My name is Mariko Zapf, and I am addicted to not going to sleep.
The final hours of each day culminate sideways, fighting with my iPhone to remain on landscape mode while I read articles on Donald Trump’s latest gaffe or watch Casey Neistat videos. But my behaviors are not solely dependent upon modern technology — I also watch television, read, and spend a lot of time … futzing. Unknowingly, my nightly routine has turned into an endurance event: Go until I drop.
I know am not alone. My friends also stay up too late, bingeing on TV and social media and generally sorting out their lives in ways that seem possible only at night. In fact, I have only one single disciplined friend who goes to bed each night at 10 p.m. sharp. And while my circle is not homogeneous — some friends have children, some are struggling financially, some have demanding careers — the majority of us complain now and again about being exhausted, and I have always wondered why we are stuck in this refrain.
Perhaps it’s because we were never taught basic sleep lessons? Sleep researcher Mary Carskadon has said, after all, “It’s so interesting to me that you can go into classrooms with tiny little kids and you can learn the food pyramid, and you can learn the importance of not smoking, and of wearing helmets and so forth, and not ever hear word one about sleep. The amount of information that’s being taught in formal curricula about sleep is virtually nil.”
But still — don’t we all intrinsically know better? I’m pretty sure that most of us do, and yet the CDC reports that one-third of Americans don’t get enough sleep and that poor sleep is linked with obesity, heart disease, and poor mental health and mood, which is my greatest concern.
Recently, on a particularly challenging day — one on which I found myself powerless to stop screaming at my children and unable to buckle down on a work deadline — I made a desperate commitment: to abstain, for one month, from staying up past 10.
The first step toward achieving my goal would be to give up watching TV and using my phone until all hours. I put all electronics, along with the remote control, into my top nightstand drawer, replacing them with a nice long novel I had been not reading for months. I fantasized about the new me just 30 days out and cozied into the challenge.
Spoiler alert: I failed. It turns out that the cellphone cannot be within arms reach and not be reached for. On more than one occasion, I gave myself permission to look something up on the phone, but even if I then had the willpower to return the device to the drawer at a reasonable hour, I was no longer sleep-ready, according to Shawn Stevenson, author of Sleep Smarter.
“Just two hours of computer screen time before bed,” Stevenson writes, “was enough to significantly suppress people’s nighttime release of melatonin.” Moreover, he and most sleep experts agree that even reading on an electronic device before bed makes falling asleep more challenging and results in less melatonin being released.
I came to understand that quality sleep wasn’t simply about the number of hours I was out, but dependent upon making smarter choices while awake. My cellphone was swiftly replaced with an old-fashioned clock.
But even without the phone, I found myself having to start my challenge over and over again. Within a few days, I would succumb to the moronic stay-up-late excuse, “I just need me time.” I gave so much of myself to my children and family — surely I deserved this right to stay up as long as I wanted! As long as I needed — flipping through magazines, organizing stacks of papers, mapping out my week, contemplating the calendar months out. You know, critical tasks.
But then I’d wake up bleary-eyed, scattered, and angry, and making desperate promises to change my ways, just like a true addict. Not even TEDTalk by Arianna Huffington could inspire change in me as I watched her recount how consistent sleep has transformed her life and facilitated “joy, gratitude, and effectiveness.” I do want those things, yet for some reason, sticking to the straightforward prescription of great sleep for a better quality of life felt unattainable.
So I did what any red-blooded New Yorker might do: I called my former therapist and asked her this: Why do people stay up late when they are fully aware of the repercussions — ones that they actually care to avoid?
“The research that is emerging now with great frequency about the necessity of sleep is at war with some longstanding cultural norms,” Lisa Arnone told me. “Sleep is lost time: It is not possible to be productive when one is unconscious, and until recently there was not much evidence that sleep itself was productive.”
Adding to that, she said, “Our culture and our communities also do not value stillness. Stillness is a necessary prelude to a quieting of the mind, and a quiet mind is essential to the act of falling asleep, which, in the end, is a surrender to and acceptance of the loss of control — something we spend the rest of our lives wrestling for supremacy over.”
Ironically, I do enjoy learning about the latest in sleep research. I followed the compelling WNYC Clock Your Sleep experiment, in which New Yorkers, CEOs, and experts weighed in on lessons learned and best practices toward improving sleep behaviors. Bragging about lost sleep was becoming passé. Yet when it comes to my sleep and valuing stillness, I am the slovenly couch potato with chip crumbs down my front watching an exercise routine on television: a contradiction, at best.
“So Mariko, knowing you,” Arnone said, “I would say that keeping step, being vigorously productive, and feeling and appearing strong is of profound importance. I think this is often a dilemma of stay-at-home moms who are judged harshly, envied much, and must prove they are working as hard as everyone else.”
She was dead on. I wasn’t sending emails to my co-workers until all hours, but I was subconsciously associating late hours with productivity.
She continued, “The demands of day-to-day life in these times keep us at an enormous distance from ourselves. I think the mind and heart rails against a day without a self in it. Maybe all the pre-bed machinations are attempts to find that connection and make it before we slip into the diffuse unconsciousness of sleep.”
My head swirled as I tried to make sense of how I would apply these truths to my lack of discipline with sleep. So I started from scratch.
My first step was to toss out the personal 30-day challenge for good. By this point I knew I needed to make a commitment for life, not one month. Next, I shifted my thinking around when it came to what “end of my day” meant. The children initiating their bedtime routines would have to signal the end of my evening responsibilities (laundry, dishes) and the close of my interactions with the outside world (emailing and texting). So I started putting my pajamas on and brushing my teeth with the kids and considered their bedtime the end of my day.
If anything, this put a stop to the dreadful habit of plunking down on the couch and remaining there because it felt easier than getting up to go to sleep.
I also did my best to stick to whatever plan I had in mind for the nights of that particular week — like finishing a book or indulging in a television series. That helped steer me away from listless mental wandering. Lastly, keeping in mind what Arnone had said about discomfort around stillness, I ended each day with a simple five-minute meditation, focusing solely on breathing in and out, nothing more.
There are still nights when that does not happen — when I stay up to meet a writing deadline, because the inspiration didn’t come when I wished it had. Or when I put everything aside to care for a sick child, and simply do what I have to do. And then there are the nights when I can’t get out of my own way, and stay up for hours getting lost on Facebook and eating cookies. Overall, however, my relationship with sleep is progressing, and those late nights happen with far less frequency.
Now I am most grateful for the moments when wisdom and my ability to internalize it intersect. Thanks to Arnone and my persistent, genuine desire to live the best life possible, I know that staying up too late jeopardizes my self-worth as much as it does my physical well-being. And it’s that realization that guides me to turn off the light.
March 17 is World Sleep Day.