I've discovered that it really IS possible to survive on only three or four hours of sleep a night, but it does strange things to your brain.
I'm a person who requires a lot of sleep, at least 8-10 hours a night. 12 hours would be even better. Even when I was in college, I could never pull all-nighters. Though I confess I did have a bad habit of procrastinating, but no amount of pressure to cram for midterms and finals could keep my eyes open past 1 am. After my forehead hit the page of my Political Geography book one too many times, I would finally give in and crawl into bed for a few hours of shut-eye, setting my alarm for 4 am to continue cramming.
How do mothers of newborns do it? I've often wondered. How in the world can they keep going day after day on the minimal snatches of sleep they get in between middle-of-the-night feedings and diaper changes? I would never make it.
But our bodies have an incredible capacity to go beyond what we think we can handle. Over the last few weeks since my 100-year-old grandmother fell and broke her right femur at the hip socket, requiring hospitalization and surgery to put in two pins, my family has been in crisis-mode, running on little more than adrenalin and desperate prayers. "Abuela", as I call her (the Spanish word for grandmother), now requires 24/7 intensive care. It started in the hospital, where my parents and my brother and I took turns doing shifts with her to answer the doctor's questions and make sure she got what she needed. "Sleeping" is a relative term when the activity takes place in a reclining chair in a hospital room with all the beeps and whirrs and flashing lights of the machines, and nurses and aides coming in every couple of hours to take blood pressure and check her pulse. Trying to work a normal day after a night shift at the hospital was like stumbling around with sandbags tied to my legs, blindfolded and with earplugs, in a thick fog, though which I could barely see and hear fuzzy shapes of people-like-figures that seemed to be attempting to communicate with me in some East African tribal language. My eyelids seemed to be extremely sensitive to the pull of gravity, and my mouth had this embarrassing tendency to fall open as I stared blankly at the person talking to me.
I can understand why sleep deprivation is used as torture in some countries.
Now Abuela is home again. But this means that it's up to my parents, my brother and me, plus a couple of friends who help out a few times a week, to monitor her every minute of the day to ensure that she doesn't try to stand or walk on her injured right leg, which would most likely crumple and the bone would shatter if she tries to put weight on it. But Abuela's dementia causes her to forget that she's injured and try to get up on her own several times a day and during the night. So we're all on high-alert all the time. Usually my mom does the night shift on a cot in Abuela's room to help her get from the bed to the toilet and back again. But I try to help out when I can to give my mom a break. The nights I've done night duty I haven't slept more than three or four hours. I hear every shifting and turning in the bed and my ears are perked for that particular sound of her trying to get out of bed, at which point my whole body jumps into attentive focus to deal with the situation.
But even when she's still I have a hard time relaxing, and end up having stressful dreams about toddlers wandering dangerously close to the edge of a steep cliff with no railing, beyond which is a sheer drop-off of thousands of feet, and I am the sole person responsible for the children's safety. I wake up more exhausted than before I drifted off.
Yet somehow we keep going. Of course there are days when I can sleep in or take naps to catch up for lost sleep. And most nights I get plenty of sleep, so I can't really complain too much. But I'm clinging to that verse that says "He gives His beloved sleep" (Psalm 127:2). I appreciate a full night of uninterrupted sleep more than ever. And the next time I see a mom of a newborn baby, I'm going to give her a hug.