Monday, April 6, 2009

Sweet Sleep

There is one aspect of veteran readjustment that never seems to get the attention it deserves, perhaps because it lies buried around other issues and isn’t as glaringly obvious. The issue is sleep. Many vets have a hard time with it, for a variety of reasons I will explain below. For some it is just a nuisance, for others completely crippling, but for most it exists somewhere along the continuum of tolerable to frustrating to downright limiting. I have spoken with many about it, experience it myself, and read about a number of other cases along the way.

Aside from what I have been told, I can only share my own difficulties with it, which while perhaps more revealing and personal than I find terribly comfortable, maybe help raise awareness to the issue. I find it troubling, and I’m far from the only one. On the new Facebook-style forum exclusively for Afghanistan and Iraqi vets (, I recently discovered a post from a young woman who lamented she couldn’t sleep well, didn’t know what else to do about it, and it continues to transform every day into an exercise in self-discipline – devoted solely to fighting her own physiology. She was asking for help, yet all people could really offer was empathy. Another discussion forum was, “I go from 0-100 with my anger sometimes.” I can relate to both with ease. Here is my story:

For whatever the reason(s), I have not slept well in years. Despite ruminating on it extensively, I can determine neither a particular event that sparked this, nor even a set block of time wherein it began to become an identifiable problem. What I CAN state (as accusatory as it may sound) is that it has significantly worsened since joining the Marines, serving in the Marines, and then leaving the Marines in 2007. I am unsure if it is conditioning gone awry, stress, PTSD, or some strange aggregate of factors all uniting to make me perpetually tired and miserable. Regardless, it’s there, and it has some serious repercussions.

While every person is conditioned for different quantity of sleep, the general standard is that we need at least 7.5 hours a night. Some need much more, and a few can go for years with no more than six a night. I USED to need 7.5 to feel rested, but now not even nine can give me that. Aside from the slow, cumulative immunosuppression that will invariably make me sick, there are other results of this disorder (if I could use the term here). Foremost, I am ALWAYS tired, and I hate it. I never wake up rested; ever. In fact, I have likened getting out of bed to peeling old roadkill off asphalt. There is nothing fun, eager, or graceful about it. It is a man armed with a shovel attacking a smear of fur and stink on the road. I feel like the smear on the road, and my mind is the persistent man with the shovel. Neither party enjoys its part, and each resents the other.

Constantly being exhausted leaves my brain muddled, my cognitive abilities limited, every thought more difficult than it should be, and sentences challenging to assemble. Writing, needless to say, is often a monumental effort. Some mornings I slur my speech for a time before every motor function decides to join me in waking. I can’t think, and really don’t even want to anyway. More than this though, I am routinely cranky. While a little may be permissible in the morning, it is not permissible all day, especially when it crescendos to the intensity that I have experienced. Every little detail, every minor irritation that may cause the average person to roll his or her eyes will instead send me into a rage.

Worse yet, I can see it coming. “I’m grumpy today and I’m going to be awful.” Aware as I may be, I still can’t stop it. It comes anyway, I say or do something regrettable, and then frequently turn the anger on myself for being angry (which I realize makes no sense). The anger is irrational, destructive, and not just quick to appear and pass. It lingers. Clear, intellectual thought is further hampered, and I retreat to privacy to get at least a moderate grasp on things. As this sleeplessness continues, so also do the frequencies of my isolation. I’m trying to avoid both blowing up and being rude to others. Neither is productive. But isolation is poisonous to the spirit of a vet. We need to be around people. We need that normalcy and constant indoctrination into “normal society.” Above all else, I need to prevent the Marine infantry sergeant from coming out. Few have seen him, and I want to keep it that way. We’re a supremely effective combat force for a reason. It has to do with anger. Yet it has no place outside of a combat zone.

For many veterans (including the one with whom I spoke today), their reasons for being unable to sleep are directly related to traumatic incidents. They have nightmares about things they’ve experienced, and frequently jolt awake, preventing the natural and essential entry into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. While I do have strange dreams that very often involve violence, I am not troubled by nightmares, but just frequent lurches from sleep. “Ga!” I’m instantly awake. “What’s that noise?! I’m supposed to be somewhere! I have a mission to run! A meeting to be in! A formation to attend!” Well, obviously I don’t, quickly discover this, and then fall back asleep again. But the damage is already done. I have been deprived of a full-length sleep cycle so essential to feeling rested.

Other veterans have a hard time waking up, and one recently thanked me for calling at 10AM and waking him up. “I’d sleep all day if you hadn’t called.” Another told me last week that all he wants to do is sleep and never wake up. I’d like to sleep and wake up feeling rested for once, and I don’t know how to make it happen.

Sure, it could be circadian rhythms, but some experimentation with that has resulted in me simply slipping into a routine, waking up at one time consistently, and still feeling miserably tired all the same. As usual, I just get up anyway. Exhaustion always competes with total self-shaming for sleeping away the day. I just can’t do it, as much as I’d like to try it (and I have in the past). I feel too much like I’ve completely pissed away a day.

Lord knows the cause isn’t pressing responsibilities, since I have few, if any. Very rarely must I get up and race out the door to be somewhere. Nor does anything prevent me taking a nap in the afternoon. Regardless, I still can’t sleep, naps only make me more tired, and I get more and more unpleasant to be around. In fact, yesterday’s blog post (“We Mannered Few”) is the product of one irrational outburst that actually drove me out of a coffee shop and onto the curb to yell at somebody on the phone. It limits my ability to be in public, since I’m constantly guarded against the next irrational outburst. In truth, all I want to do is sleep, and not hate myself for being either rude or sleeping away the day. After a time, I just try to avoid sleeping altogether. I try to delay the inevitable misery of waking.

Go to a doctor? Why bother? All they’ll do is prescribe me pills. I don’t want pills. “I’m not screwed up. THAT guy is.” (Remember how stubborn veterans are). Besides, making the admission of a sleep disorder comes dangerously close to an admission of some sort of psychological dysfunction. I’m not sure if I’m ready to do that. I just want some non-medicated, non-induced, undisturbed sleep. This is all that MANY of us want.

Like my friend Jake, who keeps envisioning an IED that went off on him in Anbar province. And Cody, who had his brains rattled badly when the car bomber blew up on them. Or Randy, who can’t even remember how many times he was concussed. Or John, who can’t forget the stink of burning flesh. And Nikko, who can’t forget the war and how it changed him. Or Paul, whose closest comrade committed suicide. And Jeff, who years later still wonders if he did enough. Or my close friend Tate who can’t forgive himself and still feels a coward.

We’d think more clearly. We wouldn’t be knots of unbridled anger simply looking for a hapless recipient. We wouldn’t hate every breath of life in the mornings. It might transform us into completely different people. We might be nice again. We might be truly alive again. We might have hope.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. It's not just Veterans that are sleep deprived. Almost everybody that I know has difficulty sleeping. It's a national problem.

  2. Oh, it was a coffee shop after all yesterday. I was wrong.

    There is more than medication to help you sleep. If you have a competent doctor, he/she can refer you for a sleep study and they can glean much more information than "he has nightmares." There are other, physiological, causes to sleep problems.

    Sarah, you're right. It is a national problem. However, I would wager that half of the folks who have sleep problems in the US are 1) not exercising sufficiently during the day and/or 2) not allowing a consistent 7.5 hours of sleep nightly.