Turning In

As we age, our sleep needs change. Nights when we sleep more than we’re up become as precious as they are elusive.

July 8, 2023

By guest author Melissa Kirsch from the New York Times

Melissa Kirsch is the deputy editor of Culture and Lifestyle at The New York Times and writes The Morning newsletter on Saturdays. She is the author of the book “The Girl’s Guide.”

How did you sleep last night? Did you slumber lavishly, temperature and temperament aligned, waking with the sun? Or was it one of those stormy-seas nights, dreams indistinguishable from waking-life worries, tangled covers, eyes on the clock?

Sleep is mysterious, although we try mightily to make it less so. We use metaphors to describe it, diaries to track it, pharmaceuticals to manipulate it. I have spent a good decade trying to find the perfect pillow.

As we age, our needs for sleep change. The forces working against our undisturbed seven to nine hours multiply. In my 20s, I decided that if I was to lead a full and exciting life, I was going to have to be comfortable going to work exhausted. This seemed, at the time, like a workable model. I didn’t think that much about sleep. I thought about waking life, about how to get as much out of it as possible, with only brief pit stops to refuel. I would stay out late, barely sleep, vault awake with the alarm a few hours later.

“By definition, if you’re using an alarm clock to wake up, then you are chronically sleep-deprived,” Dr. Indira Gurubhagavatula, a sleep specialist at Penn Medicine, told The Times’s Dani Blum. If you’re getting enough sleep, you’ll wake naturally when you’re rested.

Now, in middle age, I’m determined to rely on an alarm only when I’m catching an early flight. Bedtime is sacred, and violating it requires a PowerPoint deck describing risks and rewards and return on investment. I’m always making calculations now, talking about sleep as if it were currency, feeling always a scarcity, greedy for more. “The sleep debt collectors are coming,” Oliver Whang wrote in The Times last year. “They want you to know that there is no such thing as forgiveness, only a shifting expectation of how and when you’re going to pay them back.”

I’ve been asking people lately about how well they sleep. Their responses are complicated. Even though we know we need to practice good sleep hygiene in order to be healthy and effective, I still detect a perverse hint of pride when people tell me they don’t sleep well, as if they’re society’s noble sentinels, up all night scanning the darkness for predators. Those who say they sleep well are a little bashful, as if their easy rest bespeaks a too-cosseted mind, a too-simple life. One person said of sleep in adulthood, “I just love sleep more now than I ever have. Does that make sense?”

I knew exactly what they meant. The older I become, the more grateful I am for whatever sleep I can get. I crave the overnight mop-up, the “taking out the trash” that occurs in the brain while the body’s out. A quick nap functions like rebooting a computer; my system is haywire, so I pass out and then chime awake a short spell later, flushed of unnecessary data. I crave what Walt Whitman called “free flight into the wordless, / Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done.”

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