By Andrew Hidajat (17S03I)
On my very first morning in Singapore as a foreign student, I was dumbfounded by the appearance of the 6am sky. While the sun began to rise at home, here, it was still pitch dark. It didn’t take long to realise that waking up for school every morning would feel exactly like waking up in the dead of the night to catch a 5am flight. Exhaustion became the norm. Constant yawning and teary eyes have long become permanent characteristics of my mental image of students, apart from their uniforms. Like most, I eagerly anticipated the weekends, when the opportunity to hibernate would finally present itself.
It wasn’t until recently that I decided that I couldn’t live like this anymore.
I was a trainwreck during the Promotional Examinations. I vividly recall downing a cup of coffee at 11pm in a desperate attempt to survive ploughing through my notes until 2am. On days with no papers, I would rely on the stimulant twice a day, take long naps in the afternoon and rise at 11 am on one day and 8am the next. What was most ironic about this whole routine was that my Project Work (PW) topic is on sleep deprivation, making me the textbook example of how someone can know so much about poor sleep hygiene (poor sleeping habits) and yet do nothing to change them.
Post Promos, I undertook a 5-day Sleep Challenge I set for myself. The idea was to not only reset my body clock, but also to radically overhaul my lifestyle. That would mean avoiding caffeinated drinks (e.g. coffee and tea) and food (e.g. chocolate – yes, chocolate)a few hours before bedtime, switching off electronic gadgets an hour before, drinking non-caffeinated hot beverages – which ended up being hot water – to calm myself down for sleep, etc. To simulate the conditions of normal school days, I slept at 11.30pm and set the alarm clock to 6.30am.
But how could I resist the allure of the few How to Get Away with Murder episodes I missed? The call of my favourite latte late at night, especially to console my dejected self after that nasty Biology paper? On day 1 of the Challenge, I passed out at 1 that night (or morning) instead of the usual 2. It was probably due to fatigue rather than any real determination to change. Still relishing the freedom of Marking Day, I allowed nothing to be different on day 2.
Truth be told, I was sick of having to be committed to anything after 9 months of juggling responsibilities. But coming to a PW consultation on day 3 feeling sluggish woke me up. Around me were classmates for whom sloth seemed the deadliest sin out of the seven. While others were figuring out how to best present their ideas in their presentation slides, I was struggling to recall basic information about my project. The facts I did remember, were distorted in one way or another – a classic sign of sleep deprivation (Frenda, Patihis, Loftus, Lewis, & Fenn, 2014).
I also realised that despite being able to wake up later that morning and thus getting 5 more hours of sleep than usual, it didn’t do much to reverse the damage I had already done to my well-being weeks past. Indeed, there is no such thing as “catching up on sleep” in single, extended episodes. “Cumulative detrimental effects of chronic sleep loss on [cognitive] performance” is not that easy to undo (Cohen et al., 2010).
My inaction was unforgivable. So I swore off my instant coffee, tea bags and even my electronic devices a few hours before bed. I sipped hot water and listened to piano tracks to calm myself down. Extreme measures were not difficult to carry out given my renewed resolve. I managed to push my bedtime forward by 1 hour to 12am, and I fell asleep, well pleased that I had magically conquered this challenge. I rose at 6.30 on day 4 feeling better than I have in a long while. 6 hours and 30 minutes of rest hardly seems like proper rest, but as a night owl I felt like I deserved a gold star on my forehead and a pat on the back.
High from the success of the previous night, I decided to add another routine that I had obsessively googled the day before. According to the sacred advice of WebMD, early morning light was supposed to have helped me “reset” my brain to push bedtime earlier (Fulghum Bruce, n.d.). I was ready. I was collected. I was on track to conquering the challenge. I found myself aimlessly exploring random strangers’ lives through their Instagram profiles, getting myself acquainted with their social circles, thoughts, concerns and hobbies. That diversion delayed sleep onset by more than half an hour, and the lethargy returned on day 5.
But this was no matter. I chalked this transgression up to a matter of my hyperactive mind and promptly made the mistake of drinking tea on the fifth night to relax before bed. I had thought that the caffeine levels, though non-negligible, were sufficiently low. Achievement unlocked: dimwitted nitwit! I was still trapped in a negative cycle of being drowsy in school, resulting in inattention, which in turn causes more school work (in this case PW) to catch up on, and subsequent sleep loss.
I was so paranoid about failing the last day that I would check the time once every few minutes while crossing off an imaginary checklist of “Do’s and Don’ts”. Having done the “do’s” and avoided the “don’ts”, I lay under the covers at 11.30pm for the first time in at least 3 months. The immense effort it takes to obliterate one’s old habit is torture, but I’m grateful this one ends with triumph as mercy rather than death.
Perhaps I may seem like I have been exaggerating, but when one never sleeps before midnight, 10 or 11 at night does not feel like the day has ended at all. To crash would be to squander time as a precious resource. This is why it’s unrealistic to force oneself to radically overhaul one’s lifestyle over a short period of time. How can one so swiftly adopt a different mindset, or condition oneself into behaving a certain way? While I don’t feel confident in claiming that I’ve succeeded at the challenge – because I failed for most of the time – I wouldn’t proclaim it a total catastrophe either.
Looking back on this Challenge, I am now fully aware that the Internet’s counsel should be taken with a pinch of salt, a giant spoonful at times necessary to thrust us back to reality. More importantly, cliché as this may sound, time, effort and experimentation are prerequisites for any effectual change to take place in someone’s life. There are no shortcuts. No enchantment, dark as the blackest coffee or bright as the morning light, can be fully relied upon to put our sleeping problems to bed. They persist even when we know the effects of sleep deprivation all too well, because we let them. We accept them as part of normalcy and convince ourselves that it can’t be helped, even though our bodies can’t help but necessitate sleep.
To awake from the nightmare of chronic fatigue, one must reject this notion and ceaselessly find ways to fall asleep – even if it means having to occasionally scour the Internet for strategies, bottles of salt at hand.
Cohen, D., Wang, W., Wyatt, J., Kronauer, R., Dijk, D., Czeisler, C., & Klerman, E. (2010). Uncovering Residual Effects of Chronic Sleep Loss on Human Performance. Science Translational Medicine, 2(14), 14ra3-14ra3. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/scitranslmed.3000458
Frenda, S., Patihis, L., Loftus, E., Lewis, H., & Fenn, K. (2014). Sleep Deprivation and False Memories. Psychological Science, 25(9), 1674-1681. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797614534694
Fulghum Bruce, D. 8 Sleep Tips for Teens. WebMD. Retrieved 9 October 2016, from http://teens.webmd.com/features/8-ezzz-sleep-tips-teens?page=2