“For a long time, I went to bed early…”
–Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
And it’s true; I did. High school was the first time I became consciously aware of the feeling of drifting off to sleep. I remember in my first period Algebra class learning to recognize feeling of nodding off. Over the six years since then, I became familiar with the seductively comforting sensation of falling asleep in class.
The feeling comes on slowly, creeping up on you. Maybe you start to feel pleasantly warm and comfortable. Not a problem at first, you think as you listen to your professor’s words, all of which make perfect sense. They make so much sense, what is the point of even writing them down? You don’t need notes; you’ve got this all in your head, which feels nice and clear, although strangely filled with cotton balls. You start to stare off into the distance; it doesn’t matter at what. Soon your eyes and ears will feel just as filled with cotton balls. Hmmm, cotton balls. They’re so interesting; really puffy and they make that weird squeaky noise sometimes when you pull them apart… I wish I had some cotton balls. No, I wish I were a cotton ball.
Suddenly, your eyes pop open and you become very aware that your chin is on your chest and you are leaning at a 45-degree angle out of your desk. Maybe you try to pass it off as a casual chin scratch or pretend you had to pick up a dropped pen. At this point, this technique can really only make you feel better. You may think that the repetitive head nodding comes off as nonchalant agreement with your professor, but you’re not fooling anyone. As soon as you realize your mistake your mind immediately feels clear again, and you promise yourself that you’ll stay awake for good this time—that is until you again feel that jarring twitch of reflex that jerks you awake again seconds later.
Sleep is a curious thing. Some nights I can stay up for hours working without even once touching an outside source of caffeine; sometimes my drowsiness is so bad I feel as though I will literally die if I have to make it through a 50-minute class without a nap. A lucky few are genetically granted the ability to function well on less sleep than the general population. Alternative polyphasic cycles that spread out time spent sleeping to increase productivity have gained publicity and controversy in recent years. Constantly seeking the ultimate control over our bodies and their physical limitations, we proudly share tales of our sleep deprivation. Time spent sleeping is time when we could be finishing up reading, writing another cover letter, color-coordinating your closet. Time sleeping is time wasted.
Last semester, I pulled the first all-nighter of my life. It was in December, one of those horribly anticipatory weeks before finals, and one night I drank three cups of coffee and stayed up finishing two papers. When dawn finally arrived, I felt triumphant but isolated. The rest of the day I felt strangely as though I was outside of my body and outside of time. The feeling was bizarre and almost addicting. I wanted to see the sunrise creep around Morrow every morning. I wanted to watch people shuffle down hallways to the bathroom and know that I was superior because I hadn’t slept in 30 hours. That is, until I would hit afternoon classes and immediately collapse on my desk.
What do we really gain during those nights spent hunched over our laptops instead of in bed? So you finished your paper, crammed for your exam, or had some late-night Real Talk with your floor mates (only one of these options is acceptable). I’ve heard it said that no one remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep in college, but I’m pretty sure they’re not speaking in defense of nights spent crying over your Chemistry textbook.
French writer Marcel Proust viewed sleep as the essential connector between our split consciousness, the outer life and the inner life—dreaming and waking. The inner life is a way of engaging with our “true self,” the fragmented and constantly shifting collection of impressions and emotions that make up a person. If we cannot know this part of ourselves, then we are merely living in our “second nature,” the dull world of habit. Sleep—particularly dreaming—is an integral part of understanding and engaging with the inner self.
“World of sleep, where our inner knowledge, held in subjection by the disturbances in our organs, quickens the rhythm of our heart or of our breathing, for the same dosage of alarm, of sadness, of remorse is a hundred times more potent when thus injected into our veins; as soon as, in order to travel along the arteries of the subterranean city, we have embarked on the dark waves of our own blood, as if on the sixfold meanders of some internal Lethe, tall, solemn forms appear to us, accost us, and the go from us, leaving us in tears.“
I tried to remind myself of that this morning as I watched the sun rise—that, and those days when I used to go to bed early.