We don’t hear much about the sleep of presidents and prime ministers except for the hours they get: President Obama, 6; George W. Bush, 8: Margaret Thatcher, 4. Their personal habits matter little compared with the decisions they make and the work they do in office.
But Dr. Li Zhisui wrote about insomnia at length in his biography of Mao Zedong, The Private Life of Chairman Mao, suggesting that our leaders’ sleep (or sleeplessness) may affect their decisions and behavior more than we think.
Mao’s Stress-Related Insomnia
As Mao’s personal physician, Li was expected to give up all other duties to see to the chairman’s health and wellbeing. So he worked and lived in the ruler’s compound, observing him at close range and eventually becoming Mao’s confidant.
Li noted right away that Mao’s sleep was erratic. Anticipatory anxiety would keep him awake on nights before public events where he was to address the masses.
“Often he would get no sleep at all the night before the festivities,” Li wrote. “He was exhilarated by the crowds and their adulation, and his energy always carried him through the event, but he often caught cold afterward. Sometimes the cold would become bronchitis, and he would be miserable for weeks.”
A Possible Circadian Rhythm Disorder
But Li observed that Mao’s erratic sleep patterns seemed to be driven by internal as well as external factors. Mao was a night owl who tended to be awake when most other people were sleeping.
“His body refused to be set to the 24-hour day,” Li wrote. “He stayed awake longer than others, and much of his activity took place at night. If he went to bed one day at midnight, the next night he might not sleep until 3 in the morning, and the day after that he would not sleep until 6. His waking hours grew longer and longer until he would stay awake for 24, or even 36 or 48, hours at a stretch. Then he could sleep 10 or 12 hours continuously, and no amount of noise or commotion would wake him.”
This erratic sleep pattern would probably be classified as a circadian rhythm disorder today. It might be delayed sleep phase disorder, a diagnosis often given to night owls who prefer to be up at night and sleep in late in the morning. It might also be non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder, a problem often seen in people who are blind, who cannot detect daylight and whose body clocks—as a result—are not set to the 24-hour day.
Whatever the diagnosis, the problem may have been amplified by Mao’s unusual lifestyle. He spent most of his time indoors—in his bedroom, according to Li, where thick dark curtains blocked out the sunlight. Without exposure to sunlight, his circadian rhythms may have become desynchronized, a situation that could easily give rise to insomnia.
But Li felt Mao’s problem was partly organic, and that he’d simply been born with a wayward body clock predisposed to run on its own time.
Insomnia Affected Mao’s Behavior
People with sleep problems like Mao’s don’t usually have easy lives. Perennial lateness and poor performance interfere with relationships and jobs.
But Mao rose to a leadership position despite his strange sleep habits and, as Chairman of the Communist Party, he called the shots. Without regard for the sleep needs of his associates, he would call impromptu staff meetings at 3 a.m. On the spur of the moment he would order his whole staff to get up early to prepare for a 4 a.m. departure by train.
As disruptive as his strange sleep habits were to others, they were a source of great anxiety to Mao himself, Li said. Mao tried swimming, dancing, and walking to wear himself out, and he took up to 4 times the recommended dosage of powerful sleeping pills. But often, Li said, nothing worked.
Could there be a relationship between the tight-fisted control Mao insisted on exerting over his country and the lack of control he seemingly had over his sleep? What do you think?