A Case for Sleep
It was the crickets that kept me up most nights. The incessant chirping beyond my window seemed never ending, as if a gang of vengeful bugs all decided to rub their wings together outside my window just to spite me. Panicked, I’d pace up and down my childhood home’s hallway wondering how I’d ever get a good night’s sleep with the sound of demon crickets plaguing me. Research shows that one of the biggest concerns keeping those who suffer from insomnia awake is worrying about sleep. Insomnia is also estimated to occur in about 75% of patients with depression, but more on that later. I was never diagnosed with insomnia, but through the assistance of therapy and intentionally designed “go to sleep” tapes, I eventually began to sleep through the night.
Sleep and I have had a complicated relationship ever since. I never developed a caffeine habit, so I have always been extremely reliant on my body’s natural rhythm and the structure of time to get me into bed. Anything that disrupted that delicate cycle sent me into a spiral. A neighbor’s party could cut hours off my sleep time, and I’d arrive to work flustered with a throbbing headache, unable to focus.
In my early twenties I developed a habit of drinking a little bit too much wine each night to lull me to bed with more ease. Wine drunk, I could sleep through pretty much anything, but the headaches and bloating (and alcohol dependency) caused me to seek out a healthier alternative.
A free phone app known as “Sleep Pillow” became my savior for years. My favorite white noise sound was a combination of wind turbines and a storm. I’d plug my phone into my bedside charger and turn it up as loud as possible. The response became Pavlovian. The whooshing wind and the thunder claps sent me straight to dreamland. Sure, it was sometimes odd when I stayed the night with a friend or on the rare occasion that I had a gentleman caller over, but anyone who has suffered from sleep depravity will tell you that there is nothing more important than falling and staying asleep.
Going to bed early and getting up early was my preferred method of a non-caffeinated existence. Following the pattern of the sun seemed the most logical, and was up around 5 am with ease through my high school years. In college, I worked at a cafe that opened at 5 am, so I roused myself around 4 to get on the train. I never complained, I was a morning person! I appreciated the quiet moments of solitude the early mornings granted me, and I welcomed the exhaustion that followed around 7 pm.
Much like the haunting song the crickets sang outside my window, depression has been an incessant pest hell bent on disturbing my existence for practically all my life. However, while depression never exactly helped me sleep (it perhaps was the driving force behind the cricket obsession), it certainly kept me beneath the covers far more often than your average human. My deepest depression affected me from 2016 to 2017, a year where I could more often than not be found in bed. While I had previously rose with relative ease in the morning, I found myself sleeping 10+ hours a night, often waking up mid afternoon, and staying in bed until later in the evening, usually only rising just to grab a snack or use the restroom. I was constantly exhausted, lethargic, and craved my bed when I was away from it. Recovery from this time in my life was a welcome relief, as was returning to a normal sleep schedule.
You can imagine my fear then, when I began to notice similar depressive sleep patterns just a few months ago. Yes, I live in the Midwest now, where sunny days are a bit more rare than they were in Southern California. Staying beneath warm sheets during a snowstorm isn’t exactly a cause for concern. My partner’s work schedule also recently changed. He used to get up at four am to open up a coffee shop, but now has to close it, so he doesn’t start work until one. These could be welcome explanations, but the fact of the matter is, it’s the pandemic’s fault. Much like those who have spent a lot of time in therapy will realize, you can blame everything on your parents. Now, we can blame everything on the pandemic. It’s justified, but it doesn’t make it easier to manage. I thought having a job and my health and a pandemic puppy would make it easier to get up each day, not harder. I am one of the lucky few these days: someone who is employed, someone who has insurance, and someone who is young enough not to really worry about their physical health just yet. For boredom’s sake alone I thought I’d be jumping out of bed for a Zoom work meeting, or at least to take my dog for a walk. Surprisingly, though, my dog stays beneath the covers just as much as I do lately, if not more.
Every conversation I’ve had this past year feels like flirting with apathy. What’s the point? Who cares? Everything is a mess. If you have depression, these types of phrases already play on a loop like an annoying song you can’t get out of your head. You don’t need a health crisis to get there. When all of this started almost a year ago, I’d actually felt the calmest I’d had in months. There is plenty of research on the subject of mental health and crises - many psychiatrists believe that those who suffer from depression and anxiety are so well prepared for chaos (thanks to the horrifying conversations you have in your head, likely while in bed), that when one really occurs, they’re enveloped in a strange calmness. Or perhaps this feeling is justice. I told you so.
I don’t feel like my 2016 self. I have a lot more to live for these days. I have a dog, a partner (both sleepy), great friends. I received my master’s degree during the year from hell. I obtained a job in the field I’m passionate about. I paid off three credit cards. But I am running out of ways to comfort myself, to comfort those I love. Things that used to make me feel great are either conducted solely through a screen and have lost their appeal, or frankly don’t exist at all anymore. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t sad, but the truth is, for the first time in a long time, I’m just really, really tired. The safest place I can find right now is my bed. Knowing that another day has passed and I can climb into bed is reassuring. It is a reminder. Sometimes it’s a reminder that we are still deep in the throes of a terrible health crisis. Sometimes it’s a reminder that I am still plugging along, getting closer to the end of said crisis. But time is the only consistent structure I can hold.
When I was depressed, time moved slowly. I felt like I was trudging through deep mud, walking, talking, thinking slowly. But from the comfort of my bed, the cycle of sleep, I feel motivated by time. Waking up at 10 am on a Saturday feels like a reason to celebrate: we’re almost to lunchtime! Soon it will be night.
For so long I had associated sleep with something I couldn’t conquer, something that challenged me, tested me. But now, sleep is my welcome friend. It’s a lifeboat for my small family. In our bed we snuggle against one another, effortlessly escaping into dreams, letting time pass while our eyelids remain heavy.
I try not to punish myself for the days I’ve spent sleeping. Productivity is a funny thing. It’s hard to make a case for it every day. But today, I can make a case for sleeping. I can thank my sleep cycle for it’s reminder of time, for allowing me brief but important moments of escapism. For letting me dream, letting me feel safe, letting me feel warm. Perhaps this crisis will force us to evolve, to create a human hibernation. We will awake feeling as healthy and well-rested as we’d ever been, greeting the world with new eyes. A girl can dream, right?