On pushing limits

There are people who push the limits of their bodies in ways I cannot, or should I say, will not. I am unlikely to participate in a triathlon (I’m a terrible swimmer). I won’t scale sheer rock faces (fear of heights). I’m not one for juice fasts to cleanse my body (I like to eat). There are other, less glamorous ways of pushing one’s body, things you just do, because you have to: Walking up an immense hill even though you are tired, because that’s the way home; carrying a 25-pound toddler for a mile, because he refuses to walk or sit in a stroller; missing a meal because you’ve got a deadline to meet.

Going without sleep, or at least much of it, pushes your body — though perhaps not in the good way, like training for a race or scaling a mountain. Sleep deprivation is sometimes used as a form of torture, and after you’ve lost out on several nights’ sleep it’s easy to see why. I’ve struggled with insomnia for years now. I tend not to get angry about it anymore, although I used to, when my frustration got the better of me. In recent years my insomnia has come in waves; for months at a time I sleep happily and plentifully (at least as plentifully as having a toddler allows). And then. And then, weeks upon weeks upon weeks in which I cannot fall asleep, in which I am slinking about the house after midnight, having snacks, reading, surfing the web.

This is what happened for most of this month. This is the reason for my lack of recent blogging, and for many other things I have let fall away. Without a full night’s sleep, I can focus only on what has to get done. I lose all time management skills and can’t plan very well. When I used to work as a reporter I often dragged myself to work on just a few hours of sleep and did interviews and wrote stories in that state, overcaffeinated and brain-muddled. Sometimes I forgot to ask the right questions. Later I could barely remember conducting the interviews. Now that I am at home, the post-insomnia feeling is the same, but the things I face in my day are different. No matter when I fall asleep, I still must get up when my son does, which is to say, early. On the days I have childcare I am conscious of the fact that I’m paying for someone to watch my son and cannot always make full use of that time, because I am exhausted. On the days I’m home with my son, I worry that I’m not being as energetic and happy with him as I’d like to be. I don’t want what I feel to be what he sees. Lack of sleep can make you confused, forgetful, snippy, depressed, and a poor decision-maker. Lack of sleep, I found out last year, can cause physical pain. When several months of insomnia coincided with a really wakeful period in my son’s development, I saw a doctor for a constant aching in my joints, and her prescription was, simply, sleep.

The past few weeks, I have struggled to fall asleep and as a result most days I walk around like a zombie. I forget things. And so I focus on the important things: My son, and my writing. I am determined to finish my short story this month, sleep or no. Writing while this sleep-deprived is a peculiar feeling. On the plus side, I cannot overthink my words — I’m incapable of it — which results in writing that can be more natural, less potentially overwrought. On the negative side, I can’t think straight. I stare at the screen for minutes at a time. Sometimes the writing is not so much natural as… well, awful.

In any case, the insomnia that was plaguing me for the first half of this month has slipped away again, leaving me wondering where I left off and what happened to May. I’m still plugging away at my short story. This is the short story I began in the spring of 2007, and the one I am determined to have a final draft of by May 31. I’m close. I’ve noticed a lot of blog posts of late on the topic  of “how do you know when a piece of writing is done?” and my answer is, you just know. For me, with this story, it is a matter of getting the ending just right. When I do, I’ll know it, and all that will be left to do will be to make some minor tweaks in wording. Now, instead of pushing myself to get through the day on a few hours of sleep, I’m pushing for that: an ending that works. I’m close.

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3 thoughts on “On pushing limits

  1. Writing while sleep-deprived must be a little like writing drunk. Maybe a lot! Oh, boy. I have got to take my hat off to your discipline. It’s a strange thing about sleepless periods: for me, and for many, I suspect, it’s a strange kind of found time. And I don’t often write then but should, because reading seems to trip the circuit after a while and I can sleep. But for me, resistance to writing can be strong when it’s not my “writing time,” even if I know, or should know, that I’m going to be fried and it would be better to write when unable to sleep. Writing is such a battle with the self . . .

    • My resistance to writing is also very strong when it’s not my writing time. I try hard to ignore that when possible, but you’re so right – writing is a battle with the self!

  2. Insomia’s awful. I’m up late tonight because I drank caffeine today, and I don’t drink caffeine, but I’ve had real insomnia, too, and it’s no fun. I’m glad yours has passed for the time being, and I hope you get lots of sleep in June.

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