighbor. No one answered the knock.
You may ask why I did not take further steps and I ask myself that question now. This is a condo, after all, and there are rules but I don't know why it took me so long to act.
It's certainly possible the problem was my cognitive impairment from so long without sleep. It was difficult to concentrate on anything, I was easily distracted and I know now that throughout winter and into spring my brain, even on simple tasks, was not working properly. Most of my days were spent in a hazy mental cloud of distraction.
Although I tried hard to compensate, I wasn't successful and for four months, I dragged myself through every day like a zombie. Only now that I am recovering nicely, can I see how debilitated I was.