Exhaustion is the great equalizer. There comes a point for everyone when your body demands sleep, and if you aren't willing to give it what it wants, things start to get rough. It doesn't matter if you're a soldier on post in a combat zone or a new mom trying to make it through the day after a sleepless night of diaper changes and bottle-boiling, the sandman comes for us all.
If you're desperate for sleep, the best thing you can do is rack out and get some. If that's not an option, however, here are some of the ways service members stay alert long after exhaustion has set in. They're not always the healthiest options, but hey, if we were that worried about our health, we'd be getting some rest.
Instant coffee works best when you can chew it.
Ah, caffeine--the old standby. Whenever anyone's tired, the first thing they think to do is pour themselves a nice hot cup of joe. Of course, in the field, that's not always an option, but there are plenty of other ways to get your fix. Aside from the service-member favorite energy drinks, the most common field-sources of caffeine come in MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). Some even now come with sticks of caffeinated gum.
If you've got the time and the hot water, the small packets of instant coffee that come in MREs can make for a passable cup, but plenty of guys simply pour the pouches into their lips like a pinch of chewing tobacco. Might not be delicious, but it'll help keep you up. Of course, too much caffeine poses a number of problems, including dehydration and nausea, so there are limits to what a lipper of coffee can do for you.
Not just for smoke breaks, nicotine can also go far in helping to keep you conscious and alert during long nights on post or in the campus library. A lot of service members pick up cigarette or chewing tobacco habits during their time in uniform, in part because it offers something to do during long stretches of downtime, and in part because of the kick of energy you can get from a properly timed smoke break.
Of course, nicotine comes with a whole host of negative side effects, so choose your weapons wisely when waging war against your own exhaustion.
Many service members stumble across this tactic on post: you and another person are stuck in one place for a while with nothing to do but look at the horizon, so you spark up a bit of conversation. Before you know it, you're arguing about whether or not Darkwing Duck was a better show than Duck Tales and you've both managed to kill two hours of your shift… so powerful is the magic of useless debate.
It's important not to let friendly debate boil over into a full-fledged fight, however, which can be a real challenge sometimes when you're operating on little sleep.
Long after caffeine has failed you and nicotine is just giving you the shakes, there's one more thing you can do to help you overcome the heaviest of eyelids: get up and get moving. Something as simple as hopping off your chair for a set of push-ups can get your blood pumping again. Go for a walk around the office or your house, karate chop some old boards in your garage, or haze yourself with a few sets of burpees.
And as an added bonus, you can meet the criteria for "getting physical" by getting into a fist fight with your buddy once your Ducktales debate gets out of hand.
When your friends are counting on you, you do what you've got to do.
(U.S. Army photo by Spc. Ken Scar)
Just ride it out
Eventually, if you ride out your exhaustion well into the next day, some of the worse symptoms will begin to subside. You'll feel strange, hazy, and detached… but conscious nonetheless. The human body is capable of playing dirty to get you to do the things you need to do (like sleep), but it's also good at letting you stay in the fight when it becomes clear the things you need to do aren't in the cards.
Just like hunger pains will subside after a time, so too will the horrible weight of exhaustion… at least, for a few hours. Once that second wind subsides, you'll be hurting worse than ever. Hopefully, you'll have a chance to rack out by then.