Recently 26 year-old Andrew Rector filed a lawsuit against ESPN, Major League Baseball Advanced Media, and the New York Yankees, claiming defamation stemming from broadcasted video of him fast asleep in the stands during an April Yankees vs. Red Sox baseball game.
Here is the video in question:
According to the filed materials, Mr. Rector was subjected to an “unending verbal crusade against the napping plaintiff” and an “avalanche of disparaging words against” him subsequent to the game.
In reporting this story, this morning’s television news programs often asked a question not terribly different from that of the commentators: “how can anyone sleep through something as exciting as a close Yankees / Red Sox game?”
I’m not writing today to provide legal commentary. However, this incident does bring up an important issue regarding sleep and our collective perception of sleepiness.
There has long been a widely held belief that you naturally fall asleep simply because you’re bored or inactive. The corollary concept is that if you fall asleep when you’re not supposed to or when other people usually don’t, such as while at work or at an exciting event, you must be lazy, unmotivated, or dumb. Over the years I’ve seen many patients whose clinic evaluations were initiated by getting fired, suspended or reprimanded for having fallen asleep on the job or in meetings.
I submit that such notions are ill-conceived and unfair. If you regularly have proper amounts of sleep and if you are free of medications, substances, or medical conditions causing sleepiness, then you really shouldn’t be struggling to stay awake all day long just because you’re physically or mentally inactive. It’s more accurate to say that a person who is prone to excessive drowsiness (regardless of the reason) tends to fall asleep by accident if sedentary. The question then shifts to: why is that person prone to being drowsy in the first place?
I mean, who knows why Rector was snoozing during the ball game? Maybe he usually gets up at 3 a.m. to get to work, so the game was past his usual bedtime. Perhaps he holds down two jobs. Maybe he spent the previous night caring for a sick child. Perhaps he has an undiagnosed sleep disorder. Is it really right to make a judgment of a person’s character or work ethic based on a tendency to fall asleep when others are awake?
How “normal” is it to sleep through something exciting or otherwise stimulating? In my younger years (prior to practicing sleep medicine), and in the setting of chronic sleep deprivation, I routinely slept through fire alarms, tornadoes, tornado alarms, neighborhood car crashes, earthquakes, and parties next door. I slept through important lectures, grand rounds, and meetings due to not getting enough sleep. Your ability to stay awake and your ability to arouse from sleep in response to a stimulus depend on a number of factors, including your age, how much sleep you usually get, how regular your sleep schedules are, how much sleep you happened to get the previous night, and what stage of sleep you happen to be in when the stimulus occurs.
I’m not saying it’s OK to sleep through important events, of course. Here are my main points today. If you are finding yourself falling asleep in inappropriate times, places, and circumstances, and particularly if your professional and personal lives suffer as a result:
1. Work to identify the reason(s) for the sleepiness. Often an underlying cause may be obvious and right under your nose, like getting 5 hours of sleep each night. We are creatures of habit, though, so lifestyle choices that lead to chronic sleep deprivation may not feel like problems if you’ve engaged in them for a long time.
2. If there is a specific lifestyle choice that is causing your sleepiness, make a change, even if the change is uncomfortable or inconvenient.
3. Strive to get proper amounts of sleep (which for most adults is 7.5 – 8 hours per night) on a regular basis to the extent possible.
4. Should you remain prone to falling asleep despite proper amounts of sleep and after excluding other potential causes, discuss your sleepiness with your doctor; your drowsiness may suggest the presence of an undiagnosed sleep disorder. You may want to consider an evaluation at an accredited sleep center.
Stay healthy and awake this summer, everyone!
Final thing: shout-out to my friend Doug, man, you’re an inspiration.