Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sleep Tight

Turning the light off, I slid the pocket-door that led to the next room open a crack and peered with one eye into the darkness. I saw nothing but black as I waited for my temporary night-blindness to dissolve, having forgotten to accustom my eyes to the darkness before engaging on the mission. The door had made the slightest of scraping sounds despite my great care in moving it only an inch or less. There was a rustling sound in the room, like someone or something scurrying for cover. I froze, fearful I had been seen even if I could not see. Perfectly still, I waited and wondered. What should I do next? But the noise stopped even as my staring eye gained sight. The objects in the room slowly became outlines and shadows as the cloud-covered moon strained to penetrate through the horizontal blinds. Although shut tight, moonlight leaked through in fine lines into the room, like it does under a closed door. “What was that?” I whispered to myself. I stopped breathing even as I heard the steady exhaling and inhaling coming from a dark shape curled up in a low pen in the middle of the room. I dared go no further. I was afraid to let my breath out until managing to squeeze the door shut.

I stood alone in the dark for long minutes before quietly retreating, leaving my almost-two-year-old grandson, PJ, sleeping soundly in his playpen. With the excuse of checking on him I had just wanted a glimpse of his totally untroubled sleep. It was an uninterrupted sublime state he would enjoy for a full 10 hours; waking up refreshed and ready for another day of eating and playing, endlessly reciting “drive Gampa’s bike”, napping and enjoying being the centre of everyone’s attention before collapsing into the slumber of innocence again.

Would that I could sleep like that again. It has been over 12 years since I have slept through the night. Perhaps it was one of the earliest signs of my Parkinson’s disease, seven years before diagnosis. 50 to 60% of people with Parkinson's suffer from some form of insomnia. I have what is called "fragmented insomnia" having become accustomed to waking up 3 or 4 times a night for no apparent reason. I can be found wandering down to my den at 3 in the morning to answer e-mails, make a small dent in the "read when there is nothing better to do" pile (there always seems to be something better to do), or writing a sentence or two of a blog idea. Of course, I then spend a significant part of the next day in a fog, yawning and wondering how to catch a nap. It is quite remarkable how fast you can fall asleep almost anywhere when you are sleep-starved.

Why were we made to need sleep? It seems such a waste of time when there is so much to do. As Edgar Allan Poe said, "Sleep... Oh! how I loathe those little slices of death." But insomniacs will tell you that they desperately miss "wasting time" with more shut-eye. Sometimes it leads to desperate behavior, like sleeping in the underground parkade in your car, or pulling over on a side street to catch a catnap, hoping no one thinks that you died there.

Watching PJ as he slept that night reminded me of how vulnerable we are when asleep. Would we sleep if we did not have to? Surely, we would be too afraid to risk it. Bad things can happen to you while your eyes are closed and senses dimmed, defenses down as minds retreat to some faraway imaginary land. If this were not a natural restorative state we would likely have laws against it for fear that, if indulged in to excess it would result in unproductive members of society.

But alas, I remember my mother's bedtime salutation, "Sleep tight, and do not let the bed bugs bite". I always wondered what that meant. "Tight" did not sound like a comfortable way to sleep. And more than once I found myself wide awake wondering how big "bed bugs" actually were. Of course, now I do "sleep tight", often waking with muscles clenched and no idea how they got that way. At least I do not need to fear bedbugs. Thankfully they rarely make it into Canada, and do not survive long in our climate if they do.

Maybe I am alone in all of this. For as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "It appears that every man's insomnia is as different from his neighbour's as are their daytime hopes and aspirations."


  1. Bob-
    Did you know not sleepign through the night is the #1 sign of depression. My Dr told me that. I do not doubt you are well informed. It's just a thought as my girlfriend Barb has Parkinsons and recently went on depression meds along with her other meds. Huge wonderful difference for her. Though not the 'magic' pill for everyone. She had that surgery where they put the electrodes in your head/neck with a pacemaker? It did ultimately help her but was a long process...

  2. My husband worked nights at the post office for over 30 years and when he retired, the first year he just couldn't sleep at night. Slowly he adjusted, but he still complains that he wakes up during the night and can't go back to sleep.

    I on the other hand sleep the night through except for a bathroom break at 2 a.m. when I stumble to the bathroom, get it done, and stumble back to the bed, falling in, asleep before my head hits the pillow. Only rarely do I have a night I can't sleep, and it's usually when I have an early morning planned and I'm afraid I won't wake up in time (I hate alarm clocks so have trained my body to arise at the same time each day.).

    I too love to watch babies sleep, but I was never lucky enough to get one that would sleep 10 hours straight. I have one grandson who can, but all the rest are like their mother, up late at night, sleep a few hours and then ready to run for the rest of the day.

    I do know our brains need the sleep time to get rid of the things and memories not needed, and to cement in the ones we will retain. Wonderful show on the science channel explained how that works, but it's sort of like our computers. If we don't save the work, it is gone. Our brain is the hardware, and our sleep gives the workers time to push the save button and extract the things not needed. So get your sleep and keep those memories.