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Why are so many of us so tired? Blame Martha Stewart

In university, I had a therapist who began every session with the rather loaded question: "How are you?" To which I always responded: "Tired." Then we did a staredown. Around the sixth week of this exchange, she finally snapped: "'Tired' is not an emotion!" Isn't it? Being tired is certainly a profound, unconscious feeling, one that preoccupies thoughts and burrows down deep – like love, but evil. And tiredness, like new love, dominates conversation.

The forgotten therapist must be annoyed that these days "Tired" seems like the second-most common response to "How are you?" At least it's more truthful than "Fine": 30 per cent of Canadians suffer from occasional insomnia. According to Statscan, men sleep less than women, but women have more trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep. Stress, shift work and kids all contribute to poor sleep, as does a higher income. Sleeping-pill prescriptions have been steadily rising over the past five years.

Last week, the sleep struggle took the shape of a strange video with Shannen Doherty acting the part of an insomniac pacing a hotel room. The webisode, part of a series on healthy sleeping by the Better Sleep Council, went viral not only because of the rubber-necking poignancy of Doherty's post- 90210 existence, but also because there was something recognizable in the actress's poetically nonsensical ruminations on not sleeping: "I feel alone when I realize that no one knows that I feel alone," she says, moving furniture in the middle of the night. It takes Shannen Doherty to remind us that being tired is the great modern common experience.

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Yet the physical and mental torture of insomnia is at odds with the social status inherent in public fatigue: If you're tired, you're busy. And if you're busy, you matter. Competitive sleeplessness is a common office game: "I was working until midnight." "Midnight! Midnight is my lunchtime! I didn't get to bed until four." Thus, the tired professional asserts himself as so indispensable that he cannot even be spared for sleep.

Profiles of CEOs inevitably touch on early rising as a key to success. Martha Stewart has claimed she needs only four hours of sleep: "I find that when you have a real interest in life and a curious life that sleep is not the most important thing." So sleep is boring. It means absence, a dimming of the light and productivity. The wired world never shuts down, so why should you?

I remember being a new mother, gathering with my zombie-like kind on playgrounds and in tumbling gyms and quickly tiring of talking about being tired. New parents wield fatigue as evidence of their new roles as consummate givers. Everything from the old life has been sacrificed to parenthood, even sleep.=If a well-rested worker is unambitious, then a well-rested mother is neglectful.

Sleep might seem like a rare commodity now, but we actually have it pretty good. In the book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, A. Roger Ekrich writes that, since the Industrial Revolution, the quantity of our sleep has decreased while the quality has increased. Noise, lice, stinky chamber pots and TB coughs all conspired against a solid night of sleep. In fact, writes Ekrich, before artificial light allowed for a later bedtime, people used to sleep in two shifts: the "first sleep," with a break for ale or sex (or both – it's Friday, my liege!), and then the "second" sleep until morning.

And yet, with our relatively cushy, uninterrupted seven-ish hours, we complain about a lack of sleep. Sleeplessness is linked to depression and anxiety, which were the number four and five reasons Canadians visited a physician in 2009, according to IMS Health Canada. Perhaps beneath the sleepless survivalist braggadocio is a plea for help. Complaining has a ritual nature: To complain out loud is often to grasp at closeness, to invite others in to one's own experience. To say "I'm tired" is to say "I'm overwhelmed." I know I miss childhood sleep, that punctuation to the day, that giving in, so needed when days are endless now, extending electronically through time.

Next month, a complaint choir is going to perform in Toronto. Originating in Finland and now worldwide, complaint choirs function like giant, musical complaint boxes, taking gripes from the public and setting them to music. Often hilarious, complaint choirs blast away all the niggling, prickling elements, from bad transit to deadlines, that make modern life so agitating and keep us up at night. They're a serio-comic-musical attempt at some kind of connection, not unlike saying "I'm tired" – a quiet request for some public compassion over that most private of acts: sleeping.

On the website for the Harbourfront Theatre, where the choir will be performing, everyone is invited to submit complaints. I read "My back hurts" and "Squirrels make me feel guilty, pigeons show no respect." Then I entered my own: "I'm very, very tired." I felt better.

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