The Sleep Debt

Can you really catch up on lost sleep?

Sleep: The High Cost of Being Awake

Is sleep an object of desire, an unwanted appetite, or an accidental gift?

At the beginning of Neil Gaiman’s mythic comic book saga, Sandman, an English magician named Roderick Burgess attempts to capture Death but instead captures Death’s younger brother, Dream. Burgess had wanted immortality but instead got something quite different. We soon learn that Dream is also the Sandman, one of the Endless—immortal beings who protect (and embody) the world of dreams. Soon after the Sandman’s capture, the world falls prey to a mysterious “sleepy sickness.” One young woman is diagnosed by her doctors with the imagined condition of "encephalitis lethargica." Another is raped and has a child—but sleeps through the entire pregnancy. People wander the streets like zombies and are conscious for only short periods of time. Meanwhile, the Sandman remains imprisoned until—after many years pass—he escapes. With his freedom, the people with sleepy sickness gradually awaken. The Sandman casts a spell on Burgess’ son as revenge. His son, Alex, is condemned to a life of “eternal waking”—always trying to wake up but never quite able to escape from the world of dreams and sleep.

At first glance, Gaiman’s universe is pure mythology and seems to simply be the stuff of wildly imaginative comics. The Sandman character is a version of Morpheus, god of dreams, who appears in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Sleep, like the cosmos and other mysteries of the universe, has always had its mythical heroes and legends. There is Hypnos, the god of sleep, described by Homer in the Iliad. And then there’s the sleeping hero, or king in the mountain, motif that has always been present in folklore, art, and legend (from H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu to Kate Bush’s King of the Mountain and the Legend of Zelda video game). We like our heroes to arise out of a slumber to save the day. Those who sleep gain power.

Of course, sleep has also been associated with very real threats to personal safety. In his recent book, Dreamland, David Randall suggested that historical fears related to sleep were actually fears about darkness—as in, pre-Edison darkness. For the average villager in medieval Europe, the unlit outside world posed a substantial threat to personal safety. Farmers would race to get within the walls of the city and anyone left outside his or her home was assumed to face imminent robbery, maiming, or death. It should be no surprise that such a climate was conducive to stories of ghosts, sleep demons, and other supernatural powers.

If not outright afraid, we are still spellbound by sleep in the cosmopolitan 21st century. As if under a spell, we fall asleep just like we fall in love. We describe someone who is competent as doing something “in their sleep.” When we’re on autopilot, perhaps lacking mindful awareness of our surroundings, we might aptly be described as being “asleep at the wheel.” The Scottish surgeon James Braid was the first to coin the word hypnosis, which meant nervous sleep. In spite of evidence to the contrary, we remain beguiled by the possibiity that hypnosis faciliates its suggestibility through sleepiness (i.e., "You are getting sleepy...").  

In the modern, post-medieval and post-mythological world, sleep is merely a health concern. Still, our language betrays our defensiveness about it. Sleep is an object—something we either get or we don’t, something we quantify or schedule, and something that we can complain or be outraged about.We talk about sleep in economic terms—the price we pay for lack of it, our accumulating debt for not getting it, and the costs incurred when it goes missing. We have sleep labs, sleep disorders clinics, sleep medications, sleep apps, and self-help manuals. We no longer fear what might happen while we sleep. Instead, we are fearful of the consequences that come from not getting enough of it, getting it when we don’t want it, or getting too much of it. On the one hand, sleep is something we seek to manage, control, and improve. On the other hand, the phenomenon of sleep is more like something we receive when the conditions are right. Or, something we get when we stop trying to find it.

Sleep unmasks aspects of our nature that we may want to ignore. Sleep is unlike much of our consumer-oriented, day-to-day activities. It is something we may want, but paradoxically can only get when we stop looking for it. As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips pointed out in a brilliant essay about sleep, “We can experience wanting it, but not having it, the expectation and the aftermath, but never the thing itself…we can sometimes tell the story of our dream but not of the sleep in which we had it; we don't experience dreams as happening in our sleep (nothing about the dream tells us we are sleeping).”

In contemporary life, we are prone to viewing sleep as a necessary evil—something we’d just as soon do without if we could. There is far too much to do, we might say. We are no longer haunted by what might befall us when we sleep. For us in the modern world, we may be more fearful of being awake than being asleep.

© 2014 Bruce C. Poulsen, All Rights Reserved

 

The Sleep Debt