running on empty

December 15, 1996|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN STAFF

We're exhausted.

We're beat, bushed, bone-tired, dead on our feet. We're stressed-out, burned-out, blind with fatigue. We didn't sleep at all last night, we haven't slept in a week. We're running ourselves ragged. We're run down. We're overrun.

We are exhausted, and we are the reason.

Our schedule is packed so tight, the line between work and leisure so blurred, that the day spills over into night and we bargain away our sleep for the sake of one more task, one more line through our list of things to do.

The only free time we have is found in the margins of our calendars. We live life by the quarter hour. Our heartbeats sound like the tick of the clock.

And this is the way we want it to be. We are exhausted because we choose to be.

Even the activities that we do not do haunt us, weary us. They are out there, a constant reminder of what we are not getting done.

The people who spend their lives studying ours call it "overchoice."

"There are so many things out there to do," explains University of Maryland time guru John P. Robinson. "There is this feeling that you can't fit them all in."

But we try. After all, if we are busy, we must be necessary. If we don't do it, it won't get done. We are what we do. Therefore, the more we do, the more we are.

And it's exhausting.

This is not the kind of aching weariness that comes from a game of pickup basketball or even from shoveling snow. We are laid low by a powerful new strain of fatigue that cannot be cured by sleeping in on Saturday morning, one that is resistant to a Sunday afternoon nap.

Kathy Gioffre, a state budget analyst and car-pooling mother of four, describes it as "the moment when I realize I don't have a problem to solve, so I lay down on the bed and stare at the wall. I feel physically heavy, like I don't want to move."

A good night's sleep doesn't seem to help. In fact, the experts say most Americans are getting as much sleep today as they did 10, 20 and 30 years ago -- just about eight hours. But when we live the other 16 at double speed, we still feel worn out.

The pace we keep is brutal, but we love a challenge and if we can get through the day, we have met that challenge. It is not so much how we spend our time; it is how we feel about it. And we feel indispensable, powerful, exhilarated.

We feel exhausted.

Day into night

"Let me read you from my daybook," declares Deborah Banker, exhausted wife, mother of three boys, art teacher, sculptor. She uses it not only as a reminder of what she must do, she uses it also as a record of what happens to her.

"6 a.m. -- up

"7: 30 -- J.P. to school car pool.

"8: 45 -- Robert, field trip

"9 a.m. -- Harrison, doctor's appointment.

"11 a.m. -- Petting zoo; pick up Robert.

"1 -- painting, studio.

"2 p.m. -- stuck in traffic jam."

"3 p.m. -- home with kids; meditate.

"5 p.m. -- hardware store; had copies made.

"5-9 -- kids. . .

"10 p.m. to 1 a.m. -- sculpt."

In the margin is written: "Order vitamins."

It has been more than a month since the deadline for Banker's most recent art show, and she is still weak and wheezing as a result of the all-nighters she pulled to finish her sculptures.

It is not simply a cold she has. It is far more stubborn, far more systemic. It is not just in her sinuses, it is in her life.

"Every time I do this, I swear I will not do it again. I always underestimate the amount of time the recovery will take," she says. "I don't think I will be over this until Christmas."

That is because the rest of her life -- the mother-wife-teacher part -- did not allow her to rest up after she had been an artist every night in the cold of her garage-studio.

Banker, who lives in the Cape St. Clair area of Anne Arundel County, knew about this show for a year and a half, but she could not bring herself to gently weave studio time into her daily schedule of car pools, soccer games, homework, doctors' appointments, laundry and meals. Like many of us, she needed the pressure of a deadline to focus her attention on her work.

"I was high on the work. It kept me going. I was like a machine. I couldn't believe I was still standing. The Saturday night before I delivered the work I didn't sleep at all, and it was fun!

"I expect to be able to push myself."

Sleep, vital sleep

"People are proud of how little sleep they need to function. They think they can cut back and train themselves to sleep less because they have so much to do. It's not true.

"In the long run, you can't fool Mother Nature," says Dr. David N. Neubauer, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center and faculty member in the department of psychiatry.

He treats people who would like to sleep, but can't. People like Banker, who could have slept, but didn't. Now they say they are exhausted. It is one of the top five complaints of those seeking medical attention.

"Exhaustion isn't something we can measure. But we can measure how much sleep you get," Neubauer says.

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