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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Jet lag is a modern-day, self-inflicted disease

Jet-lag is the product of our ability to hurl ourselves around the world in search of adventure, or family or work

Everyone has some secret recipe for avoiding jet lag, but the only cure is to endure. Ali Haider / EPA
Everyone has some secret recipe for avoiding jet lag, but the only cure is to endure. Ali Haider / EPA

A few years ago, on the day we’d returned to Abu Dhabi from New York, my then seven-year-old son woke me up in the middle of the night. “Mommy,” he whispered, “mommy! I’m worried I’m going to catch jet lag!”

Poor kid. It was 3am in Abu Dhabi, but his body clock thought it was dinner-time in New York. He didn’t have to worry about catching “the lag”: it had caught him. I suppose that most of us who live in Abu Dhabi and regularly migrate around the globe can appreciate his dilemma. None of us want jet lag, but it’s become a modern-day, self-inflicted disease. Sometimes I think that jet-lag is the price I have to pay for having moved so far away from my family: sleeplessness as a form of penance.

I am not a good sleeper under the best of circumstances and I envy those who have mastered the art of the nap, or who can get their full night’s sleep on a long-haul flight. If you’ve ever been awakened on an international flight by someone accidentally shining her reading light into your eyes, it wasn’t me, I promise.

My husband is one of those who can sleep anytime, anywhere, and when I’m lying there awake, in the early stages of time-zone discombobulation, as he blissfully snores away, it is hypothetically possible that in trying to get comfortable, I might have kicked him.

Everyone has some secret recipe for avoiding jet lag, but let’s face it: the only cure is to endure. That means trying not to appear too obviously drowsy at that late-afternoon meeting, when your internal clock thinks it’s 3am and every fibre of your being screams out “go to sleep”, and then on the other side of things, trying to avoid gerbil wheel of anxiety that kicks in when you’re awake in the middle of the night.

You’d think I’d know by now not to listen to myself in the wee hours of the morning, when I’m wide awake and trying not to kick my husband. But my insomniac mind is loudest at 3am, reminding me about missed opportunities, poorly executed projects, undone “to do” lists and ghastly memories of social awkwardness. I find myself reliving things from ancient history, like the time that someone tripped me in the lunch room in eighth grade and I dropped my entire tray of food. It’s as if my brain is adding insult to injury: social humiliation coupled with images of myself with an appalling “Dorothy Hamill” haircut and bell-bottomed trousers.

I have learnt, however, that I can slow the gerbil wheel down by keeping a notebook at the side of the bed to jot down all-important to-do items, or the flashes of inspiration that strike at 4am but are shreds of mist after the sun comes up. Of course, in the harsh light of actual morning, those pressing tasks are things like “buy new socks” and the flashes of inspiration are – well, let’s just say, they’re not quite as brilliant as they seemed in the fog of pre-dawn.

Jet-lag is the product of our ability to hurl ourselves around the world in search of adventure, or family, or work — and yet this ability doesn’t seem to have produced as much of a global community as you might expect. But maybe cultural engagement is too much to expect from exhausted people. Let’s start with our shared sleeplessness: we can commiserate over a cup of tea and work from there.

The experts warn us that for each hour we move, it takes a day to adapt: eight hours, eight days; 10 hours, 10 days. I generally feel a little less apocalyptic after four or five days, however, and my husband wakes up with fewer hypothetical bruises on his shins. He should be healed just in time for our flight back to Abu Dhabi in August. He’s thinking of investing in a pair of shin guards and I’m not scheduling any meetings until early September.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi