Good snooze

Mar 24, 1999 at 12:00 am

It’s 4 in the morning, the end of March. "Wake up!" says the Lizard of Fun, excitedly pulling at my toes. "Wake up! We’re going on vacation today!"

I groan and cower under the blankets, hoping it’ll go away. Instead, it switches on the coffee grinder, preparing to brew up a pot of its famous triple-espresso. The noise grates me fully awake.

"If we’re on vacation, why can’t I just sleep in?" I mutter, resenting the noise and the interruption after just a few hours’ worth of sleep.

"Sleep?" says the Lizard, sounding shocked. "And waste your whole vacation? Come on, freak girl, there’s stuff to do!"

It hands me a cup of espresso and starts going over a list. "Airplane tickets, check. Eyeshade and noise-masking earphones, check. Portable coffeemaker, check. No-Doz tablets, check."

"Why the earphones?" I ask, rubbing my eyes.

"So I can nap on the plane!" the Lizard explains in a "welcome to the 20th century, you backward fool" kind of voice. "You know, multitasking. Get more done at once. I also have my Berlitz French tapes so I can learn a language at the same time."

I shrug and drink the Lizard’s turbo-espresso. Clearly, it hasn’t dawned on my reptilian friend that sleep is a basic necessity to life. Or perhaps, like approximately 40 million other Americans, the Lizard suffers from an undiagnosed sleep disorder.

"Like what? I just don’t need as much sleep as freaky people like you," says the Lizard. "Now, where did I put my coffee cup?"

Small lapses of memory are just one of the signs that you need sleep, and just one of the minor annoyances that not getting your Z’s can cause. According to the Sleep Research Institute in Washington, D.C., other problems can include anxiety, depression, irritability and headaches – and much worse.

"Shut up!" gripes the Lizard. "Now, where’s my coffee? I need it to wash down these extra-strength Tylenols."

I ask the Lizard how much it’s slept in the past week. Eight hours a night? Nine? It gives me a fierce look. "I sleep fine, when I get around to it. I probably slept four hours last night. Three. Okay, two and a half."

Two problems at hand here. One is that when our lives get busy, we tend to look at sleep as an option, like chocolate sprinkles on our lattes. Nice, but not necessary. When we’re working on important projects or trying hard to have lots of fun ("Oh, like just about any time you’re at work, and just about any time you’re on vacation?" notes the Lizard), it becomes a badge of honor to get by on less sleep. "Like when you pulled those three-in-a-row all-nighters in college, and still aced all your exams?" asks the Lizard.

"And retained absolutely nothing of what I’d studied? Yup."

And when we regard sleep as something optional, we tend to do whatever it takes – usually something involving plenty of caffeinated treats – to keep from sleeping, in order to maximize our time awake. Which creates the other problem: The more caffeine we consume, coupled with the more alcohol we drink, the more our natural sleep cycles get disrupted. When we have a nightcap or take sleeping pills, we mess up our bodies even more.

Eventually, the less sleep we get, the less we end up being able to fall asleep naturally. ("Right," says the Lizard. "Chronic insomnia is great! It allows you to add several hours more fun to your day!")

That is, until we get completely burned out, in a state called sleep debt, which makes us stupid and dozy, which can get us tangled up in some of the nastier sleep-deprivation activities, such as having car accidents and running our oil tankers aground.

At that point, no amount of espresso is going to help. We simply fall asleep, because our bodies force us to catch some shut-eye, or else. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an estimated 200,000 car accidents happen every year in this country because someone behind the wheel was drowsy. Instead of pulling over and napping, they probably figured they could just down some drive-through coffee and drive through their fatigue.

"Man, it’s a good thing we’re not taking a road trip for our vacation," says the Lizard. "Now, where did you put my suitcase? And my shoes? And my coffee cup, again?"

It chugs another cup of espresso, and hops around the house, gathering together items I recognize from a recent trip to Starbucks: A press pot. Teabags. Chocolate-covered coffee beans.

I yawn. It’s almost 5 in the morning. I’ll be repaying my Lizard-induced sleep debt with a nap as soon as we get wherever it’s booked our tickets to.

Speaking of which, I realize I have no idea where that is. I said I wanted to go somewhere to celebrate National Sleep Week, which happens to be March 28-April 4.