What's the absolute safest act you do every day that, if you fail to do it well, you will be put in grave danger?
Think about this for a minute.
There are many activities that most of us do every day, such as work, play, exercise, interact with others, bathe, watch TV, read, meditate, reply to email, check our "feeds," scroll. But these are not done by everyone, everyday.
To get that list, we would need to get down to basic needs, corporal needs. Only a select few activities can we claim we people do every day: breathe, eat, eliminate wastes from our bodies, and sleep. (Of course this list presumes no one is attempting to get into The Guinness Book of Records.)
Of that short list, it is the very last one that can have profound effects on the healthy functioning of us all.
Yesterday, I was trying to remember an experience that I know happened in our "old house." We lived there from 1999 -- then as a newly married couple -- until spring of 2005 -- then a family of five with a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old, and a 6-week-old.
No matter how hard I tried to remember -- I even closed my eyes to aid recall -- there was no way I could form a memory around what ought to have been vivid and clear. It wasn't due to lack of breathing, eating, or trips to the bathroom that was to blame.
It was sleep deprivation. Years and years of not sleeping.
As a new parent and one who kept renewing her membership in the "mother to an infant" club, I was told that sleeping was a luxury and not to expect much. The prognosticators were right: when it happened, I felt like royalty; when it happened it didn't happen for long. This deprivation lasted from January 2003 -- when my daughter was born -- until September 2008 -- when my youngest moved out of my bed.
For close to six years, I dragged myself from day to day, week to week, month to month. I functioned on fragmented spurts of sleep. I hardly rested enough to fully get into solid dream cycles. I augmented through caffeine, food, and sensory stimuli.
Anything to stay awake. Because I had to.
Recently, Facebook reminded me of a series of photos taken of our family seven years ago. My children were 2, 4, 6, and 8. I had been sleeping seven to eight hours at a time for about six months when those pictures were taken. And I remembered that afternoon. Of course, the evidence of that afternoon having been recorded on film (yes, we used a 35mm camera) is a memory aid, but I recall standing in front of my closet and trying to find something "neutral, but flattering" for the backyard photo shoot. I recall the light shifting in the late afternoon and the six of us pivoting ninety degrees to get the shadows off of our faces. I remember the baby pulling at my blouse, his way of saying he was bored and tired.
Since I began getting real sleep, I have become an expert. I can sleep pretty much anywhere and basically on command. If I can get horizontal, I'm fast on my way to sleep. If I'm upright, it takes a bit longer, but I can rise to the challenge. After seven and a half years, I no longer feel any deprivation. I look forward to my bed every night and I am happy to leave it in the morning.
More than a half decade was stolen from me because I simply wasn't able to sleep. I was told it was "normal."
Incidentally, I was also told to "take lots of pictures" because "they grow so fast." Thinking back now, I believe I should have been warned "take lots of pictures because you won't remember most of it."
We have many albums full of snapshots from the years I can't remember. In that regard, I'm glad I took all those pictures. On the other hand though, I wish I had the mental pictures instead. I wish I had slept.