Late one weekday night, I was reading, and attempting to absorb some meaning from, Plato’s Republic. The reading was for a college class I had in a few hours, so stakes were high and my heart was pumping frantically. Though my eyelids kept trying to close without my permission, I somehow managed to read one line from Book 9: “Our dreams make it clear that there is a dangerous, wild, and lawless form of desire in everyone, even in those of us who seem to be entirely moderate or measured” (572b). Ah! I thought to myself. That’s why I don’t sleep or dream anymore. I don’t wish to acknowledge that I have desires beyond school and work. Sinking into sleep feels too much like a concession to my baser nature; it feels like admitting weakness.
Upon closer examination, however, I realized lack of sleep actually served to bring the uninhibited being I was in my dreams to reality. The lines between dreamless slumber and dreamlike reality were constantly blurred, I was cranky and irritable, and I walked around with my head clouded by half-dreams and fog. I didn’t know who I was anymore. Sleep continued to feel like a luxury I couldn’t afford without compromising efficiency.
I was 18 years old, but I felt more than twice that age in the way my body and mind functioned. The deterioration of my sleep patterns began as early as age 13, when I began to increase the pressure I placed on myself to achieve. It was always a trade-off: do I put two additional hours into this assignment to make it perfect, or do I accept a less outstanding grade and rest? In retrospect, I wish I consistently picked the latter. Almost always, I chose the former.
In college, the situation intensified. I went through all of my freshman year with an average of 4 hours of sleep a night. I had anxiety attacks and frequent depressive episodes, I gained weight, and I felt numb inside. I finally brought myself around to a psychiatrist, described all of my symptoms to him in great detail, and heard him remark, “you sound tired.” Yes, I admitted to him that I only had one hour of sleep the night, or morning, before, but I explained that my symptoms were unrelated to my sleeping habits. He said anything he prescribed would have the equivalent effect of a Band-Aid covering a large, open wound. I left that session feeling vaguely scornful. My sleeping situation wasn’t that bad.
One night I finally figured out that it was worse. That night I hit a breaking point lower than any other I had experienced before, and I knew something had to give- either myself or my lack of self-care. I was struck and saddened by the realization that I had voluntarily subjected my body and mind to a sub-par state of living and inflicted irreparable damage to myself in my most formative years of development. I was at a certain intellectual and physical level at that point through brute willpower and caffeine, but I could’ve been at a higher level if I hadn’t stunted my development. I turned off the lights in my dorm room at 9pm, after wiping away the tears that so often accompany groundbreaking realizations, and fell asleep almost immediately.
I woke up the next morning at 7am, in time for my early class, feeling surprisingly refreshed. Socrates mentions in Plato’s Republic that we often define pleasure as the absence of pain. If we’ve been living with a festering injury and been subject to chronic pain because of it, we experience pleasure when the injury begins to heal and we experience an absence of pain. Throughout the day, I focused better in class, felt happier and somewhat lessened my caffeine intake. That night, I fell asleep again at 9pm.
Throughout the first week, my bedtime varied from 9 to 10pm, and the increased efficiency I experienced from a little more sleep allowed me to finish essential work quickly and prioritize any other commitments. When I turned off the light every night at, according to my roommate, an unreasonably early hour, I allowed the light within me to shine with a little more intensity.
One week turned to two, then three. Just as I gradually made the permanent choice to remove caffeine from my life, I also made the choice to continue sleeping 8-10 hours a night. The experiment inspired by a little introspection and a lot of personal evidence has made me more mentally alert and stable, more physically capable, and more efficient. My dreams are painted in vivid color now, and I look forward to exploring new worlds every night. I’ve flown on the backs of dragons, ruled at least four kingdoms, and conversed with Lincoln, Obama and Socrates around a dinner table. It’s been an adventure. The greatest benefit, however, is a greater quality of life. Experiencing happiness again with the fullest sense of myself is worth fighting for every day and night.