I need to sleep more.
This strange new world, with its horrors and stresses, is a lot to handle. I find myself anxious and sleepless many nights, or sleeping so lightly a cricket could wake me up.
During the day, I track daily death tolls and skyrocketing unemployment and worry about my loved ones, all while trying to manage life in isolation — homeschooling, work stress, and all the rest. The day’s turmoil keeps me up at night and the night’s tossing and turning leave me restless and ill-prepared to face the day. The cycle continues.
I know I’m lucky that my family is safe and healthy, and that I still have a job. But lucky or not, the world’s burdens and my new and exhausting routine weigh heavily right now. As my therapist friend, B., said, “One of the biggest things we’re grieving right now is a loss of control.” And as I read the horrible news each day while struggling to manage my daily life and longing for a single minute alone, that feels all too true.
Self-care in the time of coronavirus
I know I’m not the only one feeling a rollercoaster of grief and stress. My friend J., who’s been working around the clock while he and his wife take turns watching their toddler, said that joining our book club (via Zoom) last week and staying up late to finish the book the night before were “the only form of self-care” he’d practiced in weeks.
Depending on your current circumstances, a myth abounds that quarantine has given us “more time.” As someone with two small children, I have to laugh bitterly at this notion. But I can see how one might think that not commuting or seeing other humans would free up some time.
For me, self-care-y things like face masks and bubble baths are the furthest things from my mind. I wish I could say I’m spending more time reading or that I’ve picked up meditating or a new skill after my kids finally fall asleep at night. But in fact, I’m barely taking care of the basics, like eating nourishing food (as in, not an entire meal of chocolate like I ate last Thursday for dinner), staying hydrated, moving my body, or, one of the most important things of all, getting good sleep.
A sleep wakeup call
Until recently, I was the last person you would expect to become a cheerleader for sleep. I spent decades in denial about the importance of sleep in favor of staying up late to embrace the quiet, solo hours in the middle of the night. I loved pulling all-nighters to bake, make art or write Juggle posts. (Although if I’m honest, I was usually too tired to achieve those things and mostly just found myself falling down late-night internet rabbit holes — did you know the first person who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel was a 63-year-old woman in 1901? She survived, by the way.)
Sleeping felt like a sacrifice of time that could otherwise be spent enjoying myself — and for what? Feeling well rested at work? I resented the notion that I should waste valuable time sleeping just to bring a better version of myself to work. Work didn’t deserve a better version of me.
But a string of events in late 2019 made me realize that sleep, as my friend K. put it, is the very bottom of the hierarchy of needs when it comes to managing your mental health — the foundation upon which all other good practices must rest. In December, in the span of three days, I: (1) stabbed myself deep in my palm trying to get the pit out of an avocado in the worst way possible, (2) grated the side of my thumb into a pulp in the cheese grater along with some pecorino and (3) carelessly slipped on ice and sprained my wrist.
The triple hand massacre occurred in the thick of a stressful holiday season, fraught with whirlwind air travel with a toddler, lots of familial navigation, spending too much money, interacting with other people who were also very stressed and a million other things.
The reasons I was distracted at that time were clear, just like they’re clear now in lockdown, but by insisting it was fine to get an average of five to six hours of sleep a night, I wasn’t doing anything to take care of myself or help myself through the challenging time.
So in January, I started working on getting more rest. I made a resolution to prioritize my mental health, and the biggest element of that was sleep. I started aiming for seven to eight hours every night. And I cut way back on booze and caffeine to make sure I was also getting good quality sleep.
And — shocker — getting more sleep felt amazing. It turned out that my friends, family, every single doctor and mental health professional and, oh, EVERYONE ELSE ON THE PLANET who said sleep was important was right all along.
Not only was I less distracted, but I found that sleeping more made me more creative, and gave me a much longer fuse for dealing with frustrations. I learned that it wasn’t just work that would get a better version of me when I was well rested. My kids, husband, friends and the rest of my life would get a better version of me too. A version with more tolerance, patience, kindness and joy. And less anxiety, depression and distractibility.
Of course it was still annoying when my son and daughter would freak out in their whiniest voices because one called the other a pumpkin (“I’m not a pumpkin! Mo-om, he said I was a pumpkin!”), but I was better able to handle it. I was… happier. My life was better.
Sleep habits in lockdown
Now that the world is upside-down, I’ve struggled at times to keep up my good sleep habits. It’s hard to make myself go to sleep early when I know I won’t have to scramble in the morning to get my kids dressed and out the door, put on makeup, or spend an hour commuting.
But because I know sleep isn’t always easy now — I wake up some nights from anxiety dreams and from my daughter crawling into bed with my husband and me, then kicking me and stealing my pillow — I need to double down on prioritizing it more than ever.
I’m still getting better sleep now than I was in my night-owl days. But I feel myself starting to slip, staying up till midnight, 1am, later. And I notice moments of extra distraction, when I do things like walk into the corner of a table or get sloppy with the cheese grater. I also have days when my fuse feels particularly short, when I feel overcome by anxiety about what the coronavirus is doing to people and their livelihoods around the world.
This emotional rollercoaster makes me realize I need to treat sleep with the respect it deserves. It’s impossible to avoid the stress or feelings of helplessness we’re all experiencing right now. But I can do my best to manage my own feelings and take care of myself. And that means, first and foremost, sleeping.