I burst into sobs. The alarm has just gone off. My poor husband snaps awake to two urgent inputs, his chirping phone and his crying wife. I’ve been awake since 4:00 AM and I’ve slept maybe twelve hours in the last three days. It’s a fight and I’m losing it.
We’re under an unusual amount of stress. We’ve just moved, a chaotic process that is not quite finished, and our dog is in the midst of a serious veterinary crisis that has him up and whining several times throughout the night. Our upstairs neighbors are active from 6:00 AM to 11:00 PM or later every night of the week, and they start their day by launching into vigorous housework. Their blender, washing machine, dishwasher, garbage disposal, and vacuum cleaner have all been running eight feet over our bed by the time the clock strikes 8. I take a day off to try to nap, and coincidentally the maintenance crew runs an air compressor twenty feet outside our door from 8 AM to 5 PM. Plus a second air compressor about a hundred yards away just for good measure.
“I feel like a desperate, wounded animal,” I text to my husband.
I rack my brain, trying to think where I can go, just anywhere I can get away and sleep somewhere silent, even for an hour. I consider burying myself in sand at the beach nearby. I consider dragging a comforter to the laundry room and trying to stretch out on the floor. I run through nearby hotels and motels, realizing of course that the middle of the day is the time when maid services throughout the world are running their vacuum cleaners.
My hands shake. My hands shake all day.
I’m so tired that I somehow bonk my head on the bathroom door while standing still. I stumble and trip on the sidewalk. I’m so tired that I can barely walk in a straight line.
I try again to take a nap. I’m startled awake by the 77-decibel sound of the neighbor child jumping onto what is their floor and our ceiling. Either he’s jumping off the last few steps of their staircase or he’s leaping off a piece of furniture. This happens unpredictably multiple times a day, often several times in a row, anywhere from 8 AM to 8 PM. There’s no way it’s as loud in their home as it is in ours. Nobody could survive the demands of parenting under that kind of constant bombardment.
The first couple of days, I pray for two consecutive nights of decent sleep. Then I realize what I really need is two consecutive hours.
Sleep deprivation can drive a person insane. I feel a kinship with a homeless man in our neighborhood, who often walks down the sidewalk shouting at nothing. Trying to sleep outdoors in a city or in other loud places, like a shelter or a jail, must feel this way all the time. A fractured, fitful few hours at best. An exhaustion that settles into your bones, a weariness that feels like it will never end.
People who are sound sleepers have a lot of trouble getting their heads around this. My husband knows, because we’ve been together for twelve years and he’s had to chase me through the house during the occasional episode of pavor nocturnus. Otherwise, he’s one of the lucky ones. He can sleep under almost any conditions and slumber through bright lights and loud noise. I’ve seen him fall asleep before his head has actually reached the pillow several times. He’s an extreme lark and a heavy sleeper, and his hearing isn’t so great. This is probably true of a lot of people who have no idea how many noises they aren’t registering.
Me? I can hear myself blink. I can hear my eyelashes brushing against the pillowcase. I once woke up because I heard a spider’s footsteps, and sat up to see it crawling toward my face. Don’t believe me? I have a witness, a female friend who happened to be in the room while I took a nap.
I buy a special eye mask with built-in speakers, designed specifically for light sleepers, people who work the night shift, business travelers, and others of my ilk. I try a sleep hypnosis app and various types of white noise, such as ocean waves. It’s a great product but it’s helpless against the 63-decibel spin cycle of the upstairs washing machine.
Our dog finally gets through his illness, with the help of five separate veterinary drugs. He starts sleeping through the night again. He sets his favorite toy next to my foot and wags his tail. I start sleeping closer to six hours a night instead of four.
At this point I’m probably operating under a sleep deficit of at least twenty hours.
What I want to know is, why do so many people choose to stay up and deprive themselves of sleep voluntarily? What is behind sleep procrastination? Why would anyone who has a quiet room and a soft, warm bed stay up binge-watching TV, playing games, reading, or anything other than getting a full night’s rest? Why do people do it to themselves?
I try to look at my situation as an opportunity to become more robust. If I can learn to sleep here, I can sleep anywhere. If I ever want to fulfill my dream of traveling the world, it will be really helpful if I can sleep under conditions of jet lag, erratic schedules, and culture shock. Eventually, I’ll be tired enough that I’ll start sleeping through my neighbor’s laundry cycle. Eventually, I’ll be able to rest my weary head on my pillow and be asleep before 10 PM every night. At some point, either I’ll be getting enough sleep to survive or it’ll be time for us to move house again. Sleep, sleep and plenty of it, is my sole priority in life right now.
Those in the world who, like my upstairs neighbors, seem to be able to get by on fewer than eight hours every night, those people should pause a moment in gratitude. They should pause another moment and double-check that they don’t have downstairs neighbors. Those who, like me, are chronically tired, should maybe pause and see whether they have underestimated their opportunities. If anyone out there has a chance to spend more time in the dream world, spend an extra hour there for me.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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