The night before I began the second grade, I huddled onto my bed, a nervous mass of jumbled anxiety. I didn’t toss or turn. Quite the opposite, I held myself rigid atop my comforter, attempting to quiet all of the fears and worries over what the next day would be like, the next year, even the rest of my life—even then, I was a bit of an over-thinker.
I had a new alarm clock resting on the table across my room when I checked it after what seemed like an unreasonable amount of time for a healthy young man to lie in bed with his own thoughts, I realized that I’d spent over an hour wandering my own mind and it panicked me. I dove from my bed to my parents room, shaking my mother awake and in near-tears declaring that I’d spent so long lying awake, and I didn’t think I would get to sleep, maybe ever again in my life.
She and my father rolled over, told me to go back to bed and keep trying. In hindsight, it wasn’t terribly sympathetic, but I don’t think they had the language or the energy to appropriately handle my neuroses—20 years later, they probably still don’t.
That night sits bright in my mind because it was the first time in my life that I ever recall sleep eluding me. Jumbled and unhealthy and troubled as I was, it never took me long to actually fall asleep, nor had I really known a restless night. After that point, these sticking points became increasingly common. At first, they preceded big events, like First Communion, family vacations, every field trip and birthday party and first day of school to come. Soon, they followed rough days, a reaction rather than a precursor. By puberty, they were the norm.
From age 14 until around 22, I regularly slept two, maybe three hours a night. This wasn’t deliberate all-nighters we so often like to assign to creative-and-academic-types, the sort brought on by a procrastinating nature or passionate fervor to accomplish. I just knew that if I tried t o sleep, it wasn’t likely going to happen. I’d try and unless I was exhausted by physical strain or sex or too many days and nights in a row with no sleep at all, I could expect the same hassle of lying alone with my thoughts, unable to close the hatch on my own consciousness.
I didn’t complain. I actually got a whole lot done. This was how I came to read a lot of the English and American literary canon by my junior year of high school. This was how I memorized full scripts for the bulk of plays I acted in, taught myself to play five instruments (two with a modicum of ability), and finished a semester’s worth of college-credit coursework before I’d even gotten an acceptance letter anywhere.
I never used to tell this story with either pride or sadness. It was just a truth for me. My parents had their concerns, but they believed that it was just my stubbornness that kept me working until two or three in the morning every day. I didn’t do much to dissuade them because I feared that they would take me to someone with a prescription pad who would insist on sleeping pills. Having dangled on the edge of a Nyquil habit while simultaneously smoking down a half-pack of Marlboro Smooths a day, I wasn’t interested in seeing how my body acclimated to doses of something that could kill me quickly.
In retrospect, the early struggles with falling asleep were likely just side effects from puberty. When I spoke to a counselor about it some years later, she said that it was more than likely just a chemical imbalance combined with stress levels—and yes, careful administration of a sleep medication might have helped—but by that time, the problem had mostly righted itself.
Some time around my early twenties, I started sleeping again. A little of this was probably being finished with college, which severely lowered a lot of my justifications for staying up working. I also began weightlifting around this time, which can have some positive effects on for the truly insomniatic. My stress levels decreased, though never properly went away, and to this day, I still have the odd sleepless night.
This was good news, but I didn’t take it as such. I lamented my inability to be as prolific in my writing, and how my guitar-playing was really starting to lag. I hated that by nine in the evening, I was yawning. I was angry that if I went too late too many nights in a row (usually two or three), I inevitably got sick.
I was angry at myself and my body for having healthy sleep patterns.
This isn’t unusual. When I was in school, a lot of my peers bragged about the how little sleep they needed the same way they would brag about the amount of alcohol they could handle. As I’ve grown older and met more folks with families and multiple jobs, I hear the lamenting of how they simply don’t have the time to sleep, how they try so hard to catch up on the weekends or days off, but there are inevitably responsibilities that drive them out of bed.
The new parents in my life all have stories about needing to steal an hour here and 20 minutes there because their new little addition to the family needs feeding regardless of the schedule, and this is so cliché at this point, it has its own TV Tropes page. And we laugh at these stories. We elbow them in the ribs and say, “Welcome to Parenthood” and “Don’t plan on sleeping ‘til they hit puberty.”
I feel for those parents and workers because they are merely doing what it takes to survive and meet their duties as people. The problem is that the culture surrounding them does not view sleep as a necessity, but rather as a bank that can be drawn from whenever we need to keep from falling behind. Granted, the reserves are limited—a third of the day, and if you take from it in its entirety (meaning pull one of those all-nighters) too many nights in a row, then no one is surprised when the body collapses from over-taxation. But a few hours every night can equal out to so much productivity in the rest of the day.
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We look at sleep like capital, and our attitude towards it is one that’s immeasurably tied to our worth as producers. Those who sleep too much are invariably viewed as lazy and unproductive (never mind that excessive sleep can be a signal of depression among other health issues), those who sleep too little regularly praised for their work ethic and accomplishment, regardless of the damage incurred.
Sleep has become a privilege given to those who have enough time, money, and social status to afford it. Those not fortunate enough to have live-in childcare, adequate wages and career opportunities, or schedules that permit them to care for their bodies in a way that is necessary and important are either shamed for prioritizing their own well-being, or left to suffer.
It’s enough to keep you up at night.