Register Monday | June 17 | 2019

Sleepless in Montreal

Sleep bulimia and other good reasons to get to bed early tonight

Lately, I've become obsessed with sleep. I've been working long hours and late nights for months and the accumulated exhaustion is finally getting to me. For years, I had thought that this "sleep" thing was overrated. I could easily get by on five hours a night. I simply didn't have time for such trivial matters as sleep-I was too busy doing more important things like working crazy twelve-to-fourteen-hour days while attempting to maintain a balanced social/family/personal life. Coffee dates, dinners and drinks with friends were top priorities while shopping sprees, concerts and late-night TV were all on my to-do list. I didn't want to miss out on anything.

Now, after months of keeping up with my grueling work schedule, all I do is daydream about the warm embrace of my bed and the sweet oblivion of dreams. During my waking hours, I no longer care if I'm missing a great night out or a vernissage-all I want to do is sleep.

I'm not the only one who's fixated on my long-lost slumber-my coworkers and I constantly talk about how tired we are. We have an intimate knowledge of each other's sleep patterns. In fact, our collective sleep deprivation has brought us closer. I can often be found in the kitchen at work, drinking coffee and sharing weary stories with my friend Stephane who until recently worked full-time, went to school full-time and slept about four hours a night.

Like him, most of us have become worn-out martyrs, sacrificing our well-deserved rest so that we can accomplish more and be more productive. Most people race through their days and nights, trying to balance out their work lives with social obligations and family responsibilities. There's just no time for sleep. And, when we do try to sleep, we ironically often suffer from insomnia-our frazzled and overactive minds just refuse to relax. We're too busy worrying about meetings, overdue bills and that stupid thing we might have said to our boss.

We're a sleep-deprived society and we're all paying the price, one restless night at a time. We know that a lack of sleep can drive us crazy-our emotions are heightened and our memory suffers. But that's just the beginning.

Binging and Purging

According to Robert Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard specializing in sleep research, we live in a culture of "Sleep Bulimia". Stickgold compares sleep deprivation to eating disorders: "Twenty years ago, bulimics probably thought they had the best of all worlds. They could eat all they wanted and never gain weight. Now we know that they were and are doing major damage to their bodies and suffering major psychological damage. We live in a world of sleep bulimia, where we binge on weekends and purge during the week." Stickgold also points out that "when you live on four hours a night, you forget what it's like to really be awake."

Ah, yes, that familiar feeling of sleepwalking through the day. My friend Kim works such long hours that she's started falling asleep on people on the bus and metro. Another friend Jen had a rude awakening recently when she walked into a street sign after a long shift at work. Ouch!

Does this late night make me look fat?

Women need to be especially vigilant about getting their eight hours a night-a recent study shows that "women who don't get enough sleep are more likely to experience major weight gain (defined as an increase of thirty-three pounds or more) and are 15 percent more likely to become obese." According to the The National Sleep Foundation (NSF), ongoing sleeplessness also greatly affects work performance and sex drive in both men and women.

A phenomenon known as sleep-eating is making its way into the news. Parasomnia, meaning abnormal behavior during sleep, can be triggered by stress, alcohol, sleeping pills or genetics. Sleep-eaters apparently have no idea that they're spending their nights gorging their way through their refrigerators.

Sleepless Cinema

In 2004, Montreal's own Josh Freed wrote and co-directed a documentary called In Search of Sleep: An Insomniac's Journey. In the film, Freed searches far and wide for a cure to his lifelong insomnia. This year, two documentaries about sleep deprivation premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Wide Awake, an experimental film by Alan Berliner, chronicles his obsession with his own sleeplessness, while Haskell Wexler's Who Needs Sleep? deals with the dangerous sleep habits of people who work in the film and television industries. As a seasoned director of photography, Wexler is familiar with film crewmembers that are ready and willing to work fourteen-hour days on a regular basis. These people have no job security and never know when their next contract will come up or how long it will last, so when they're working, they push themselves to the limit. Wexler chronicles the sad stories of exhausted crewmembers that have fallen asleep at the wheel and suffered fatal car accidents.

I wear my sunglasses at night

Is there a cure for our sleepless nights? We've tried pills; we've tried drinking hot milk before we go to bed. Now we can get sleep glasses-shades that block out certain types of blue light and help our bodies produce melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. We just need to wear our glasses for a few hours before going to bed, and-voila! Our long elusive sleep is once again within our grasp.

This quick-fix, along with all the others, may work to a point, but the real problem lies in the fact that we are too used to denying ourselves sleep, which is a necessary (not to mention pleasurable) part of life. We spend our days being wired on coffee and running on adrenaline, but we're obviously doing more harm than good. Admitting that we need to sleep is almost a sign of weakness-we don't want to acknowledge that we need to give our minds and bodies a rest. And what exactly do we gain from all this sleeplessness? Since we work long hours, we may have a little more money in our bank accounts. Too bad we're too tired to enjoy it.

Daisy Goldstein shares her quirky insights on life in the city. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Daisy Goldstein.