“Melatonin made me walk around for days with no sleep at all”

Melatonin – a natural substance that can improve sleep if taken adequately – had the opposite effect on Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa: “I have gone days without sleep”. Everyone in Portugal knows that the political commentator and potential presidential candidate is a “short sleeper”, but it has not always been this way. He says that he used to sleep “eight hours a night” until he was 16 and once, at age 20, at the premiere of a French Nouvelle Vague film, he fell asleep and did not see anything, neither did he notice the break nor wake up in the end. He had to literally be carried home. Another time, he fell asleep while driving and softly hit a lamp post. After sleeping a few minutes more, he woke up and made his way back home.

 

The PREC times [the period from the Carnation Revolution to the new constitution] were times of no sleep. Do you recall any funny story related to sleep, or lack thereof?
Every night, for two years or more, there was no such thing for me as sleeping. Either because I drove every night through all Great Lisbon in my Fiat 127, especially to the western zone, where I was district chairman of the then PPD [former Social Democratic Party], or because I moved further, to Ribatejo, Alentejo and Algarve, with the mission of implementing the party. I used to drive back and forth on the same day, at a time when there were no motorways. Or because, in addition to the party work, I had early morning classes. Or I had to work for Expresso [Portuguese weekly newspaper] for the Saturday edition or for Expresso-Extra edition on Wednesday. Or because I had all kinds of meetings the whole night through. Later, between June 1975 and April 1976, in addition to that, I was deputy of the Constituent Assembly. There was no time to sleep… I did not really notice it, because of the excitement and stress.

Having been deputy of the Constituent Assembly, you were present at the siege in November 1975. Many deputies simply did not sleep…
I was not present, I was working at Expresso. I saw the demonstration pass by and when I reached the Assembly I could no longer pass through. But the fact is I did not sleep either, due to the media coverage of what was happening. I was constantly on the phone with my colleagues who were under siege.

You were minister of Parliamentary Affairs in the Eighth Constitutional Government, headed by Pinto Balsemão. Were there many ministerial council meetings that extended through the night?
No, there were not. Instead, there was a lot of preparatory work I needed to do for the meetings of Secretaries of State, of which I was chairman, and the Council of Ministers, of which I was secretary. I did stay up a few nights on Gomes Teixeira street, which was, and still is, where the Chair of the Council of Ministers is located, and then I would go home to take a shower and then go to the house of Prime Minister Pinto Balsemão.

What was it that literally kept you from sleeping?
I hardly ever I lost sleep. As far as I can remember, those times were mainly related to concerns about my children and grandchildren, especially when they were away from me, which has been very frequent. My son worked and post-graduated abroad between 1999 and 2003, and he has been living there with his children since 2010.

And what ever caused you to be sleepy?
I never feel tempted to fall asleep, not even during monotonous speeches or boring moments.

Everyone in this country knows that you are a “short sleeper”? Do you think it is because your biological clock has got used to just a few hours of sleep or do you believe it might have a genetic cause, something that comes from your child and adolescent times?
It is not genetic. I remember, even as a kid, sleeping about eight hours straight. It began when I was 15 or 16 and started doing all-night study sessions. I then continued doing it at Expresso. I recall that, between 1972 and 1973,I would argue with censorship until four or five in the morning and then take classes at nine o’clock. It was just going home, picking up the folder, getting ready and then going to law school. After that, with the revolution, as I mentioned, people slept even less.

Do you manage to sleep, let’s say, five or six hours on weekends?
In the early years it was like that… I used to sleep nine to ten hours on Saturdays or Sundays to recover. Then, during the Revolution, restful weekends started to become unusual. From then on, life has remained similar all week…

Can you tell us a funny personal story related to sleep or lack thereof?
In my third year of law school I stayed up many nights in order to prepare the writings for Finance and Tax Law exams, which were practically at the same time. On the evening of the second exam, a group dragged me to the movies, to a premiere of a French Nouvelle Vague film. So I sat in the theatre, I fell asleep and I did not see anything, neither did I notice the break, nor did I wake up in the end. They had to literally carry me home. Another time, on my way home from Expresso, I fell asleep at the wheel – it was about six thirty in the morning. I slowed down and gently hit a lamp post. I continued sleeping a few minutes more and then I woke up and I made my way home. Much later, someone tried to convince me to take melatonin, so that I could endure the adjustment to jetlag. It brought me to such a sleepless state that I walked around for days with no sleep at all. This was back in the early nineties.

Can you tell us an extremely unrealistic dream you have had?
Dreams are all different… but very ordinary most of the times. So much so, that I cannot seem to find an interesting one to tell…

A photograph of you sleeping would probably reach a very high stake at an auction…
It would not… In fact, there is a picture in Expresso, if I am not mistaken, of me sleeping on a flight to Cape Verde on 1996. It was taken without me realizing it. And published…