No sleep till sleep is a fundamental human right

    When I can't sleep, I count my blessings and commit myself to helping those who don't or can't sleep: prisoners, soldiers, the homeless, rape survivors.
    Homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk in San Francisco. (Flickr/Franco Folini)
    Homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk in San Francisco. (Flickr/Franco Folini)

    Madeline is a binge eater. My teething 10-month-old is nursing half the night. Her preferred position is on her side with me sort of curled around her so that she can sleep/nurse with her hands grabbing my boob and her feet bicycling a mini Tour de France on my belly.

    When I try and detach at 2, 3 and 4 a.m., she registers her disgruntlement by sticking her big toe in my belly button and pushing down, taking my belly fat down with her. Then with a heavy sigh at 5 a.m., she disengages, kicks me in the stomach one more time and falls into a heavy milk drunk sleep that can go on until 7, 8 or 9 a.m. This is no fun and I have the eye bags to prove it.

    In my half sleep fugue, I try to hold her cycling limbs still, try to get into a comfortable position and try to find sleep. I also try to reassure myself that this is just a phase, related to her teething, her growth spurt, her borderline cold. Whatever the explanation could be, I grasp at straws and hope that this is the last night. I do other things too: I compose songs and poems. I start articles. I make to do lists. I have long, imaginary conversations with faraway friends and people who frustrate me. I am often very frank and always keenly articulate in these confabs. I cycle through bits of the same song over and over again in my head (right now it’s “Don’t,” that earworm by Ed Sheeren) and then count sheep to try and get rid of it (if I never hear the lyrics “maybe you could swing by my room around 10, baby bring a lemon and a bottle of gin” it will be too soon).

    I do a lot in the middle of the night. But the one thing I don’t do while Madeline is nursing half the night is sleep.

    Recently, my nursing induced late-night/early-morning mental meanderings have really gotten under my skin — I am not holding it all together during the day. I am tired and cranky and short. I bang my shins and get baby poop on the wall. I trip over toys and yell. My daily failings underlined how important sleep is to my physical and mental health. Sleep is the critical underpinning of parenting musts like infinite patience, lightening quick reflexes, wry humor, track-star worthy stamina and a healthy sense of self.

    And it is more than all that. Sleep is a fundamental human right. The Indian Supreme Court said as much in a 2012 ruling: “Sleep is essential for a human being to maintain the delicate balance of health necessary for its very existence and survival. Sleep is, therefore, a fundamental and basic requirement without which the existence of life itself would be in peril.”

    You hear that, Madeline?

    Even in my frustration cloud, I am aware of how good I have it. When I am near my wit’s end, my partner can tag in and take over with teething, sick or frantic kids. The only thing he can’t do is nurse. I think about single parents, who don’t have anyone at hand to call in for back up or relief. Who is making sure their right to sleep is protected?

    Who else isn’t sleeping? Not just for a night or until the next set of teeth come in, but for weeks, months or years even?

    Men at Guantánamo, for one. This is from the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program: “Sleep deprivation involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads. At least five detainees experienced disturbing hallucinations during prolonged sleep deprivation and, in at least two of these cases, the CIA nonetheless continued the sleep deprivation.” One-hundred and eighty hours is more than a week without sleeping.

    Homeless people don’t sleep either. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty 40 percent of U.S. cities have made it a crime to sleep in public spaces. Sleep is not a fundamental human right here. Homeless people — on the streets, in the shelters, on someone’s couch or spare room or garage — don’t sleep, not well, not deeply, not with that sweet surrender that is so psychologically important. As one homeless man named Joe told The Atlantic for an August 2014 article, “You’re on others’ schedules. And this is where sleep deprivation hits the hardest. It adds up.” The article goes on to note that sleep deprivation is then linked to other issues like increases in mental illness, drug abuse, higher rates of violence and aggression — all of which adds up to a Mobius-strip mess in which problems compound and multiply.

    Soldiers are another group that don’t sleep. How could they, what with the “hurry up and wait” of bureaucracy combined with life-and-death consequences, plus long missions, uncomfortable quarters, bombs and raids and no clue about what comes next? Generals and war planners talk about the fatigue and disorientation that comes with sleeplessness as a potential “force multiplier” and are ever on watch for ways to keep their soldiers awake and alert while the enemy rubs its eyes and dozes off. Amphetamines, nicotine, caffeine and other stimulants have long been used to keep men and women in uniform awake and following orders long after their bodies and minds tell them it is time to sleep. Now, war planners are experimenting with modafinil, a drug that could allow troops to function for weeks at a time on just four hours of sleep a night. It is inhuman and dangerous.

    I could keep going. Some nights I count sleepless people like some people count sheep. Prisoners — overcrowded, unable to control the lights or noise or heat, subjected to violence — don’t sleep, not well. Victim/survivors of rape and assault and torture — haunted by what they have endured — don’t sleep, not well.

    I know that I will eventually get back to a good night’s sleep. And I count my blessings and recommit myself to putting my waking life — when I get it back — in the service of those who don’t or can’t sleep.

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