I became a common sight in my neighborhood, walking my new dog in those predawn moments when the night-dark sky faded into a sweet inky blue. One of my neighbors, decked out in his hospital scrubs, habitually passed me in the parking lot; he’d shake his head, and with a wry yet kindly smile, tease me aloud: “You must be one of those morning people.”
I’d laugh and nod in response — but the real joke was that he couldn’t be further from the truth. I wasn’t up and at ‘em before the sun cleared the treetops. I hadn’t gone to bed yet. While folks like this neighbor were saving lives on the graveyard shift or snoring away like that next-door neighbor who never closed his damn window or even enjoying a bit of amorous fun (quite loudly), like my upstairs neighbor, I was simply awake.
Scrolling through infomercials awake. Googling random factoids awake (did you know that the human brain weighs about three pounds?). Feeling that clammy thickness of fatigue and knowing that today is going to hurt, yet remaining wholly unable to turn off my mind, awake. And I’d been that way for months — when a quadruple-whammy of bad luck walloped me. My beloved German shepherd, Tova, passed away; a week later, I lost my job in a companywide layoff; and then, there was the election.
Sleep and I have never been lasting bedfellows — I was that girl who secretly read for hours every night, wielding a flashlight under the covers, then that college kid-turned-graduate student who pulled all-nighters with aplomb and that 20-something who could hang out until 1 a.m., and with a few winks, some concealer and some damn fine coffee, be at my desk by 8:45 — but this was different. This was a wakefulness that didn’t end until I dropped atomic bombs of Benadryl or Tylenol PM on my liver.
My days became a somnambulant slur. The alarm clock kept ringing later and later, and soon, I was sending emails in a desperate scramble before other people’s workdays ended, trying to cram a whole afternoon’s worth of errands in the few hours before shops closed and shame-facedly declining even early afternoon outings with friends, knowing that I might not feasibly be awake in time.
There’s a stigma to being a night owl. The assumption is that you’re lazy, incapable of waking up on time to join the working (i.e., white collar) world. If you’re up into the wee hours, you can’t possibly be industrious.
But nonetheless, I was exhausted. My pulse ticked and lurched. My skin and my eyes were puffy and dulled. My whole body ached. These were minor consequences. Some long-term effects of prolonged sleeplessness can include hypertension, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.
According to the National Sleep Federation, chronic insomnia is “a long-term pattern of difficulty sleeping… trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at least three nights per week for three months or longer.” And I was a textbook insomniac. Insomnia and depression are a sort of chicken-and-egg situation — in many instances, it’s hard to determine which came first. Though they are clearly part and parcel, core elements of a cycle that left me feeling hopeless and groggy, like I’d never have the energy to reclaim my life.
Starting therapy gave me the resources to address my recent spate of traumas — and my therapist specifically advised me to start a journal, a place to rant and ramble and release the anxieties that would otherwise be dancing the tarantella inside my brain. About an hour or two before I wanted to go to bed, I took out a cloth notebook, and free from the computer’s glare — or more pivotally, the temptation to read about the new administration’s latest travesty or check out that high school frenemy’s new Instagram picture and compare her shiny suburban life, paid for by her stable job, with my grubby little life in my studio apartment always waiting for the next check to come — I let rip. As I wrote, the jagged edges of my mind got smoother, more ready for rest.
I spoke to sleep experts like Benjamin Smarr, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology and behavior at U.C. Berkley, who says shutting out the woes of the world can be essential to getting some real shut-eye. “Sleeping angry or tensely is hard, so I think it's worth doing whatever you need to do to feel calm at the end of the day,” he advises.
I started to read some of my favorite books before bed — since I already knew the endings, the “what next?” factor didn’t keep me up, and the familiarity of the characters and stories was a balm for my existential uncertainty. Some nights, I simply cuddled with my new rescue dog, embracing the tactile softness of her fur and letting the warmth of her body relax me.
These rituals became a crucial part of training my body to recognize certain cues and triggers for powering down. When I spoke to Shawn M. Talbott, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist, he suggested literally setting an alarm to prepare for bed. “When that alarm goes off… put down your electronic devices and get away from their brain-stimulating blue light,” he says. “For that hour, read a book and allow your body and mind to slowly relax toward sleep.” Answering that alarm clock and everything that came after it gave me a sense that, no matter how chaotic things seemed, there were still elements of my life that I could very clearly control. And that control felt like hope.
I’m never going to be “one of those morning people.” And yet I’m getting more sleep for longer periods of time (and when I absolutely can’t shuffle off to Dreamland, I take a melatonin supplement instead of Benadryl or Tylenol PM). This process has taught me that self-care isn’t a big, splashy victory; it’s the tiny triumphs of overcoming your own pain to make your life just a little bit better.