At three in the morning, I lie in the quiet dark, staring at my whirling fan blades and feeling an impossible hollowness in my chest. The unease I felt earlier in the day when I went to the grocery store because we’d run out of milk, eggs, butter, and coffee rises up in me again. Seeing little kids in N95 masks, their parents in homemade cloth masks which means they gave the good mask to their kid, is both heartbreaking and deeply unsettling. Are we really in the middle of a pandemic? Is this really reality?
The guys walking around with puffed-up chests, American flag emblazoned on their shirt fronts, smirk visible because there’s no mask to cover it, ignoring the directional stickers on the grocery store’s floor that are meant to help with social distancing, are even more unsettling. How did we get to a place where people are proud to distrust science? If Harvard doesn’t think it’s safe to reopen until 2021, what does that say about how worried the rest of us should be? What if the economy reopens and one of my immunocompromised friends gets sick? What if the economy reopens and my immunocompromised friends remain in their homes, too scared to rejoin society as the virus resumes its spread? What if I lose my job? What if these disinformation campaigns succeed and Trump is reelected this November? What if he loses and then does something crazy between November and January? Every night, my thoughts circle the drain of sleep, reluctant to descend into it.
I’ve always been a night owl, but since the coronavirus pandemic began, and even more so after my kids’ schools closed their doors to face-to-face learning, my sleep is more irregular than ever. It’s a fickle bitch, with no rhyme or reason to its hours or duration. By the time I finally get my 14- and 10-year-olds settled in between midnight and 1:00 a.m., I am exhausted … and yet also wide awake. The midnight second wind hits me every night, without fail. Hours before my panicked thoughts begin their hen-pecking, a cool, relaxing emptiness stretches before me, with no onslaught of pandemic news or kids to prep meals for or dinging social media notifications. With true quiet, I can finally write. I can eat chips without having to share. It’s usually close to 2:00 a.m. by the time I force myself to turn off my bedside lamp and try to fall asleep. And then I stare at those whirling fan blades and have my nightly panic sesh.
If my alarm wasn’t set for 9:25 every morning, I would sleep till noon. Sometimes I wake up, let the dog out, get a few things done, and then go back to sleep. When I finally wake up, I hate myself. Don’t waste this time, I scold myself. You have so much free time. Use it. Sometimes I take an involuntary afternoon nap. Yesterday I closed my eyes “for a minute” and woke up an hour later, panicked that I’d slept through the dinner I’d intended to cook.
The kids are faring only slightly better than me. They hear me moving around in the morning and wake up and begin their school day, motivated by my rule that once school is done, they can have screen time. But sometimes I’ll get busy and realize it’s 10:30 and they’re still not up, and they often crash in the afternoon during their mandated “no screens” time. We try to fill that time with long walks with the dog or games of Uno or Blokus, but lethargy follows us around like Pig-Pen’s plume of dirt. We’re always tired.
I know how circadian rhythms work, how important it is to our health to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Circadian rhythms influence critical bodily functions like heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and hormone levels. Continuing disruptions in a person’s circadian rhythms can impact just about every aspect of their life, from mood regulation to metabolism to immune system function. We need sleep, and we need that sleep to be consistent.
This is why I have my alarm set. I’m trying to maintain at least some rhythm. But I still can’t seem to get my arms around this sleep thing. I’m exhausted. Everything is exhausting. I know the “why” behind my exhaustion, too — I’ve read the articles that tell me that what we are experiencing is grief, and grief makes you tired. It fucks with your brain chemistry. It’s not just you, I tell myself. Be kind to yourself.
But, on top of my frustration with my inability to maintain a sleep schedule, there is guilt. If I tell myself my problem with sleep is grief, then I have to admit that I am grieving. This feels really wrong to me. I’m a healthy, financially stable privileged person who wants for nothing but my old really quite meager social life and to hug my partner who lives 1400 miles away (okay that last one is actually really depressing). I keep reading social media posts that say things like “all suffering is equal” or “all grief matters,” and my brain and gut insist that this is not true. Countless others are suffering far worse than I am. This is an objective fact.
I am able to see the bright side — that I have had beautiful quality time with my kids, that they have been shockingly independent in taking control of their schoolwork, that though I am far from my partner, we are both healthy and safe. And thank goodness we live in a time where technology allows us to remain connected. I have no trouble counting my blessings.
But telling myself I have it pretty damn good doesn’t help me fall asleep at night, nor does it help me wake up in the morning or provide energy throughout the day. Several strong cups of coffee and a generous serving of guilt are what wake me up and motivate me to plod through the day. Exercise helps, too. I’m trying. I’m trying to cling to a routine because I know routine helps with sleep. For now, I’ll keep trying to pin down healthier sleep rhythms while also trying to accept that, even if I don’t want to admit it, I may be grieving after all.