I finally got around to watching the film Memento this past weekend. Don't worry — I'm not going to review a ten-year-old film. I just want to reflect on why it took me ten years to see it, because there are some purposeful reasons.
People have been recommending Memento to me a lot since it got released. The reason why is because for a while I had a difficulties with short-term memory. It wasn't because someone had given me brain damage by smacking my head into a mirror, though — it was because for pretty much all of the 1990s I never got enough sleep. I'm not going to get into why here, because it's not the sort of thing I'm going to blab about in public. Suffice to say I made do with 3-6 hours a night for just about ten years. I'd have a catchup day where I could sleep in maybe 3 times a year. That was it. The rest of the time I was stumbling along. It got to the point that I had been tired for so long and impaired by the lack of sleep for so long that I couldn't figure out why I was so tired all the time.
I am constantly shocked by how poorly people understand the importance of sleep, and how willing people are to attribute the effects to other things. I was told (at age 24) that the cognitive impairment, memory loss, chills, and lowered immune system were from "getting older." I was told that the irrational cravings for sugar and rapid weight gain were because of my own "lack of willpower". I now know that all of this stuff was related to the sleep deprivation. Don't believe me? Google it, or at least start with this Harvard Magazine article. Thankfully, I got control of my sleeping schedule back around when Memento was released and can now sleep as much as I need to in order to be healthy. That this blog even exists is proof of that — back in the 90s, posting three times a week like this would have been impossible.
The thing is, there are lots of people who live like I used to. They get just enough sleep to stave off collapse, and the rest of the time they're running around, trying to get done an impossible list of tasks. Often they've been burdened with too much to do from too many places. I used to work with someone who was taking care of a sick parent, doing all the household chores, taking care of her kids, and working full-time for a while. Things finally came to a head when she got seriously ill herself.
It's easy to say that those who wind up in situations where they're exhausted and overwhelmed need to learn better delegation and time management skills. It's harder to understand what it's like for the exhausted, sleep-deprived person. Things that are supposed to be short-term turn into long-term, and there's no time or energy for the long-term. Their problem-solving skills have been stolen from them by lack of sleep. Often the demands are coming from several different areas, so it's difficult to determine who to say "no" to. Friends and family are slow or unwilling to see the extent of the damage being done, and can't figure out why the person is "different."
Culturally, there is still far too much bragging going on about how little sleep this or that A-type personality needs to keep going. It's almost always an exaggeration, and it's not apples-to-apples as a comparison because it doesn't take into account how much work — efficient work — is getting done during waking hours.
The Harvard Magazine article I linked to says that all North Americans are part of a mass sleep deprivation experiment. More of us need to figure out how to be in the control group. Unless you've lived it and recovered from it, it's very hard to grasp how frightening it really is.