I spoke with one of my wisest friends this week about how I stumble into dazed wakefulness every morning and genuinely question whether this is the day I lose my sanity. And that I lie in bed each night, in combat-ready mode, waiting for my son to start crying. Or get to bed at 4am, after failing another night of sleep techniques, only to feel my eyes prickle with hopeless tears because the dreaded wailing has restarted before I can even close my eyes.
And that I constantly feel guilty for being so tired and grumpy. That it’s my fault my son doesn’t sleep even though we’ve tried everything under the sun. That I should be able to pull myself together, even though I’ve been without sleep for so long, and get on with a full life.
My friend listened calmly and then suggested that I read up on long term effects of severe sleep deprivation to find out whether genuine craziness was actually possible…
I thought this sounded like a fine idea (surely already affirmation of insanity?), so went home and Dr. Googled everything I could think about parental sleep deprivation – but everything I found either referred to the child, or suggested the same old ways for parents with newborns to get more sleep. I quickly moved on.
Next, I searched more generically on sleep deprivation and its effects on the body and mind. I hit on some interesting articles about sleep that all said basically the same thing.
Most annoying of all, the solution in every single article was
And as a very tired, occasionally irritable mother, my response to this is
I was beginning to feel pretty disheartened.
But I continued searching. Hour upon hour of reading the same stuff, other than that, nothing. Nothing in scientific journals, nothing on medical sites, nothing on meditation or alternative health pages.
And then, just as I was preparing to give up, I stumbled across a quote from an ex-Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, in which he describes being tortured by the KGB using sleep deprivation
“In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep… Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.
“I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what the interrogator promised them.
“He did not promise them their liberty; he did not promise them food to sate themselves. He promised them – if they signed – uninterrupted sleep! And, having signed, there was nothing in the world that could move them to risk again such nights and such days.”
And I thought, “That’s it! Finally I’m not alone! I am clearly a victim of toddler torture!”
So, naively, I started googling the use of sleep deprivation as a form of torture.
What I discovered was a heart-breaking deluge of humanity’s darkest forms – the techniques used for centuries to break another human’s will and heart. Still very much in use in every corner of the globe (a brief history of sleep deprivation as torture can be found at this link, if you feel like depressing yourself) and considered a rather acceptable form of torture (never thought I’d write that as a sentence). It makes for sobering reading and adds an item to my daily gratitude list that I wouldn’t have previously considered.
And I realised quite quickly (unsurprisingly) that I’m not a torture victim. No amount of sleep deprivation from my child could come close to the cruelty inflicted daily in the clinging shadows of our societies.
I had discovered the other end of the spectrum. On one side were the medical and magazine articles on sleep-dep-lite. On the other, a macabre horror that makes me wonder dejectedly about the colour of the human race’s soul.
Finally, after some more heavy-duty googling, I found a fascinating document from the US Marine Corps, simply titled “Combat Stress”. Sixteen pages of the report is focussed on sleep deprivation and the consequences when in combat zones. Also, because they’re the army (and say what you will about them but they’re utterly practical when it comes to being good at what they do), they give workable, sensible solutions. I think it’s the best piece of writing I found on the affects of long term, severe sleep deprivation.
It starts, depressingly enough, with the same old solution,
“People accumulate a “sleep debt” (cumulative loss of sleep over time) when they perform under limited sleep conditions. The only corrective measure for satisfying this sleep debt is sleep itself.”
But it’s also full of insightful, I-couldn’t-find-the-information-anywhere-else, information. Like these gems
“The muscles can continue to function adequately without sleep, but the brain cannot. Increasing sleep debt leads to subtle, but potentially critical, performance failures.”
“After 5 to 7 days of partial sleep deprivation, alertness and performance decline to the same low levels as those following 2 days of total sleep deprivation. After 48 to 72 hours without sleep, personnel become militarily ineffective.”
Which, coupled with this one
“even healthy young Service members who eat and drink properly experience a 25 percent loss in mental performance for each successive 24-hour period without sleep.”
Means that after two years of sleep deprivation I have the mental performance of a rock. Sitting underneath an amoeba. Being poked with sticks.
And for someone who dislikes the low moods associated with sleep deprivation more than any other aspect, I’m drawn by their assertion that
“high motivation will only increase risk, due to impaired performance.”
It makes sense, and I never thought of lowered mood being a survival mechanism for the sleepless.
So, what to do? Amazingly, the document seems to offer an army version of what I would expect to read in more new age writings – that mindfulness and self care are the order of the day.
The part I love best is where the Marine Corps authors write
“Taking naps is not a sign of low fighting spirit or weakness; it is a sign of foresight.”
None of this is going to get me the full 8 hours sleep a night I need to restore me to sleep sanity. But it’s the beginning of a long road to sleep recovery, and if some of the hardest people on the planet are doing it, a big softy like me should probably be paying pretty close attention.
I still struggle to practise the level of self-care required for someone in my position. Even though I feel like I’m missing out on life by going to sleep early and not being as engaged with life as possible, I need to start practising some heavy-duty boundaries around putting my resting needs before catching up with friends, reading a new book, or watching my favourite comedians on You Tube.
I need to train myself to see self care as a survival technique, not as an indulgence. I want to be alive and healthy when my son is a grown up. I don’t want the fact that I haven’t put my sleep first to be the cause of cancer, or a stroke, or to cripple me with diabetes.
So if you’re in my life and I don’t make plans with you, or cancel prior engagements, or just plain forget to call; it’s not because I care any less for you. I’m working on saving my life.
I know what you’re thinking at the end of that, what the hell is she going to make today?! Pretty sure there’s not a recipe alive that covers this post… Well, that’s where you’d be wrong. Because blueberry puffs with lemon glaze suit this week perfectly. Partly because they’re super easy and, in case you missed the gist of the above writing, I’m pretty tired. Partly because blueberries are about to launch themselves out of season round these parts, and my sleepless son is truly obsessed with the mighty blue balls. Partly because even though lemons can be quite sour (that would be me), they pair beautifully with blueberries and dial down the potentially overpowering berri-ness of these bites. And finally because this pastry is so completely soothing – offering a little flaky sigh in every bite.
- 250g strong plain flour
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- 250g butter, at room temperature, but not soft
- about 150ml cold water
- 375g blueberries
- 1/4 cup caster sugar
- 2 tbl sp cold water
- 2 tsp cornflour
- Juice from 2 lemons, strained through a wire mesh
- 1 ½ cups pure icing sugar
Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Roughly break the butter in small chunks, add them to the bowl and rub them in loosely. You need to see bits of butter
Make a well in the bowl and pour in about two-thirds of the cold water, mixing until you have a firm rough dough adding extra water if needed. Cover with cling film and leave to rest for 20 mins in the fridge
Turn out onto a lightly floured board, knead gently and form into a smooth rectangle. Roll the dough in one direction only, until 3 times the width, about 20 x 50cm. Keep edges straight and even. Don’t overwork the butter streaks; you should have a marbled effect
Fold the top third down to the centre, then the bottom third up and over that. Give the dough a quarter turn (to the left or right) and roll out again to three times the length. Fold as before, cover with cling film and chill for at least 20 mins before rolling to use
This recipe makes about 750g and you only need 350g for this recipe, so keep the rest in the freezer for other pastry adventures!
Once the pastry is ready, put the blueberries, sugar and 1 tbl sp of cold water in a saucepan over a low heat and cover
Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5-7 minutes, or until the blueberries have broken down into a pulp
Meanwhile, stir the cornflour with the remaining water until dissolved
Remove the blueberries from the stove and add the cornflour, stirring until well combined
Leave to cool
Roll out 350g of puff pastry, if you’re using the homemade stuff, to about 48cm square
Cut the pastry into squares measuring 8cm on each side (there will be 36 squares). I use a ruler for this bit because I am a control freak. No need to be the same, but no shame in it when it comes to baking.
Place a teaspoon full of the blueberry mix into the centre of each square of pastry
Fold each pastry square in half to form a triangle, press the sides together and then press and turn over the edges (this is called crimping)
Whisk the egg in a cup and brush onto each pastry
Place the pastries onto a piece of greaseproof paper on a baking tray and cook for about 20 minutes, until the pastry is risen
Sit on a rack until cool
Once cool, sift the icing sugar into a mixing bowl
Slowly add the lemon juice, stirring constantly until you get a slightly runny consistency
Put the glaze into a piping bag with a small nozzle and drizzle over the blueberry pastries in patterns and amounts that make you happy