Last year, my inability to fall asleep at night nearly derailed life. My academic potential, physical health and even my relationships eroded rapidly as my sleep-deprived body failed in negotiating the rigors of being a student.
Yet, perhaps the most damaging blows were the ones dealt to my mental well-being. With every night of sleep lost, my emotions grew more mercurial. I developed an acute sense of paranoia. I experienced hallucinations. My attention span was significantly reduced. I became easily confused by simple tasks. If, out of masochistic desire, one wished to test the validity of my claim that sleep deprivation severely inhibits simple routines, a single stretch of 70 hours without the luxury of slumber should suffice.
When people ask me if my periods of sleeplessness are at all intentional, I am incredulous. Ironically, I am not a “night” person. I eschew stimulants. To me, sleep is the greatest pleasure, one that I would sacrifice for few things. Therefore, I am stunned when I observe the machismo of my sleep-deprived peers. In my time at the University, I have found the caricature of the wired college student to be accurate. Our campus is but a microcosm of a society bent on defying the command to rest. In this environment, it is sadly acceptable to wash prescription amphetamines down with Red Bulls, which, if you can imagine, is a slap in the face for chronic insomniacs like myself.
The need for a greater awareness about the dangers of sleep deprivation is imperative. In the Dec. 21, 2002/Jan. 3, 2003 issue of The Economist, lack of sleep was charged as the culprit in several high-profile disasters such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986. A recent report by the U.S. National Commission on Sleep Disorders found that half of all traffic accidents were due to driver fatigue. Four years ago, BBC News reported that a week’s worth of lost sleep had the potential to result in temporary borderline retardation. These disquieting facts are indicative of the substantial harm that can be sustained from not receiving adequate amounts of sleep.
There also exists the need for a greater scope of information for those whose sleeplessness is not voluntary. While long-term insomnia is uncommon, most individuals will briefly contract the disorder at some point in their adult lives. Most of the time, chronic sleeplessness can be attributed to stress, irregular metabolic factors or some type of other unrelated illness. However, the understanding of sleep as a phenomenon is still rather nebulous, often leading to frequent misdiagnosis of various disorders in patients.
The over-prescription of narcotic medications is another problem that marks the issue. Most of the current sleeping pills on the market are extremely potent and possess high habit-forming potential. At various points during the three years that I have been affected by insomnia, I have been prescribed different types of pills; the strongest are considered to be as pharmacologically addictive as heroin. Needless to say, dependencies did form, and I was left to deal with the fallout. Medication should cease to be what is now a regular treatment for sleeplessness because of the physical dangers involved with using such powerful drugs.
Many joke that sleep deprivation is a staple aspect of the typical college student’s life; some even go so far as to endorse it as part of “the college experience.” I lament upon these statements because I have seen the worst consequences of never sleeping. And I have watched my affliction give rise to an entire host of new problems. Most people are fortunate enough to never reach the very worst level of insomnia. Nevertheless, sleeplessness is a serious issue, regardless of where it stems from or to what degree its manifestation reaches. Students at the University should grow more aware of the risks and costs of pushing their minds and bodies to the extreme. Everything suffers a little when you’re walking around in the post-“all nighter” haze. To not sleep when one desires is also just plain frustrating. I should know; I did not catch a wink last night.
Pais is an LSA senior and a member of the Daily’s editorial board. He is also the founder of Insomniacs Anonymous.