Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Walking Dead: The Mombie Edition

The Sleep Revolution, by Arianna Huffington, is a guide to the history, science, emotional, social and physical value of, and best practices for getting your best sleep. It’s a natural follow-up to Huffington’s 2014 bestseller, Thrive, which focused on how to redefine our culture’s view of success. Here, she talks about something so simple and within our control, which could easily be holding us back from living the fullest and most successful version of ourselves: sleep. The book is an easy read, logically organized, and well written – quite fittingly a pretty good bedtime read.

In the first few pages Huffington recounts a personal story – one she shares in Thrive as well – where she collapsed after several days of touring colleges with her daughter, answering work emails all night, and giving interviews during off hours. Her collapse, and the series of doctor’s visits she had afterwards, were her wake up call. It was time to renew her relationship with sleep, something that she, as many of us do, took for granted.  She argues that reprioritizing our relationship with sleep will not only make us healthier and infinitely more productive (which it will), but that it also will allow us to further deepen our relationship with ourselves, by carving out designated white space in our frenetic and hyper connected lives to ponder and dream.

What happens when we let go of all of the stuff we need to do, when we let go of all the stuff we didn’t do, and just focus on the most basic thing within our control: self-renewal?

Huffington unpacks the history of sleep, and details the ways in which the industrial revolution led the way for the unique “colonization” of the night, something that had been previously unthinkable. And just as artificial light paved the way for the night shift, the evolution of smart technology and cell phones has colonized a new night shift for nearly everyone. Huffington touches briefly on the urgency for a new labor movement in the digital age of the 21st century, writing, “Workers of the world, unplug!” I loved this conceptualization and was hoping Ms. Huffington would talk at more length about the role that technology plays in our increasingly national problem with sleep dysfunction. She does, but on a more abstract level.

She writes: “Stillness – our ability to pause and connect with our deeper selves – is a skill that can be learned and cultivated. And this is all the more important when the world is coming at us at an increasingly frantic pace. So for me, becoming comfortable with stillness – without a constant stream of external stimulation – was a prerequisite to becoming comfortable with sleep.” Technology, and our ability to be connected 24 hours a day to each other, our jobs, and to news and information, has made the seemingly simple task of achieving stillness, increasingly complex.

For me, this is the most fascinating aspect of Huffington’s Sleep Revolution. That in our national obsession with being busy and connected, we have completely forgotten how to be still, and how important it is to practice and covet this space. That this place of stillness is in fact where we begin to learn how to rest.  Huffington’s second half of the book offers useful guidance here on how to create this space, including cutting edge sleep technology to tailor your sleep to your needs, as well as the best mattress, temperature, what to eat and drink, and guided meditations to get you into the most conducive mental and physical space necessary for your best night’s sleep.

But for any of it to work, you have to commit to the idea that sleep (and by extension your own physical and emotional needs) are a priority, and carve out the space to explore them. This is a deceptively illusive concept for many of us, in particular for parents like myself who have grown accustomed to spending nearly every single moment of every day and night tending, rocking, cooking, caring, thinking and worrying about our children. Modern day parenting, as a verb, is increasingly a 24/7 proposition.

In perhaps one of the more telling lines of the book, Huffington writes, “Lying in bed putting out imaginary fires is one of the most draining things we can do.” I will confess that I may have laughed out loud when I read that line. Why? Because if I ever write a book about parenting, I could easily envision titling it, Lying in Bed Putting Out Imaginary Fires. Isn’t this how so many parents spend each night? We hit the playback reel, punishing ourselves for the hurt feelings or skinned knees we didn’t prevent today, knowing full well that despite every effort to forecast them, we won’t be able to prevent the ones we love from getting hurt again tomorrow. Huffington writes, “For me, changing my relationship with sleep meant first coming to terms with the idea of shutting down the day.” For parents, this, more than any important nugget she offers, is central to the idea of reclaiming our sleep.

She recommends carving out specific clothes and spaces and time for the ritual for sleep which, again, sound oddly obvious and yet, how many of us fail to do this? On more than one night that I care to admit, I’ll fall into bed with someone’s dinner crusted on one shoulder of my shirt just grateful for the chance to get any time to myself. Could I consider it quality time where I recharge and rest? Umm, no. It’s more like having the option of drinking Evian or drinking out of a toilet and frankly you are just so thirsty you can’t really decipher which is which. I guess both will give you some sort of immediate satisfaction. But in the long run? Well, not so much.

Her argument about the role that real sleep, as in 7+ hours of uninterrupted deep, restful sleep and not just an hour or so curled up in yesterday’s clothes next to the pile of laundry you didn’t fold, could play in my ability to power through the next day, was convincing. It is in this vain that I think everyone, and especially sleep deprived parents, need to read The Sleep Revolution.

But if we are really going to reclaim the night, we have to stop making it such a funny and cute and clever thing to be so exhausted. Even Ms. Huffington’s own online media empire – The Huffington Post – ran a meme the other day on their parenting page. It read: The Mombie: A mom who is beyond exhausted but stays up late anyhow since it’s her only opportunity for kid free time. At least four of my friends shared that meme from the HuffPost Parents page. And I laughed. I mean, we all laughed. And we shared it. Because we understand.

We bond over it. But the truth is, it’s hard, and physically draining, and, as Huffington herself argues, perhaps more than not a little bit dangerous for us and our children to drive and cook and care for others given how exhausted we all are most of the time.

Huffington argues in The Sleep Revolution that we pay a real price for those “mombie” hours: the cost comes at our ability to regulate stress, decipher complex emotions, or navigate difficult situations during the day. We don’t sleep so that we can preserve some piece of ourselves at night. But by not sleeping, we are chipping away at our best shot at getting the sleep necessary to reclaim some part of the body and spirit of that pre-kid person, the one we ironically go in search of each night.

In the end, perhaps what was so revolutionary about The Sleep Revolution for me is that it is about me – my own sleep. My own needs. I’ve got tons of books at home about sleep. How to get my baby to sleep. Eighteen ways to make your baby’s night a good one. All the ways to help my son fall asleep more easily. Never once did I consider that the book I needed was this one. Writing of the importance of modeling this for our children, she argues that we need to be “showing them how we are doing this.” It never occurred to me that perhaps at least some part of my own child’s sleep dysfunction was a reflection of how little I prioritized it myself. How watered down must the argument of the importance of him going to bed seem, when he quite rightfully knows I stay up all night doing all sorts of critical things, like laundry, reruns, and checking Facebook.

Huffington argues that sleep is not a “tradeable commodity” and I have to tell you that I started this book from a place where I absolutely would have told you something different. That I was able to just go on less hours. That I always have been able to do with less sleep. But her book has helped reframe my thinking here, at least in part. The Sleep Revolution argues that my best self awaits, and that it begins and ends with a good night’s sleep. After reading, I cannot help but concur that certainly a better version of myself awaits, one who after a long and loud and frenetic day with little ones, can truly learn to appreciate a bit more the myriad of gifts that stillness offers me each night.

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