Sunday, April 26, 2015

Embracing the Darkness

Those who have never worked the night shift for an extended period of time will never know the incredible frustration of trying to sleep during the day when the vast majority of their fellow human beings are going about their daily lives. More importantly, people who work normal daytime jobs will never know the warm and comforting embrace of the night as the darkness guides them to a much needed deep slumber.

I really don't want to think about how many years I have now been working night shift but I will tell you that it all began right before President Obama took office. The circumstances of my nocturnal exile are unimportant but with Fate's fickle finger being what it is I have long since accepted both the good and bad aspects of my assigned working hours. The one thing that is different is how I now view the all encompassing blackness of the night.

I'm not sure how this will sound but not too many years ago I was the type of person that needed some form of nightlight to keep sense of my where I was in both time and space. It had nothing to do with being scared of the dark nor the fear of any mythical boogeymen that are suppose use the night to their advantage. The best way I can describe my past predicament involves an event back when I was in basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas. My unit was in the closing days of basic and we were out in the field learning the practical applications of many basic soldiering skills. One of them was sleeping in old fashioned army pup tents.

For the sakes of all unfortunate soldiers, I pray to an inattentive god that those things have long since been replaced with something at least slightly more advanced. But army pup tents were essentially two pieces of canvas--generally called shelter-halves-- snapped together and supported with six wooden poles, a couples short pieces of rope, and a few stakes to keep it all in one place. Once erected and secured in place pup tents theoretically would provide shelter for two full ground soldiers and their gear. The general design of the pup tent has been around since the nineteenth century and if you took in consideration how badly the damn things leaked when it rained you would assume that was also when all of then were made.

Despite the insistent leaking and a troubling inability to shelter anyone from a cold wind, once the sun went down they were pitch black inside when all the snaps were together. That was the situation really early one morning when my training unit's Drill Instructors went on a mad rampage. They wanted everyone up and ready to move out in some ungodly short period of time way before the sun's edge even peaked over the horizon. I had no problem waking up, the trouble came as I tried to determine which way was up and down, left and right since I literally could not see the hand I had placed just an inch in front of my face.

The other young trooper sharing the tent with me did have a problem waking up so he wasn't any help. Long story short, yes, I was lost inside my small tent and pretty much destroyed it trying to get outside. Through the years there have been a few other instances of me suffering through darkness-induced spatial disorientation but except for a few painful stumped toes and one collision with the bathroom door during a local power outage but nothing like that time at Fort Bliss. Mainly because I always had some small light on to keep me properly oriented.

Of course, there isn't any possibility of suffering through a darkness-induced spatial disorientation episode for those of us who have the glorious privilege of working at night. The truth of the matter is that you don't really sleep during the day, with normal humans going about their daily chores the best a third-shift worker can hope to accomplish is to take extended naps. Now I admit during the winter months the situation borders on the tolerable with the sun coming up later and most yard work related activities having ceased because of the cooler weather. The difficulties during the summer months run the gambit of overactive neighbors using lawnmowers. leaf blowers, weed whackers, and my favorite high-pressure washers. This last one just doesn't just make a hell of a lot of noise, if the acoustics and ground conditions are just right pressure washers can transmit vibrations. I write from experience because I have a work-at-home prick for a neighbor who pressure washes his cement driveway once a year. Now throw in delivery trucks with a bad muffler, the occasional evangelical nutcase who knocks on the front door desperate to save your soul, and of course telephone calls and you can understand why I say night workers just take extended naps.

All that is why I have come to embrace the all-encompassing darkness on my nights off. Just this Friday night I went to bed around nine o'clock pm after having opened the windows and turned on the ceiling fan to draw in the cool night air. What first hit me was not the darkness but the near utter silence. Except for the sounds of a few nocturnal insects and a distant set of wind chimes moving with the breeze it was so silent it seemed surreal. Neither my wife nor my daughter have ever had the issue with total darkness that I did so when they go to bed all the lights in the house are turned off. That is when the darkness seems to engulf me and I slowly sink into a restful oblivion.

It doesn't quite end there, see when your body's circadian rhythms are screwed up you can't really sleep completely through the night. I myself wake up at least three times a night but after looking at my alarm clock and realizing the time the darkness quickly rolls back in to comfort and lull me back to sleep. It is during those times that I dream. I have no idea about the mechanics of dreaming or the different levels of sleep but on those nights when I am home I even seem to dream differently.

When Sunday morning arrives all I can do is prepare for the return to my normal work schedule. Which means around noontime I have to lay down for a nap to get ready to start my shift. Returning to work is an utter waking nightmare, that first night even thinking is hard making mundane tasks seem like solving equations for quantum mechanics problems. About the only thing that gets me through the week is the knowledge that the coming Friday night the darkness will welcome me again.


Pixel Peeper said...

I have a faint understanding of how difficult it is to work the night shift - my ex-husband used to work third shift for a few years. And during my twenties and thirties, I worked a part-time job with totally random hours, sometimes all day, and sometimes all night. January was our busy season, and the only reason I survived intact was the fact that I was still young and could sleep whenever and wherever. I remember waking up in bed one time during one January, totally disoriented, and hearing my ex-husband's and my kids' voices in the living room.

"Hey," I hollered, "What time is it?"

"Seven o'clock," my ex answered.

"Don't bother me with it a.m. or p.m.?"

Wishing you silence and good sleep!

Marja said...

My husband used to work the night shift and when we had littlies which kept him awake when he supposed to sleep time was hard.
I don't get disoriented in the dark but
I would destroy a tent too in the pitch dark as that drives me nuts.
We camped once in the bush and I slept with my hand on the torch.

Beach Bum said...

Pixel: One thing I didn't mention in the post is how during the summer months I absolutely have to lower the air conditioning to 68 degrees to try and sleep. But before my wife returns how I have to raise it back up to 72.

There have been "issues" on the days I have forgotten.

Marja: Yeah, when my kids were younger that just understand why daddy had to sleep during the day.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Have you tried wearing ear plugs to block out some of that noise when you're trying to sleep?

I don't think the night shift is for me. In the mid '60s, I worked a summer job at Bethlehem Steel. At the end of the summer, the company offered me a raise, and a slightly different job, working 12 to 8. I was like, that's not too bad. I can sleep in, and by the time I get home, it'd still be early enough to go out on a date. Um, yeah, right. Naive as all get-out. I turned the job down.

The Bug said...

My dad did 3rd shift for a while - driving feeder trucks for UPS. That was after I left home, but I know it was really tricky for him to keep his routine in place on his days off. What helped him I'm sure is that my mom was a total night owl - she started keeping about the same hours he did. It was easier since my brother & I weren't around.

My mom always had to have a light on because she got claustrophobic if she couldn't see. She couldn't envision that there was all this space around her - it felt like the dark was smothering her. Eep!

Ranch Chimp said...

Good read Bum about sleep and the effects in darkness, havent thought bout it much before. But reminds me, back about a decade ago I was working security in one of Uptown Dallas' busiest nightclub districts, which was nights from open to close of the clubs and restarauntes, but it was so busy and active and loud (music venues)that you didnt even notice it was night it seemed (fridayz & saturdays alot of action, and my off dayz were monday and tuesday's), but anywayz ... my hardest part to sleep was because trying to unwind and relax after a busy night if you know what I mean, which took hours to do, not so much any daytime noises. Later Guy ....

Akelamalu said...

My Dad used to work permanent nights in his younger days - he hated it but it paid more so he did it for his family.

kaluhi21 said...

Hi, Bum....I'm a fellow sufferer, my poor husband has come to except my bizarre hours. Even though I no longer work night shifts for many years, I still suffering terribly from the inability to get a good nights sleep. It has eluded me for years,
Terrific blog post.