Off the Grid and Out of the Loop: The battle with structure.

I can’t fucking sleep.

Its 2:30 am according to my phone, I feel like I’ve woken up naturally but it turns out to be some serious acid reflux making me very uncomfortable.

Why are all those other lucky people able to sleep right now and not me?

There’s around 8.5 million people in London, and more than likely at least a million of them are awake right now. There’s the party goers still dancing or on their way home, the nursing staff in care homes and hospitals, hotel staff, night security guards and a bunch of people like me who can’t fucking sleep. Maybe 2 million people, maybe more.

I wonder if animals suffer from insomnia, foxes, horses and snails. Is it something they experience, does the fox lie there at wondering why all the other foxes can sleep when he cannot? Is there that one Grizzly Bear who about to go into hibernation just can’t switch off, thinking about the salmon that got away.

Maybe not, insomnia is most definitely a human construct, what I have right now isn’t insomnia by definition, many people I know say they have insomnia but everyone has a sleepless night now and then. Insomnia is prolonged, and usually because of something deep set internally bothering you. Like many psychiatric conditions it’s a cycle of thought that you cannot stop, often though you don’t know what it is, you just can’t sleep.

My issue is physiological, acid reflux and I know why I have it, a combination of alcohol that hasn’t settled well. I don’t get hangovers, people don’t believe me. I used to think a hangover was something made up by everyone else I just can’t empathise with the feeling, after a night drinking I wake up fine, except for the occasional acid reflux.

Having one night, or a few nights without sleep isn’t the end of the world but for that period of bad sleep the knock on effect can be difficult. It means I won’t be functioning my best at work, or in my relationships. I will be grumpy, and I will make mistakes. Part of the problem is the fact that the normal working week, the 9 to 5 hours and getting up early isn’t at all natural for me. My circadian rhythm (our normal sleep cycle) is not to get up at 6 am but more like to awaken at 10 am and go to sleep at around 2 or 3 am, if I didn’t have to work and had all my time to choose what I do I would easily fall into that pattern. My sister is the opposite, she’s a natural early riser. As you get older you do need less sleep but you still need good quality sleep to rest your mind and body. The physiological effects are not nearly as severe as the psychological when it comes to lack of sleep.

We do without doubt force our minds and bodies to adapt to society rather than the other way around which doesn’t really make sense…

Certainly within the western culture and definitely in London where there is 8.5 million people for us to even think about functioning, running business, having transport that works, shops open to suit means we have to adapt to some extent. Even in a city like London where you can do anything you want at almost any time there are still rules to follow. Otherwise it would be chaos.

The concept of having 8 hours sleep, 8 hours for work and 8 hours for yourself is fine and all but it doesn’t actually work for most.

An 8 hour work day is actually quite a lot, if we actually look at it, I am at work on a normal day from 9 am to 5 pm in my current job, but when we add on time for travel (about 45 minutes each way) and time getting ready for work in the morning we can add another 2 hours to my day, that’s conservatively 10 hours just for work, not accounting for the occasional longer day at work or transport delays. If we take that as an average day I have 14 hours left, take off some shopping and cooking dinner, easily another couple of hours a day, I have 12 hours maximum left for leisure and sleep. This is a huge luxury compared to many countries and many people so I really do appreciate my life. I only really need about 5 or 6 hours sleep so I end up with 6 hours for leisure, I go kickboxing training twice a week which takes up an entire evening which means my sleep time is eaten into and on those days I maybe get to bed for 1 am, giving me 5 to 6 hours maximum for sleep. It’s not so bad but I feel like I’m constantly jamming things into each day so I can go to bed feeling like I’ve achieved what I can.

My life isn’t bad, many people have to work 12 hours plus to survive and often 12 or more hours of hard labour, which if you look at my day means they probably have no free time at all, which is just not right. Animals find free time, foxes play in the grass and Lions sleep on rocks everyone needs some free time.

Recent research has found that working a 6 hour day can be hugely beneficial to people’s wellbeing. In my line of work that wouldn’t be possible as disabled people aren’t disabled for 6 hours a day, they don’t suddenly become un-disabled at 5 pm, they need support at all hours of the day and to provide enough staff for everyone to have a 6 hour shift and still earn enough money to live would be prohibitively expensive, particularly for small charities like the one I work for.

What about a 4 day week? Or a 3 day working week? We’d all be happier for that as we would have more time to do the things we’re passionate about. But can we just change the system? Can we change the way modern society works?

I am not the only person who doesn’t naturally fit into this system, I’m not the only one who has to work really hard to fit into the structure of our post industrial revolution world. Besides those who don’t share my non 9 to 5 circadian rhythm, of which there are many we also have parents of people with unique sleeping patterns, we have people who might have a condition which would prevent them from joining the system but could contribute to society in differing ways like a person with Autism who finds working with others difficult so needs to work in isolation. There are many businesses adapting their working practice for such issues, awareness is improving.

Parents may be allowed to finish or start earlier, or people can work from home if their job allows, people with disabilities may have physical adaptations so they can access their work place and so on, but these are means to keep people within the system as it stands, minor tweaks to keep people engaged just enough to keep things running, they aren’t necessarily about the people.

We’ve all heard stories of people who live “Off the Grid” and many of you may know someone who is. Being “Off the Grid” in 2017 means turning your phone off, or not having a Facebook account but there was a time when it was much easier to really and truly disconnect from the world, from other people. Pre-internet, pre-mobile phone, when not every single detail of your existence is connected through a web of information. I completely understand the urge, the need to get away from the modern aspects of life. It’s a cliché but some people really are born in the wrong time, would be better suited to another era, some people would be happier living in the 1950’s or 1850’s in a theoretical sense but all generations have difficulties to deal with. Most western teenagers probably can’t even conceptualise a time without phones and computers and virtual gaming, whereas my generation couldn’t conceptualise not having toys to play with or TV to watch (even if we only had two channels, which wasn’t so bad, sometimes limited choice is a good thing) What is good about the connectivity we now have is that many people in certain professions can in fact work from anywhere in the world at any time, but is that good?

Maybe this just means we never escape work, we’re always available for commercial demands? Many would say it means they can operate their business from a beach in Thailand, so what’s not to like?

Depending on your job this may or may not be an option but it is a very modern way of operating and it does takeaway the need to wake up at a specified time every day. More to the point this is just a fact of modern life and is part of the natural evolution of society even if most of us can’t quite escape the structure that we’ve been brought up in.

Many more people are finding themselves at odds with how things are, many people who’d prefer to be awake at 3 am, or people who work better when inspiration takes them rather than when they are supposed to work. I like being connected, the internet is one of the greatest inventions humans have created in my view but unless I become incredibly wealthy I probably won’t escape the “9 to 5” life.

Animals live by their natural rhythms, eat when they are hungry, sleep when they need to and mostly animals function along with the lunar/solar cycle, but some are nocturnal and some not, maybe some people are nocturnal like foxes, and maybe some people need to hibernate like bears and maybe some people need to live in hotter climates like alligators or cold like penguins.

We’ve removed ourselves from our natural cycles which means we sometimes can’t sleep at the time we need to, but that need is for others and not me. Have you ever eaten a meal because you know you should rather than being ready for it? Maybe you have a job which means you can work from wherever you like, maybe you have a job which means you work at night as you prefer or can afford to work part time or not at all… Most of us don’t, and probably never will.

We do function well with structure, most people prefer routine and knowing what’s happening next, this is one of the reasons we’ve moved away from the danger of being hunter gatherers, why not know you definitely have tomorrows meal ready? But needing a structure doesn’t mean we should all have the same structure. If you think about the idea of rush hour, when millions of people go to work at the same time, it’s absurd and actually makes the commuters life more difficult. It has also been reported that shift work, particularly when the patterns change, can have a very adverse effect on people to the point of shortening life expectancy. Not being able to establish a sleeping pattern full stop, not having consistency of diet or routine causes difficulty functioning. Maybe our system is the right way, maybe some of us need a routine forced upon us so we can contribute. Humans are very much habitual, but we are also incredibly adaptable, maybe part of being human is fitting yourself in, changing the way you are to get along with everyone else?

Either way, I can’t fucking sleep, what do you think about lying awake at night?


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