Opiates of the Masses

Recently I read an article talking about how the eight hour work day is somewhat unnecessary, an artifact of outdated notions about employment. Despite various evidence that people tend not to be productive for more than three hours in a day, workplaces will settle for no less than a 40-hour week. The ensuing tiredness that your average worker feels upon returning home from one of these workdays then bolsters our consumer culture, because who wants to do anything besides sit and watch television and eat some easy-to-prepare food after such a long day?

I’ve also heard it said that our millennial generation is the generation of apathy. That the prevailing attitude about the great problems of our times is that there’s nothing you can do about it, so the best approach to take towards these topics is one of stoic acceptance. Putting these two things together, I began to wonder what else might be combining to reduce our culture’s ability to innovate, to create, to break free of its stale assumptions. I’ve written recently on my bad habits that keep me from being the creative and productive person I’d like to be, and I’m sure my experiences are not terribly unique. Recently I crested 80 hours of gameplay in the digital collectible card game Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014, and I have to ask myself: if I’d spent those hours on my creative projects, how far along would I be by this point?

So many influences upon us in our daily environments are sedative in nature. We eat a diet high in carbohydrates that makes us sedentary and listless. Moreover, that diet is high in the psychoactive proteins found in modern dwarf wheat, putting us into a cycle of greater consumption and sluggishness of mind. Alcohol is cheap, widely available, and widely felt to be necessary to a good time or useful in escaping stress and other unpleasant feelings. Entertainment available at all hours spits out harsh blue light that diminishes our abilityto sleep, piling ever further on to the daily feeling of drowsiness and lack of ambition.

I’m no tinfoil hat wearer, but if there were some conspiracy to keep, say, the American public docile and compliant, it could hardly have come up with a better cocktail of influences. Sure, we can imbibe caffeine to give us back a bit of our lost energy and alertness, but it’s been my experience that this doesn’t entirely restore the cognitive faculties buried under the rest of this. Individually, one of these ingrained habits would be difficult enough to overcome, but in aggregate, they are overwhelming. Personal energy is crucial for fighting through frustrations and overcoming hurdles of motivation; our environments are all but tailored to afford us as little of that precious resource as possible.

I must marvel at the thought of what apotheosis we could attain if people the world over could break free of these things. If we weren’t narcotized by our food and our entertainment, how many more brilliant creative works would appear? How much easier would it be to enact political change, fight against kyriarchal systems, or pursue our “unrealistic” dreams? For those people who do manage to get out from under these widespread dulling factors and create something amazing, what is the secret sauce that enables them?

I can hope to make some dents in these things in my own life via the Zen Habits or other little insights I’ve picked up along the way, but it isn’t easy. When I get home from my standard eight hour shift, I feel a malaise that reminds me of the anhedonia of depression. I don’t want to so much as wash the dishes, much less write a novel or attend a rally. And so I play my computer games, and my life slowly ebbs away. Can I break free somehow, or will I be musing upon these same observations 20 years from now?

Somnolence

The school year from 2004 to 2005 was perhaps the most stressful year of my life. I was in a volunteer teaching job that I was not by any stretch of the imagination good at, I wasn’t getting along with my roommate, and my romantic relationships were rocky at best. It was in this environment that I first experienced sleep paralysis. I woke up in the bright morning unable to move, with a sound like rushing water filling my ears and the strange sensation of my homunculus being stretched and compressed beyond the normal confines of my body. To complete the eerie experience, I had the auditory hallucination of the words, “the world is coming to an end.”

Thus began my now long history of grappling with sleep disorders. The next symptom to appear was a kind of panic attack that occurred when I was first falling asleep. Just as I was drifting off and beginning to lose a sense of time, my mind would fill with the existential fear of death, and I would wake up with a gasp or a scream. This happened only a few times in that first year, but as the years went by, it became a much more common occurrence. When at last I sought treatment, it was happening nearly every night.

As if that weren’t enough, it turns out that I have always suffered from at least a mild case of restless legs syndrome. When confined to a space with little legroom, I would feel a sort of muscle twinge, like a little inch long wedge burrowing into the back of my thigh. To relieve it, I would need to find some space, stretch my leg out, walk around a bit. I always thought that this was a common complaint of anyone with long legs, but as I researched my other conditions, I found out that this was a syndrome of its own. Moreover, when my fiancée moved in with me, she reported that I would kick my legs up in the air while sleeping in a repetitive, rhythmic motion.

I approached my doctor, first about the panic attacks. We tried clonazepam first, then zaleplon, and finally paroxetine. That cleared up the panic attacks almost entirely. Unfortunately, it also exacerbated the restless legs. So I went on clonazepam in addition to that medication. That blunted the condition for a while, but eventually I had to increase it to the maximum prescribed dose, and even then I would have episodes of kicking in the evenings.

It all began to pile up. I would start a given day off all right, but by mid day I would crash, feeling groggy and unable to focus. If I indulged the feeling and took a nap, I might go under for three or four or five hours. I read up on polyphasic sleep, and attempted a siesta schedule for a while. It helped, but as soon as my schedule was disrupted by a trip or an ill-timed meeting, I would be right back where I started. I went back to my doctor one more time. My case had escaped his expertise; he referred me to a sleep specialist.

That brings us to today. At the specialist’s direction, I’ve stopped taking the clonazepam, stopped donating blood since that can cause an iron deficiency that exacerbates restless legs, started taking iron supplements, and started doing my darnedest to get to bed and get up at reasonable times. It’s not an easy road. Discontinuing the clonazepam has led to the restless leg feeling spreading out, no longer a localized twinge but a tingling that surrounds both of my thighs and sometimes proceeds into the day. I grapple with bouts of insomnia, and need to pursue odd remedies like lying on the floor to relieve the tingling.

But I have hope that it’s getting better. It’s getting easier to get out of bed in the morning. My head feels less foggy during the day. And I’m beginning to beat back the tide of lost productivity that this whole lengthy episode has occasioned in my work life.

I’m not sure what point I have been putting this into a blog post; perhaps I mean only to warn my readers to appreciate their restful sleep. We live in an always on society, where entertainment can be had to every hour of the night or morning, and it’s easy for even a morning person (like me) to stay up late surfing the Internet or playing games. But the impact this has on our quality of life cannot be underestimated. While I’ve been suffering from these symptoms, I’ve been less creative, less ambitious, less patient. At times it could be said to border on depression. Don’t do that to yourself. Choose a lights out hour and turn off the electronics then. Take a refreshing nap when you can. Ease up on the caffeine. Your body will thank you for it.

(As an aside, I dictated this post using voice recognition software. It’s fun! I highly recommend giving it a try if you have a few bucks to drop on something like Dragon.)