This morning, our toddler woke me at 3am. While she drifted off again at about 6am, I’ve been awake ever since. Yesterday, I had a relative lie-in as she only woke me at 5am. That’s two nights in a row of around four hours sleep.
At two-and-a-half years of age, most toddlers have started sleeping through the night, but not our little girl. As my wife was working a night shift in Accident and Emergency, there was nobody to share the burden of coaxing an active little mind back to sleep. Therefore, I have truly entered the land of sleep deprivation.
It is a strange but familiar place. Everything is slightly hazy. You forget things. You find yourself staring at a wall because your brain has randomly shut down. I’m writing this article now, but I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if I woke up and this was a dream.
Everything seems vague and dreamlike, and that sensation can sometimes be strangely pleasant, but when you’re busy with lots on, being sleep deprived can make you cranky and stressed, as even small tasks seem utterly insurmountable. No wonder sleep deprivation has long been used as a method of torture.
The most dangerous aspect of it is perhaps that it definitely impairs your reactions and judgement when driving. There is also plenty of research about how a long-term chronic lack of sleep can damage health and even relationships.
I’ve become so used to being sleep deprived over the past eight years that I can function fairly well on three or four hours sleep nowadays, whereas I never could when I was younger. I just plough on in a daze and hope for the best. Luckily, most of my colleagues in work have kids and so they nod sympathetically when I explain why I’ve lost my train of thought mid-sentence, or why I’ve left my ultra-strong cup of coffee on top of the photocopier again.
Caffeine is my greatest ally in this battle and copious amounts of it are used medicinally each morning. Sugar is the other great crutch for the sleep deprived and, after a bad night, I’ve been known to stumble voraciously towards the cake trolley for an unhealthy but welcome energy boost.
Even a good night these days means six or seven hours of sleep at most, usually interrupted by a bedwetting incident, a bloody nose, a dirty nappy, a bad cough, a vomiting incident or some other child-related catastrophe, dealt with inexpertly while stumbling about in the dark on half-conscious parental autopilot.
Being low on sleep quickly becomes the norm. Indeed, this new normality only becomes apparent when something strange happens. Just occasionally, when all the planets are aligned just so, and the moon is in the correct phase, and we have momentarily evaded all the viruses that like to prey on small children, something very unusual – almost miraculous – happens. We might go to bed at 11pm and sleep uninterrupted until 7am.
That has only happened about three or four times a year, but each time is like a day release from prison. You feel like someone has crept in during the night and injected you with steroids and amphetamines.
Some skillful surgeon has replaced your worn-out and malfunctioning old brain with a new, shiny, high-speed model, capable of rational thought and with a fully-functional short-term memory.
There is a sense of calm as you know you have the wherewithal to face whatever the day throws at you. Tasks take half the time they usually do. You feel about 10 years younger.
But then, by the evening of that happy day, there is once again evidence of a nascent cough, or someone has napped for too long and can’t sleep, and so the familiar fog of sleep-deficit normality returns once again.