To sleep, perchance to dream

Photo by Dion Ogust

Shakespeare had it right. But his poetic rumination from Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t necessarily apply to contemporary America. That collective “we” known as the American public just isn’t getting enough sleep. Forget about dreams

“I’m an insomniac,” admits SUNY grad student Tongwen Wang. “Maybe not completely. I can sleep sometimes, but rarely, and sometimes not for days.”

Wang’s problems with sleep, which began in puberty, have been exacerbated in college. “It was a bit better in high school because my life was more scheduled, but in college I’m more on my own, with lots of things to do all the time. It’s a broken-up time frame. When I can’t sleep I’ll just lie in bed and read, or watch TV or do something on the computer. The non-sleep affects my mood…I’m always tired, have headaches, and I can’t function well at all.”

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Working mother Deborah Engel-DiMauro and her son Ezra, almost seven, never get enough sleep. “Since Ezra was a baby he hasn’t slept well,” she says. “He wouldn’t go down to sleep easily, and he kept waking up every few hours — which is normal, I guess, but it’s continued to this day.”

Engel-DiMauro used to be anxious about the situation when Ezra was small, but now she feels she’s handling it better. But she admits to frustration. “We start of with a routine, but then when the light goes off he comes to our bed [her husband is SUNY professor Salva Engel-DiMauro] to get our attention, crawls into bed with us, and stays awake. Recently, after we brought him back to his bed for the night, we fell asleep and found Ezra on the floor next to our bed.”

Ezra’s side of this tale non-sleep goes something like this: “I don’t sleep well. I’m afraid to be by myself alone in my room. Sometimes things spook me out. I think how I’m maybe created to not sleep well, with so many thoughts always in my head. So many thoughts about everything combining to make spooky things. So I go into my parents’ room, sneak into their bed until mom or dad take me back to my room. I try to sleep and think of good things, but then things spook me out again.” The cycle continues.

Angela Purdy, almost 90 years old, has lots of experience in this realm. Until ten years ago she never slept through the night, waking around two or three in the morning, her head full. “Racing thoughts” is how she describes it. “Thoughts that were uncontrollable, random, and sometimes I felt I would lose my mind they were coming so fast and so strong. But then my husband [Richard] passed away ten years ago and I started to sleep better. He had been not well for a few years and I think the anxiety of that, and what would happen if he did die, caused me great stress. Before that it was worrying about the kids [she has three grown children]. It’s part of being alive, I guess.”

Polls report that one in five Americans get less than six hours sleep on average per night. That’s over 60 million folks, folks! And the hours of sleep keep decreasing as the number of sleepless citizens increases.

“It’s no secret that we live in a 24/7 society,” said Dr. Carl Hunt, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institute of Health. There are many more opportunities to do things other than sleep, he says. The Internet, 24-hour cable TV, e-mail, plus long work shifts.

“And yes, how we live is affecting how we sleep,” concludes Hunt. “Often our sleep deficit is related to too much caffeine, nicotine, alcohol. Often it’s related to work: stress from work, putting in long hours at work, working night -shifts, working on our home computers until the second we go to sleep.”

The effect on our lives is negative. Polls link sleep deficits to poor work performance, driving accidents, relationship problems and mood problems like anger and depression. A growing list of physical health issues has been documented. Heart disease, obesity and diabetes have been linked with chronic sleep loss.

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