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Q: What time is it? What are we doing up?

It’s 4:35 on a Tuesday morning. It was even earlier when my brain shook me awake, but it took me a while to look at the clock because first I had to unpack that recurring dream where I really have to use the bathroom but the only available toilets are right out in the middle of a very public town square. Normally I’d lie here another 30-ish minutes, eyes bugging out, trying and failing to telepathically wake my wife so she can reassure me that she remembers the door codes to every Starbucks restroom in America. But that just seems like a waste of time right now.

My better half, for much of her adult life and particularly over the past decade, has struggled with getting to sleep. It took 9 years for a variant of her chronic malady to infect me via pillow-to-pillow contact, but now I’m that guy: the one who has trouble staying asleep. Any given day sees about four hours where everyone in the house is unconscious, which feels like a low figure given that there are typically only three of us here and no one’s working as a baker at a donut shop. And while normally I appreciate shared duties, it definitely feels like we’re taking shifts as lookouts, which is wholly unnecessary given the neighborhood is gated and the locks on our doors are so robust as to barely allow me in or out. H stays awake worried about whether we’re doing the right thing by being here and wondering where we’re supposed to live; I bolt out of bed with a Kelly Clarkson song pummeling my eardrums from the inside, or gasping for the air my subconscious has been strangling out of me over my apparent lack of purpose in life. At that point, despite the early hour and the desperate need for sleep, every brain cell I have left is playing demolition derby against the others, as they rearrange themselves and reassign basic tasks to all the wrong folks. Memory, in charge of appetite? Why not! The pleasure center, taking over basic motor skills? Let’s give it a try—the normal way’s been a disaster.

When The Awakening first started I put it down to having trained myself to get up early in order to write. Inherently flawed logic, given that I could sleep through someone clear-cutting a forest as long as it happened on a Sunday. The sleeplessness seemed to mildly coincide with us moving down here last July, so the finger wagged disapprovingly at environmental factors. But even in this weary, stupefied state I could see that wasn’t the case: I’ve never collapsed into a comfier bed, in a quieter house, in a duller neighborhood. If some external stimulant was prodding me awake, it was too sly to detect. 

The more I tried to sleuth out the origin of the problem, the worse it got. Was it just needing to get up in the middle of the night to pee? No, but now that we’ve got that in our head doesn’t it feel like we ALWAYS need to go? Was it anxiety? Wait, what do we have to be anxious about? Did you want a list? I’LL GET A PEN. I started popping a melatonin, before I read that too much too frequently essentially breaks the chain on your sleep cycle, making it harder to get the sleep you need. So out went that remedy, which wasn’t really working anyway—I still woke up long before the sun did. The only thing melatonin managed to do was make me fall asleep even faster than before, leaving my very awake wife sitting ramrod-straight next to me, alone and spinning in her own mental tornado.

So I put it down to age, because the inevitability of it—while depressing—at least allows me to shrug it off as something beyond my control and therefore not worth the stress. People talk about the biological ramifications of getting old, and most of it seems to center around a few cliches: hair sprouting like weeds across an abandoned corporate parking lot, gravity dragging every proud part of your anatomy dirtward, and backs going out more often than a teenager with negligent parents. I’m now closer to 50 than I ever thought I’d be; tomorrow I’ll be even closer. And while all of those side effects have certainly managed to worm their way into this meat sack of mine, so far their impact remains more like a shadowy threat than an actual gerontological explosion. My “evolution” into a non-sleeper seems to be sticking, though. And I have enough evidence just lying around to justify this reasoning that my increasing in years is to blame for my decrease in slumber. 

Anecdotal: I’ve found my mother reading mystery novels in an uncomfortable armchair at 4:30 more often than I care to count. And my old track coach used to talk about how much more he was able to accomplish than everyone else with his 20-hour days. 

Quantifiable: Sometimes while waiting for the sun to rise I’ll Google why do I wake up in the middle of the night and read research papers, just for fun. And there are plenty out there more than willing to tell me that while age does not affect the amount of sleep we need, it definitely impacts our ability to acquire it. One of the more disturbing tidbits came from an article in the journal Neuron, where researchers discovered that an aging brain loses the neural connectors that would normally tell you you’re sleepy. And while they know that it happens, so far they’ve failed at figuring out what to do about it. Though apparently they DID have enough time to determine that the lack of sleep that one experiences as a result actually accelerates the aging process. Which means a) I’m still on my own with this, and b) if I can’t devise my own plan to stop “Since You Been Gone” from rattling my internal speakers it’s only going to get worse from here. Especially after Google showed me one very early morning that chronic sleep deprivation is linked to a variety of very troubling health issues:

High blood pressure
Heart attack
Heart failure
Reduced immune system function
Lower sex drive

The recommended amount of sleep for a person of my age is between 7 and 9 hours. On average I’m getting about 75% of the bare minimum, and 55% of the maximum. This is supposed to be an advice column to myself, so: What to do? 

Most of the advice you find online about this falls under “patently ridiculous,” particularly when the issue isn’t going to sleep, but staying there. How much more conducive to sleep can a bedroom be when all the lights are out, the shades are darkened and your partner is comatose 6 inches from your face? One suggestion I’ve managed to ignore so far is going to bed earlier. A lot of that has to do with my rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light wife, who hates being told what’s good for her unless the message comes directly from her doctor, the only professional anything she has ever trusted. Including herself, because we both receive frequent signs that we should be putting head to pillow far earlier than our standard 11:41 time slot. Most nights, depending on what book I’m reading to the kid, you can find both H and I asleep—her on the bed next to our daughter, me on the floor with my forehead keeping the book cracked open—while P waits patiently for me to finish my sentence. Even when I do manage to make it to the end of a chapter, neither of us recall more than an iota of what I’ve read. (I know, for instance, that Percy Jackson is the son of Poseidon, but ask me anything else about what’s happened in the THREE PJ books we’ve read so far and you’ll get nothing but a blank, pleading stare out of me.) There have been at least a handful of occasions when I’ve woken up, called out to H, gotten no response, and just turned out the light and closed the door on the both of them. She is a reasonable person. She loves me. She wants to take care of herself. But if I mention that maybe we could go lights-out at 10:30 she’ll ask, rhetorically, “So what, we’re old now?” and stay up to midnight—albeit reading a Fredrik Backman novel with a heating pad under her lower back—just to prove me wrong. 

If “going to sleep earlier” is off the table, the possibilities for finding the extra 2 hours of sleep seem fairly limited. I’ve already given up coffee, as one of my doctors informed me that I amhis words—already agitated enough as it is. I don’t smoke. I limit my alcohol consumption. Our bedtime routine includes listening to a meditation app I rarely can stay awake through the end of. Regular exercise is supposed to help, but I already run 6 miles a day during the week—if I extend that to the weekends, my Achilles are going to snap like old rubber bands. Has any of it helped?

Do you see what time I started writing this?

As long as it’s the case that I can’t manage to put myself back to bed once the buzzing of my cerebral alarm starts, my only remaining method for turning 5 hours into 7 would appear to be naps. But I’m not 4. Nor do I live in Spain—and even if I did my company is one of those let’s-figure-it-out-in-a-series-of-all-day-all-team-meetings workplaces, so a mid-Zoom siesta would mean the end of me. 

I’ve run out of obvious solutions. But rather than dig any deeper, lest it being another thing my brain wakes up wanting to talk to me about, I’m going to adopt the standard stubborn-middle-aged-guy approach to everything: Ride. It. Out. I figure I’ve got only about 13-18 more years of this before I can retire. And the day that happens, I’ll turn my “waking” hours into a series of naps alongside whatever mangy pack of dogs we’ve collected by then, and stay up as late as my wife wants, watching whatever show about vampires the world is into. At that point, if my brain wants to wake me up at 3:47 with Kelly belting out “Because of You” I will—finally—be willing to accept it.    


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