Sleep Debt

About a bazillion years ago I was diagnosed with something called piriformis syndrome, which is apparently what physicians sometimes call sciatica if they can't find a cause that's related to your lower spine. The piriformis (sometimes pyriformis) muscle is deep in the hip, and it helps rotate the leg outward. Apparently, in some percentage of people it's entangled with the sciatic nerve. I have no idea if that's the case for me, but the upshot seems to be the same: if I irritate or damage the muscle, the sciatic nerve gets the full benefit.

I have no real idea how the condition developed: from my point of view, it was just there one day when I woke up maybe seven or eight years ago. However, there have been any number of wrenches, twists, falls, and strains which could have been contributing factors. I'll probably never know.

For me, the problem has manifested a few times: typically I can work through it in a few months with stretches, exercise, and some over-the-counter pain medication…although it's never very fun. When the condition is in full swing it takes me a while to get up to speed when walking, and when I'm not moving (say, trying to sleep) the muscle gets stiff and the pain increases. The result is that sleeping becomes a series of short naps interspersed with periods of painful walking, usually in circles around the house, until the pain subsides enough that I can get back to sleep.

This is when I get to know which floorboards creak, where all the raccoons and possums live, what neighbors leave their TVs on all night, and what cars the paper delivery people drive. And exactly when you can see the first hints of dawn.

The last couple months I've been fighting a weird bout of this thing: I'd sometimes think I was making progress and get a solid six hours of sleep or have a nearly pain-free day…and, inevitably, a day or two later I'd get no sleep or find myself unable to even sit for more than twenty or thirty minutes at a pop. Sometimes I'd experience some severe pain trying to stand. So, as much as I could, I'd work, eat, and watch TV standing up.

I wasn't making much progress, but last week something fundamental seems to have changed: the spot I normally think of as the source of the problem suddenly doesn't hurt, and while I still have some weakness and numbness in my leg—so this was not a magical overnight cure—I can sit comfortably and, perhaps most significantly, sleep soundly.

I've always thought of sleep debt as something I can take care of in a few days: you work hard on something for a couple of months, you get run down, you lose a lot of sleep—but when you're done, you just sleep hard for a couple of days, take a couple naps, watch a little mindless TV—then resume a normal schedule. End of story.

Not this time. Now when I sleep, it seems I'm almost completely dead to the world. And where I commonly wake up before my alarm goes off, lately I find myself pawing at it, zombie-like, wonder why it's going off at what I firmly believe must be hours ahead of schedule. Then I blink heavy-lidded eyes and wonder what the terms of this payment plan might be.

In the meantime, my leg improving: still not 100 percent, but it's making measurable progress. Yay.

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