The Sleep Conspiracy

I'm not very good at sleeping, which makes me like a lot of other people. Is it possible to get better?


I’m writing this in a haze of sleep deprivation, only slightly offset by a coffee so strong it’s probably illegal in multiple countries.

It began when my wife went out at 3 AM to direct a dawn performance of The Taming of the Shrew. (I’m all for the glorious traditions of amateur Shakespeare, but in my opinion the dawn performance can curl up in a ditch and die.) About ten minutes after she left, my toddler woke up yelling. The normal cuddles and pats wouldn’t settle him so I let him hop into the Big Bed for a snooze. He, for the first time ever, promptly fell out. More yelling, checking for blood and lumps and concussion — and once he eventually did fall asleep, the Sleep Conspiracy began.

I think everyone who’s been alive long enough, not just parents of toddlers, have experienced nights that conspired against sleep. You’re almost nodding off when a mosquito makes an appearance. You hunt it down and swat it (or, if you’re a boomer, kill it with two full cans of fly spray) and just as you’re nodding off some unwelcome train of thought chugs into your head. I can’t remember the specific one that bothered me last night, so let’s pretend (very realistically) that I’m worried about what will happen if I spend a year writing this bloody newsletter without anything to show for it.

Once that thought left the station, after about an hour, the minor auditory hallucinations began, with my stupefied brain deciding that the white noise from my fan was actually my son crying.

I turned off the fan, and finally began to drift off.

Then my son did actually start crying.

After he was sorted out again, the local spur-winged plover coven decided now was a perfect time to start role-playing someone’s brutal murder.

These delightful creatures have evolved a giant shiv on each wing. They also scream and scream and scream, at the least convenient time possible. From NZ Birds Online: “Voice: a shrill staccato rattle – often heard at night.”

I like birds, but not at 5:30 AM.

It’s now 2:30 PM, I am viciously tired, the kind of tired that makes you feel like the air is oil and your head is full of spiders, so tired that I think I’ll take a nap now and try this writing caper again when I’m

(Newsletter writing resumes, one day later.)

I didn’t actually manage to take a nap, because the toddler didn’t either and he kept me up by singing adorable, infuriating songs to himself for an hour and a half. Luckily, in the evening, I had the opportunity for an early night.

I didn’t take it.

In this, today is like the vast majority of the last 7,304 days, during which I have sworn to myself that I will, at long last, get to bed early. Or, at least, at a reasonable hour.

I almost never do. There are a variety of obstacles in my pursuit of an early night. Sometimes, I am up late studying, or writing, or painting, or reading — either an edifying novel, or thought-provoking, award-winning work of non-fiction.

But mostly it’s this fucking guy.

Xbox Boss Breaks Silence on Future of Halo
Capt. John Q. Halo

I am a videogame tragic. I’ve loved games since I was a kid, and adulthood has given me enough disposable income to buy every game console on the market, coupled with enough disposable time to play almost no games at all. These days, if I am playing something, it’s usually Halo.1

Happily, modern games log how long you play spy on you, so I was able to find out exactly how long I’ve spent playing the latest incarnation of the Halo franchise, Halo Infinite.

Since it was released in December 2021, I’ve played for 509 hours and 58 minutes. 21 straight days.2

And that’s not including the time I’ve spent playing the other Halo games, or the time I’ve spent playing videogames in general. A lot of those hours were stolen from what otherwise might be sleepytime, and the more I find out about sleep, the more I realise I might have been doing myself some serious damage.

(Newsletter writing resumes yet more days later)

As you can probably tell, I’ve had a bit of a troubled history with sleep. Before I took up my current hobby, which I believe is known as sleep procrastination, a very small yet very loud baby liked to to keep me awake. Before that, it was maybe a dozen years of garden-variety insomnia. Before that, it was working in bars.

I’m going to try and unpick this history over a few disparate newsletters, otherwise this is going to be ten thousand words long, but for now, just know that I decided to research the topic of sleep in the most ironic way possible: by reading about it late at night. Usually after playing Halo. For reading material, I picked Why We Sleep.

This is not your standard self-help book, or even pop-science book, because it’s one of those rare tomes that’s written by an expert and contains actual actionable advice. Author Matthew Walker is a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology and Director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. So I figure he probably knows what he’s talking about. Let’s see what he has to say about my sleep habits.

Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Inadequate sleep—even moderate reductions for just one week—disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. Short sleeping increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle, setting you on a path toward cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure. Fitting Charlotte Brontë’s prophetic wisdom that “a ruffled mind makes a restless pillow,” sleep disruption further contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality.

Oh hell. This is from the first bloody page. And on top of lack of sleep apparently making me depressed, now I have a new thing I’m not doing properly to feel depressed about. Luckily, my watch spies on me logs how much sleep, so I’ve got a good record of how successfully I’m failing. Let’s just see how I’ve been doing lately.

A screenshot taken from an iPhone that shows a paltry 5 ish hours of sleep. Argh.
Oh for fuck’s sake.

Well, at least I can get a nice early night tonight oh shit how the fuck is it ten thirty already oh god fucking damn it why does this always happen. I haven’t even been playing Halo. Fuck’s sake.

Right, so that was a bit of a departure from my normal way of doing things, but the only way I’m going to keep up any kind of regular publishing is if I make these newsletters a bit shorter, and actually schedule in time to write them during the week. I am sorry if that’s painfully obvious to everyone, but it wasn’t to me. I’ve never been a good judge of how long something is going to take. I know it’s deathly boring to read about how someone is trying ever so hard to keep to a schedule, but it really is one of the things I’m most challenged by, so… enjoy, hopefully?

On that note, here’s how I’m going to make sure I actually do end up publishing newsletters on a strict weekly cadence: Substack has a scheduling feature. So I’ve done this:

In the reasonably likely event that you get an email that looks like that, you’ll know I forgot about my automated accountability mechanism. This will, hopefully, be embarrassing enough that I don’t do it again. But, all going well,  you’ll get an email from me again a bit sooner than a week from now.

Oh and also that goddamn deer painting is finished. This is what it looked like before I varnished it.

A painting of a deer in a sunlit forest that's not too bad actually
My soon to be deerly departed painting. It’ll be off to its new owner this week.

Getting art out of my head and on to a canvas (or paper or whatever) was always one of the biggest goals of this self-improvement project. It’s happening, so something is working.3

So, just before I head off to sleep (hopefully) — how do you sleep? Are you any good at it? Does the Sleep Conspiracy come for you too? Or do you just have kids? Let me know in the comments.

Time to wind it up. Hm. Seeing as it’s too late for an early night maybe I’ll just slip in a quick round of Halo before bed…

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  1. The fact that my wife also plays Halo makes this much easier than it might otherwise be.

  2. I suspect there will be two reactions to this: horror, from normal people, and a snorted “Those are rookie numbers,” from capital-G Gamers.

  3. I’m still on 5 pullups though. Probably. I haven’t done any in a few days.