running on empty


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.

And how much sleep you need. A study by the National Institutes of Health found that the sleep time of a patient suffering from fatigue will increase over a period of a few weeks, then decrease until it stabilizes at about eight hours.

"It can take one to three weeks," Neubauer said. "That is a relatively short period of time. You can catch up relatively quickly."

People who chip away at their sleep time, an hour or so every night, don't realize how tired they are, Neubauer said. "People who watch the news, then the weather, then a little of Leno's monologue. ... but whose alarms still go off at 6, don't know how energetic and how much more alive they would feel if they got the sleep they needed.

"Long-term, this requires a lifestyle change," he says. "You really have to respect your sleep cycle. It is there to work for you. You shouldn't abuse it."

If we fail to get the sleep we need, if we trade away our sleep, we will pay a physical price. When the human pace is breakneck, the primitive mechanism that prepares us to respond quickly -- the so-called fight or flight instinct -- kicks in. The adrenal glands operate this system and they are the first part of our bodies to be ravaged by fatigue.

The adrenal glands produce the hormones that control blood sugar levels and mineral excretions. When those hormones are depleted, our energy level drops and mineral imbalances result. We feel tired, but what we cannot feel is the toll mineral imbalances are taking on every vital body system -- the heart, the brain the blood vessels, the immune system.

Our behavior is affected, too. We are beyond cranky. Our concentration is poor and we are more prone to mistakes, even to accidents. We are angry, resentful and more likely to lash out at those around us.

Exhaustion also reduces our inhibitions -- we are literally too tired to keep up appearances. We are more likely to do or say things we might not otherwise. It is like being drunk.

Our lives begin to feel out of control, we feel like we cannot cope and we become depressed. Depression and fatigue share a lot of markers. It is often hard to tell them apart. But when they travel together, they send the poor human to which they have attached themselves into a downward spiral.

We are simply too tired to care.


"I just go all day. I start early, run late, never stop."

At this moment, however, Fred Puddester is sitting. Sitting in a lawn chair on the sidelines of his daughter Emily's soccer game.

Puddester is Maryland's secretary of management and budget, the financial Mr. Fix-It for Gov. Parris Glendening. Puddester is the guy crunching the numbers when the governor wants to bring a professional football team to Maryland or keep an art collection in Baltimore, when he wants to cut taxes, build a stadium or rescue a city school system.

Puddester, who lives in Annapolis, is never farther than a cordless electronic device from the governor he serves. His workday often begins before he is completely dressed in the morning. It rings in his car as he drives his son to the school bus, it interrupts his dinner, and it starts again as soon as his family is asleep.

"My day is nonstop, meeting after meeting, from Annapolis to Baltimore until 6: 30 or 7 at night.

"Then there are events in the evening." His feet tap unconsciously, as if what he is saying makes them feel as though they should be carrying him somewhere.

"My life with my family is event-driven, too. Soccer games, basketball games, plays, piano performances. Most evenings I try to spend time with my kids and have a short conversation with my wife, but there are typically phone calls all evening.

"Then everybody goes to bed, and I pull out the 'in' box work til midnight or so."

Puddester used to be commissioner of his son Andrew's baseball league. He used to be president of the community pool and the starter at all the swim meets. He was on the board of the community association and he played golf.

"I had to give all those things up," he says. "There just isn't enough time. Now I just try to come out to my kids' games."

His place in the governor's Cabinet garners Puddester and his wife the kinds of invitations the rest of us don't have the clothes for.

"But when I go to events, I spend most of the time working the crowd. That's no fun for Susan," he says.

His wife snorts derisively from the lawn chair next to him. She has one of those "don't get me started" looks on her face.

"If it's not work, he can't stay awake for it," she says. "Around the holidays, he will look up and say, 'Oh, is it Christmas again?' "

Puddester shrugs his shoulders in defenseless resignation. When you fall asleep on the couch in front of the movie your wife rented, there is no excuse you can make.

"I hope this isn't my life for the rest of it," says Puddester. "There is a debate that goes on in my head all the time, about earning less and having a different lifestyle.

"Sometimes I think I want to buy eight acres in Vermont and be a postman."

Multiplying choices

John P. Robinson studies how Americans spend their time and how they feel about it.

The University of Maryland sociologist says many of us claim to be in agreement with Fred Puddester. We say we think free time is as important as making money, and we say we would give up a day's pay to have more of it.

But there are no lines forming to be postmen in Vermont.

"When given a chance to make that choice, most Americans don't," says Robinson.

Robinson is director of the Americans' Use of Time Project, and for 30 years he has asked thousands of people to keep a one-day log of exactly what they do and how much time they spend doing it.

What he found is that we are sleeping more than we think we are and we have more leisure time than ever. But we still report feeling stressed, rushed, crunched for time.

"It is perceptual," says Robinson. "It is mental. But mental things are real."

Robinson attributes this vibrating sense of urgency in us to what he calls "overchoice." The sheer number of options available to fill our time is overwhelming to us, whether we actually choose to do them or not.

"Television is an example," he says. "If you choose one channel, there are still 75 chances that you are missing something."

Geoffrey Godbey, a professor of leisure studies at Penn State University and Robinson's co-author on a new book, "Time for Life," says that Americans have responded to the multiplying choices around them with what he calls "time-deepening."

Often, people speed up a given activity. "We have gone from leisurely prepared meals to fast food to drive-through windows to Sustacal," says Godbey. This is true even in the bedroom. Godbey says Americans spend about the same amount of time making love, but they jump into bed with each other much more quickly.

Time-deepening also means substituting an activity that takes less time -- the Stairmaster for a game of tennis. Or doing more than one thing at once -- folding the wash while watching the news. And time-deepening also means Americans do things with more temporal precision -- Godbey's classes at Penn State now begin at exactly 2: 25 p.m.

"This time-deepening will occur in every area of life," he says. "People who are rushed at work don't suddenly become tranquil and oblivious to time when they are at leisure. A significant number of our respondents report their leisure activities make them feel rushed.

"Feeling rushed and feeling stressed are related," says Godbey. "People who feel stressed feel more tired."

Kathy's timetable

Kathy Gioffre has four kids in three different schools and 13 different sports. She doesn't have a life -- she has a timetable.

"I am up by 5: 15 and out of the bathroom by 5: 30," she says.

While gently pushing her children out the door at different times, she folds a load of wash, empties the dishwasher and makes three or four beds before leaving at 7 a.m. for her job at the state Department of Budget and Management in Annapolis.

Her youngest walks to her office after school and they head home, where one or more of her children is waiting to practice or play some sport. At least one of those sports is coached by her husband, Tony, who works for the state Department of Transportation.

"I am in charge of logistics," says Kathy. "I handle the car pools and I make sure everybody is where they are supposed to be."

Dinner is catch-as-catch-can, unless Tony cooks. After supper is what Kathy calls "dead time." No phone, no radio, no TV.

"That's when I supervise homework. Do you have any? Where is it? Have you done it? Is it acceptable?

"I don't think anyone but another parent understands how exhausting that is."

Her day is punctuated by loads of wash. Time with her husband is the ride to the doughnut shop and back on a weekend morning. She says she is too busy to be aware that she has no time for herself.

She doesn't know how she got to this point. But she says she wouldn't change anything about her life.

"Make any other choices?" she muses as she watches 12-year-old David race up and down the soccer field. "No. Not really. I don't think I would.

"But you are asking me on a good day."

Open all night

Exhaustion may be a '90s malaise, but it arrived on our shores with the Pilgrims. The first thing the Puritans did when they got off the Mayflower was toss out 50 British holidays on the calendar.

More than 150 years ago, French essayist Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Americans always seemed to be in a hurry. And in 1962, author Sebastian de Grazia wrote that America, by its own choosing, was a society without leisure.

Today we are a 24-hour-a-day society, one for which the expression "as different as day and night" will soon have no meaning. There are more temptations, more distractions. More reasons to stay up late and get up early.

The television isn't the only thing in our lives that runs around the hTC clock. The grocery store is open, so is Walmart and the Internet. Even universities are offering all-night classes for students who work shifts.

Sociologist Robinson says Americans are twice as likely to say they have less free time than ever before, but the time-use diaries those same Americans keep for Robinson show that they actually have 20 minutes more a day.

It may be that we are confused by the multiplicity of ways we can spend our leisure time and by the way our workday keeps encroaching on it.

There is no such thing as a day off when you can be reached by pager, FAX or cellular phone. There is no such thing as a vacation when you cart your IBM Thinkpad to the beach.

The technology that was supposed to free us is, instead, at the other end of the leash we wear.

This perception that we have no time may be due not to the fact that we are working longer hours, but to the fact that we are working faster. We are more productive than at any time in our history, but our efficiency has only earned us more to do. If you can keep three plates spinning, writes Stephan Rechtschaffen, author of "Time Shifting: Creating More Time to Enjoy Your Life," you are rewarded with a fourth plate, and then a fifth.

Likewise, our increased productivity has not increased our leisure because when given the choice, we do not trade money for time. We trade time for money. The result is a vicious work-and-spend cycle that finds us paying people to play with our dogs while we work.

If only we could pay someone to sleep for us.

Doing it all

Deborah Banker is an artist and her own boss and, therefore, within her rights to set her own schedule. The last time we talked, she had given herself just four more days to feel well and return to work.

"I had to stop because it hurt. I was sick. But I really can't take anymore time off," she said. When it was suggested that this was not a good policy, for her as the boss or for her as the worker, she flared.

"I don't want to change. I don't want to stop working. I don't even want to sleep," she said. "I want to do it all and get it all done."

She is exhausted. And she wants to be.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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