This is Your Brain, This is Your Brain on Jet Lag

All aboard the insomnia-express!

I can’t sleep on planes. This statement goes without exception but for one time when I was about 7 and on a Red-Eye back from Florida with my parents, and at the time I was still staunchly pulling a “But I’m not tired! Someone proffer me an extra seat cushion! Raise my buttocks higher that I might see the in-flight movie, as ne’er my eyes will flutter into slumber!” For years this wasn’t an issue, because I didn’t fly anywhere. Then I started to like travel. Then I moved to another continent. Then I realized: being awake for 20+ uninterrupted hours, when many of those hours involve being crammed into an ill-shaped seat in a giant claustrophobic magic tube thousands of feet in the air really, really sucks.

So I did that thing where I flew from Incheon to Toronto and back in about the span of a week. Keeping in mind connections, layovers, and transit on either end, this meant about 40+ hours of solid travel in less than 7 days. Knowing what I do about my sleep habits and that this probably meant a considerable amount of dead-eyed staring into nothingness, I tried to prep myself for what was to come.

I arrived at Incheon airport zealously early for my flight, long years spent orbiting Toronto’s Pearson instilling in me the need to be hours early for any plane. I quickly sluiced through check-in and security with ease, because Incheon’s airport has that stuff handled in a way that no North American airport can really even begin to comprehend. I moved to my gate and began the long process of idle waiting.

I came prepared: I had novels, and notebooks, and my Korean textbook. I had a deck of cards, and even a portable boardgame should I befriend anyone on the plane and harangue them into entertaining me for a while. I brought snacks. I brought a television and a needlepoint set and several dogs with which to create, practice, and perform an all-canine rendition of Othello. I would somehow fill these hours, and arrive in Toronto bushy-tailed, bright-eyed, and showing little-to-no indication of the Sisyphean ordeal that is my attempt to slumber on a plane.


Or maybe not.

The first flight to Tokyo was fine–brisk, featuring the kind of airplane food I mentally imagine all airplane food to be: weird, gellied, cellophaned husks of shoe leather imitating food and cut into bizarre shapes to make for easier packing. It was when I arrived in Tokyo and settled in for four hours of connection time that I realized I was in trouble.

But for a brief encounter with an earthquake, it was uneventful. Completely uneventful. Nothing happened. No sudden changes of flights to different gates, no invasions of teams from the Amazing Race. No Japanese couples reuniting at an airline gate, as he tells her not to go, no, because he cannot live without her. No terrorists, or giveaways, or excitement of any kind. Just the dull ticking away of time and the gentle thrum of my brain pounding in boredom.

I slumped into my seat en route to Toronto, and the man two across from me checked his ticket to make sure he was in the correct seat. 맞아요? He asked hopefully. Possibly making his day, I answered in Korean, and he stared in wonder for a moment, and then did what would soon characterize our relationship: ignore all protests to slow down, and race forward as though it physically pained him to keep any words inside. I helped him from time to time, translating meal options and filling out his customs form, but as time wore on, he fell asleep, and I didn’t. I began to resent him, a little, and also developed enough psychoses that the prospect of speaking Korean caused my vision to blur. I wanted to talk to him, but I also didn’t think my fragile, tenuous grasp on ongoing sanity would continue if I did.

I took my book out of the sleeve of the seat in front of me, read a few pages, and put it back down. I tried to write. I tried to draw. I took the book out, read a few more pages, and realized I recalled nothing from the previous bout of reading. My peripheral vision was searing, and my consciousness felt a-buzz, like I had been on a non-stop meth and caffeine binge while upside-down rock-climbing through an electric volcano.

Occasionally I attempted to sleep, but every moment spent with my eyes shut, trying to will myself into unconsciousness, felt like defeat. I would open my eyes minutes later, groggy, trembling like a horrible purse dog, and no more refreshed. Eventually I gave up, and simply began watching every movie available in the seat-back television. I memorized the words to the scripts of every pre-movie advertisement (“Try Air Canada’s new seat-back café! Get the best value and build your own combo!”) and began to feel as though I knew the voice actors personally, like old friends in a dusky local bar haunt with wobbly stools. Stewardesses marched by with bottles of water, and I noticed that I was the only one awake to accept the watering.

Now is the airport of our discontent.

My arrival in Toronto and the state of my brain was basically this feeling stretched out for days: a weird un-dream world, a giant, vacant sucking noise, where I could never sleep or feel appropriately rested. People told me it was natural, as I was actually 13 hours ahead, but I really wasn’t. I was in no-time, and my body couldn’t process any of the signals of day or night or temperature or light. I was living in a place without circadian rhythms, and my brain had no interest in leaving.

I climbed back on a plane 4 days later, having never really lived in Toronto time. I was in Toronto space, but the clocks meant little more to me than abstract numerical markers of when I could catch a bus or meet someone. I would look at clocks with same innate distrust and suspicion that the elderly cast upon DVD players and iPods.

The second big flight, I tried to be prepared again: I downed a whole bunch of allergy medication, taking the “Warning: may cause drowsiness” label to be a solicitous promise. Fortune blessed me with two empty seats beside bookending mine, and thus I sprawled out as best as I could, keeping the seat-belt coiled around me like an ill-fitting snake. I tried making death-bed conversion promises with my brain. If we just go to sleep, I told it, I’ll stop reading the internet. I’ll finally fucking crack Anna Karenina open. We will learn about science and music and art and no more silly pop culture! Just do this for me.

Unfooled by these easily dropped promises, I lied awake for another dozen hours. When I arrived in Japan it was as though I was trucked around on a dolly, my feet shuffling along but feeling like gliding. I sat at the gate and punched out pieces from a Settlers of Catan expansion and ate dozens of Canadian candies without really realizing it or noticing. I was the avatar of jet lag, the very experience personified in bone and blood and flesh.

I took another plane and arrived in Incheon, and then rode the long express train back to my area before hopping in a cab. I opened the door of my apartment, walked over to my alarm clock, and set it for whatever arcane number code I needed for the next day. And then I climbed into bed, fully dressed, and fell asleep before I even hit the pillow.

18 thoughts on “This is Your Brain, This is Your Brain on Jet Lag

  1. I usually love long journeys because it means I can read a lot…or used to be able to without getting sick. Those were all in cars though, cocooned in blankets, sleeping bags, pillows, and luggage with food that tastes good. Even coach buses aren’t bad. Coming to Belgium was my first out-of-Canada flight…it was only 7 hours, non-stop. I could have slept I’m sure, but instead I watched 3 movies and never once stood up to stretch. BIG MISTAKE. I will not neglect stretching on the way home. When we were landing all I wanted to do (apart from stopping the horrid pain in my right ear) was stand up…mostly because I knew I couldn’t. Also, I was told that planes are cold so I dressed accordingly. It was freaking hot!

    “no invasions of teams from the Amazing Race” – Nice.

    Why did you go home for anyway? Anything special, or just to go home?

    • I always get boiling hot in planes. The result of my body being squished into place for so long results in ludicrous over-heating, and thus I have to get up and air myself out once every few hours.

      I try to avoid being vague in posts like this, because then someone asks, and I get to give this awkwardly downer response: I went home for a funeral.

      • I’m sorry. After I had posted that I realized that maybe I shouldn’t have asked or at least I should have phrased to be a little more polite. Sometimes I don’t think. I know this isn’t anywhere near the same, but I found out in an email that my dog died….I didn’t realize it would affect me as much as it did. Hope you’ve been able to recover from the jet-lag.

        • Oh, no, I didn’t mean it like that. It came off perfectly polite when you asked. I realized though that leaving it purposefully vague inside the post invites people to ask why I went home, and then they have to feel crappy when I answer, but it’s basically my fault for being evasive in the first place. No worries.

          • Ok. Sometimes it’s hard to decide it you want to be more specific, and sometimes you just forget that people weren’t there and won’t know what was going on inside your head. I’m writing a post right now and I’m trying to decide if I want to leave something vague just to get responses or if I should just put it in now.

  2. I used to fight your battle. But now I have 2 words “modern pharmaceuticals” There are a life saver. When I’m going to travel my Doc gives me short acting, fast to wear off sleeping meds and it’s changed my traveling life.

  3. Michael, to begin with your grandfather (Harry) always said better to be an hour early rather than a minute late (then again for your readers, he was a Fire Fighter) and it looks like you have the ‘early’ gene which not all of your Aunts and Uncles have; indeed, there are only a few of us that follow that adage.

    As for the sleeping problem while travelling, I too was exactly like you though I believe my issue was more about the excitement of travel; well as the destination has become the true meaning of travel and the journey “just” the means to the ends (in fact often a lousy means and at best a very poor experience) I learned to relax sans medication and find that while the journey itself continues to be a poorer experience, the end result is I am not exhausted when I arrive at my destination. This happened in the years I was going coast to coast in Canada 4-6 times per year and so that was good especially for the trips to Europe which I now see as a puddle jump though most particularly when I went to Australia from Toronto on business for a week. Hopefully, with time Grasshopper, you will learn the way to sleep while in transit! (Don’t ask me where that came from; perhaps the 40 degree heat hear today with the humidex)

    • For now, I think I’ll stick with drugs!

      It wasn’t so bad this particular time, given the amount of empty seats around me. It’s more that the other trips I know I’ll be taking will almost certainly be packed and just as long, and that’s when I can’t bear being awake.

  4. Totally understand what you mean! I have the same problem with sleeping on planes! No matter how many books and magazines I bring, I never end up reading them and when I do, I won’t even remember what I read. When I do end up falling asleep, the next person pokes me so they can use the washroom…

  5. Pingback: Lost Time-Zone: The Jet-Laggening « Stupid Ugly Foreigner

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