I’ve been debating with myself for a number of weeks whether or not to write this post. On the one hand, I recently learned how needless it is to draw attention to how hard my life is, how hard I’m struggling and how much I’m suffering. On the other hand, I still want to be able to talk freely about my perspectives and experiences of life. In the end I decided to write it anyway because, as noble as it would be to suffer silently, I do want the people in my life to know a little bit more about what I experience every week, and sometimes, every day.
I think I feel tiredness differently to other people. I have no way of confirming my belief of course, but from what I’ve observed it seems to make sense. When other people only get six hours sleep, they appear to feel a general sense of fatigue, a desire to avoid physically challenging work, and a kind of persistent but ignorable desire for sleep or coffee. It seems to affect how energetic and joyful they are, but they seem to be able to summon up the will to be cheerful and get things done. I don’t know for certain, but this is what I’m hypothesising from seeing other people who appear (or try not to appear) tired.
When I get only six hours sleep, I experience a number of symptoms in various combinations and to varying degrees, depending on the quality of the sleep. Most obviously, I will start to fall asleep throughout the day, despite my sincere efforts to invigorate myself. I’ll fall asleep in class, while sitting in the waiting room, while reading, while gaming, even while driving.
When I wake up earlier than I would like, I spend up to an hour stumbling around the house, trying to summon the energy and mental power to tackle simple problems like making instant coffee. My thought process might look something like this: “Get the coffee and the sugar out of the cupboard. Good! Now what do you do with them? A mug. You need a mug. Okay, got the mug. Why did I get the mug? What did I need it for? I came to the kitchen for a reason… Coffee! And I need the mug to put coffee in! And so now I need to get some hot water, and the coffee, and to put them both in the mug.” And so on. This will be accompanied by many pauses and staring blankly and incomprehensibly at the required implements. It is utterly useless to try and do tasks which require concentration and higher-level processing like study when I am in such a state.
This stumbling isn’t restricted to early mornings in my own home, either. When I get tired and I’m out in public, I do not exaggerate in the slightest when I describe my ambulation as drunken. I bounce off walls, walk into people, throw myself at doors to open them (and possibly collide with them if I don’t invest enough energy in pulling the handle all the way down), trip over my feet or just plain fall over. Most noticeably, my right knee has a curious tendency to give out from under me when I’m especially tired, so while I’m out shopping with Beth it will be quite common for me to drop suddenly in a spontaneous genuflect. Sometimes I can catch myself before I hit the ground and straighten my leg slowly. Other times I crash my knee into the floor and take a moment to drive myself to my feet again. At first I was amazed that no one ever asked if I was okay, but it happens so often now that I usually just dust myself off and pretend that nothing happened. I think most people prefer not to have strangers collapse nearby them in public, and it’s easier to just go along as if everything’s fine.
Another symptom of being exhausted is losing the capacity to care about other people. I see happiness, joy, kindness, compassion and love to be directly related to the amount of energy one has to spare. How they access this energy is different from person to person, but in essence, I believe that a person who has no energy to spare is not able to show love. What this means for me is that when my well of energy runs dry, I stop trying to give it to other people and I start trying to figure out ways to make it last long enough to get home, or go on break, or escape from an unpleasant social situation so that I might read a book or replenish my energy on my own somehow. I become like some sort of cave goblin, hoarding my precious bucket of energy and hissing at people who come nearby to try and take it from me. I am not proud of it, but when I am tired, I care very little about the problems of other people.
Another trait of my tiredness is the inability to express myself eloquently. It’s hard to describe what I mean, but I get into a state of mind where I have so little energy that I’ll just blurt out whatever words trail through my brain. Say I’m in a conversation with someone, not really caring about what they’re saying but determined to look like I do (because I’m in goblin-mode, and I’m trying to be polite while desperately wishing I could go home and sleep). I’ll latch onto the occasional keyword they utter, come up with a few related words in a loose sentence, and spit them out at the first appropriate gap in the person’s speech.
That reminds me of another trait I experience in my exhaustion: an unshakeable single-mindedness. If I set a goal for myself, I’ll throw myself at it until it is completed. In the example above, my goal is “Showing this person that I am trying to care about whatever they’re saying to me.” But my goals can be anything, and if I genuinely believe that finishing the shopping is the most important thing to do right now, I’ll do it. No matter how many hours it takes as I get progressively slower, no matter how many times my knee gives out, no matter how many walls I bump into or people I collide with,I’ll do it and do it and do it until it’s done, or until I physically cannot do it any further. This poses risks of its own, because as I’ve mentioned, I have a tendency to fall asleep all over the shop when my well of energy is completely exhausted. Quite often I will throw myself at an activity (say, staying at a friend’s house to enjoy playing video games with them) until I am too tired to continue. Then, with whatever scant drops of energy remain in my bucket, I will have to make the long drive home. Many a time have I fallen asleep at the wheel because I was too determined (i.e. single-mindedly focussed, i.e. stupidly stubborn) to go home earlier.
I have come to the conclusion that there is no factor more potent in effecting the nature of my day than sleep. Getting to sleep is almost never a problem with me – most nights I fall asleep within perhaps three minutes. In fact, if I’m still awake after five minutes, I start to wonder why I haven’t drifted off to sleep yet and question whether something is seriously wrong. I am utterly grateful for this blessing, this ability, but it is somewhat negated by having a huge sleep requirement to feel “normal” during the day.
Staying up late, or worse, all night is one of my greatest fears. I can go for days without eating, I can train for eight hours a day for a whole week, no problem, I can take cold showers in the middle of an English winter, but I cannot bear the thought of staying awake when I become tremendously tired. If Jesus Christ himself asked me to stay awake all night to pray for him in the Garden of Gethsemane before his imminent crucifixion, I would not be able to.
Generally speaking I seem to work best with nine hours sleep a night. Eight is sufficient to get through the day, though I feel like how I imagine most people feel when they’ve only gotten six. If I get seven or less, I’m at high risk of falling asleep or exhibiting any or all of the characteristics I’ve described above. Even getting ten hours sleep can still leave me exhausted if I have a poor night’s sleep. In particular, I usually find it quite hard to sleep in the same bed with Bethwyn. Normally it takes a few days (perhaps four or so) until I become accustomed to having someone else in the same bed as me. Cruelly, I usually stay over for a maximum of four nights a week, so just when I’m starting to get used to it I leave and it resets for the rest of the week.
The other thing I’ve started doing to boost my energy is drinking coffee. I’ve always strongly held the belief that caffeine is harmful to the body, and that people who drink coffee are just using an addictive chemical to artificially stimulate their sympathetic nervous systems in an attempt to mask their bodies’ desperate attempts to tell them they needed sleep. It has long been my belief that if you’re tired, the solution is sleep, or food, or fresh air.
It never really occurred to me that these things had little effect on my own energy levels. So it was with shame and guilt that I started drinking coffee every morning so I could keep awake on the drive to work. It was hard for me to then start drinking a second coffee in the late morning or early afternoon once the first one had worn off in order to have enough energy to continue processing information, moving at a moderate or quick pace rather than a slow shuffle, or caring about other people’s problems. Recently I’ve even had a third and fourth coffee so that I would have enough energy to pay attention to Bethwyn when I got home from work, and not just lie down on the carpet and fall asleep at 7pm.
I asked Roger and Naomi about their views on coffee, expecting them (as naturopathic enthusiasts) to refute coffee as unnatural and poisonous and evil. Instead they said they enjoyed it all the time (if it was good coffee). That simple conversation utterly changed my life, and I now see it as a semi-natural solution to feeling exhausted. Not ideal, but barely harmful. I drink coffee nearly every day now, and it completely transforms me from dejected and self-centred into enthusiastic and endlessly kind. I hate and love that it has that effect on me.
Reading all of the above makes it seem obvious (to me at least) that something is wrong. But for many years I held the belief that everyone experiences tiredness the same way, they were just better at hiding it. Perhaps I was just whining and drawing too much attention to myself. But one day, I realised that nobody else seemed to be struggling as much as I was as regularly as I was. I saw my doctor, and after a bloodtest, he informed me that my Vitamin B12 is very low (probably due to being vegan). As I understand it, B12 is related to how the cells absorb and use energy. My basic options were to change my diet, or to start taking supplementary pills. Medication (including supplements) are another thing I have always despised. “The body will heal itself if given the right conditions! Humankind went for thousands of years without popping pills! Hippocrates, Father of Western Medicine said ‘Let medicine be your food and food be your medicine!'” I cried. All of that went out the window when Dr Choi explained that my choices were eating five eggs a week, or taking pills which had no recorded side effects whatsoever. I haven’t noticed any real difference since I started taking them two weeks ago, but I’m going for a check-up in a few months to see if anything’s changed.
So thank you very much for reading all this. It feels great to get it off my chest. I hope you’re all having wonderful days, and that you feel fully refreshed and full of joy.