sleep

“You Have It All Together,” People Said.

Today’s blog post is brought to you by Erica.

I’m obsessed with being busy.

Last year, during the first semester of my junior year, was perhaps the pinnacle of my busy high school career. I was taking nine classes, working 9-10 hours a week, going to karate 9 hours a week, being tutored for 6 hours a week, and participating in a school club (the Planning for College Club, no less).

It wasn’t the busyness I loved; it was the reactions I got. I’d gotten so used to people raising their eyebrows in amazement when I rattle off the things I do, to people telling me “wow you have your life together”, to people telling me they could never do it themselves.

Jokes on them—I couldn’t do it either.

With only 2-3 hours a day to do homework, it never actually got done. Homework was always this perpetually unending flow of assignments, this cascading river that would never dry out. Eventually I learned how to prioritize, and by prioritize I mean figuring out the ultimate bare minimum I could do for each class in order to still get good grades. The grading system was a game, and I was forced to play. Soon, each day was turned into skimming assigned reading, turning in my first drafts of papers, and pretending I had it all together when I really, really didn’t. The only thing that stayed pretty were my grades—but the person behind those grades was crumbling.

I was in highest honors—you know, that small group of VPSA kids that applied to that one program, signing away their lives and agreeing to take a miserably large amount of classes with a bajillion requirements and hardly any breathing room, including those that felt like death (like Organic Chemistry and Calculus II.) Even the name “highest honors” comes along with an air of elitism and precociousness and an inferred obligation to maintain that air. The obligation was simple: talk about your stress, talk about your busyness, but never, never talk about how it was taking a toll on your sanity, how it was making you crack, or any other thing that would let people know you were anything else but an academic Super(wo)man.

“You have it all together,” people said. And I would smile. They’d never know how many times in the past week I stared at a blank wall wanting to just stop trying or how many times I pulled all-nighters because I didn’t have any time to do homework during the regular hours of the day. They’d never know how many times I was able to count the hours of sleep I got on one hand because I was so stressed I couldn’t sleep, or how many times I sat in Calculus class shaking and staring at my blank notepad because I couldn’t understand a thing my teacher was saying. I felt stupid, incapable, and fraudulent, but no one knew.

Life was, for me, about waiting to hit the bottom so I could bounce back up again. Buried under my hectic schedule, I kept waiting and waiting for the school assignments and responsibilities to become too much so I could finally crack under the pressure and have a breakdown so I could reevaluate my life and take a breath and slowly begin the upward climb. My life would then subside, and things would get better, till the busyness kicked in again and the cycle repeated.

It went on for months. Sane, surviving, stressed, breaking, broken, repeat.

I would be fine.

Then things got rough.

Then I was holding on.

Then I was flying off.

And I fell off.

And it repeated.

The cycles always lasted a few or several weeks. I still remember, because during my mini breakdowns I’d pour out my stress into a Word document and save them, and sometimes even now I go back to them and read them. I wish I could’ve told myself it would get better.

I knew there was a problem, but it was an ego thing. I liked having a busy schedule and the impressions and reactions it created. It gave me hope that one day it would all pay off. People telling me I “had it all together” fed my ego, and that ego drove me and blinded me and kept me on that toxic cycle.

So I kept lying to myself, day after day, week after week, about my capabilities. I kept telling myself to fake it till I made it and that if I believed I could then I could. I continually believed I could work for hours on end without a break, I could do without studying for this test, I could write a paper in two hours and I could live with 5 or less hours of sleep a night.

But one day, at the cusp of one of my breakdowns, I was ranting to my friend about my stress levels, and she, fairly bluntly, told me I had to start doing something about it. I had to get rid of things. I couldn’t do everything.

And I fought back. I didn’t like being told that I couldn’t do everything—I don’t think that’s something anyone likes to hear. She, being a brutally honest friend who didn’t really enjoy seeing me throwing myself repeatedly into the same hole, and I, being a brutally stubborn person with an ego bigger than the Great Wall of China, clashed and clashed.

But after a couple more hours of conversation, I began to realize she was right. My ego protested, but my sanity followed through. And so I shaved off the lesser responsibilities, stopped taking more on, and began to reevaluate everything I was doing. The upward trend had begun.

That wasn’t the end of the craziness however—I still had a lot of hell to go through after that. But I fought my way through. The only way out was through, and with gritted teeth I drove through those ACTs and SATs and APs and midterms and finals and everything else until it was all over. It was brutal, and the second semester of junior year was even worse than the first, but it was the first time I started looking forward instead of down.

And at the beginning of that second semester, several people were dropped into my life—and they couldn’t have appeared at a better time. They were the sources of laughter and sarcasm and undying support, the sources of encouragement and reassurance, the sources of Skype study sessions and late night conversations about whether a camel milk company would be a viable business idea. They were a distraction, a good distraction, from school and life, and a good reminder that not everything revolves around being perpetually busy. The end of junior year was messy, but they helped me get through.

And here I am, in my senior year of high school. School is still crazy, don’t get me wrong, but I’m happier. I have more breathing room, more time to sleep, more time to do homework and more time to actually read books and take them in instead of skim them. My weeks aren’t spent waiting to hit the bottom anymore; my weeks are spent constantly awaiting the new things life will bring.

I’m thankful for those occasional Thursdays where I can take three hour naps, for those school nights where I can afford to go to bed by 10:30, and for those friends that will Skype with me till 4am. I’m thankful for all those trips, adventures, and bevy of memories that were created all because people helped me realize my life needed a little breathing room. And I know it’s crazy, but when I woke up for class every day this week at 6am sharp, I was well-rested and didn’t feel like murdering anybody. I wasn’t able to do that junior year.

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Sleep, and Other Complicated Things.

It’s Allison, your local cat aficionado.

There isn’t anything quite as satisfying as sinking into a plush mattress after a long day of school work. I used to study in my bed, which I sometimes still do, but when I need to stay up late, I sit at my desk, saving my bed as a reward for working hard. My body seems to literally loosen, each muscle untying its dizzying array of knots. It’s a magical feeling, ethereal, wonderful, rewarding. Anyone who has worked for any considerable amount of time before slipping into a cozy bed knows what I mean.

But I’ve also had a complicated relationship with sleep for the past few years.

I’m a teenager, which means I need a lot of sleep (or so I tell myself), but it also means I’m statistically more like to stay up to odd hours of the night or sleep until one p.m. But I’ve always seemed to attach more weight to my sleep than most people.

My trouble with sleep started when I was a freshman. I was distant from my family when I was fourteen. I didn’t really have a close relationship with my mother, and most of my brothers were at college. I didn’t enjoy much of anything or anyone in my life, and I particularly hated being home, so I would slip into my room in the evening and tell my mom I was asleep. I would stay up, alone and content. I didn’t have to speak to anyone I didn’t want to, and I could be myself, albeit in a dark room. It was an escape for me, but it cut into my sleep. Badly. I remember one night I stayed up until three am browsing photography on flickr. I loved artwork and I hated my life, so I lost myself in artistic creation rather than sleep. I awoke with my alarm at five forty the next morning and pressed on. Nights like this weren’t uncommon.

Freshman year turned into sophomore year and things only got worse. I was attending a challenging high school with the single goal that I be perfect. Everything I did was entirely aimed at achieving some lofty, mystical goal of perfection. And sleeping didn’t allow me to be perfect. Sleep was a waste of time, it was an  impediment to my goal. So I didn’t sleep. I studied more, or I read, or I wrote, or I did anything besides sleep. When I wasn’t consumed with being perfect, I was consumed with how much I hated myself. I started to use sleep deprivation as a punishment. I didn’t deserve to sleep, because I wasn’t perfect. I didn’t deserve to sleep, because I wasn’t good enough. I always attended school the next day, after barely sleeping, half-zombie half-Allison, and stared at the floors or the walls instead of my teacher. I stared outside of the window instead of my blackboard. The next night, I would stay up later, because I was angry with how poorly my day went or how terribly I did on a test. Sleeping less only made my days worse and my grades lower, but I didn’t question my twisted logic. Months later, teachers told me they felt something was wrong. Friends came to me and said they thought something was off. But no one questioned me at the time and no one really knew. So I carried on. Sleepless nights, torturous days, and a miserable life.

At the end of my sophomore year of high school, I was a shell of a human being. Sleep wasn’t the only thing terribly, terribly wrong in my life (more on that later) but it was a major issue.

But, with the sudden lack of schoolwork to keep me occupied, to push me, I found a sudden lack of will. My intense, sick determination left me defeated. I slept for hours. I barely left my bed. I didn’t want to do anything but sleep. I couldn’t face the impossible standards I had created for myself and I didn’t know how to undo the expectations I had built. So I slept. It was the closest thing I could get to nonexistence.

I spent months like this. I didn’t have a handle on my life, but time carried on, so I went with it. Slowly, I started to rebuild my life. Better friends, better school, and mostly, better sleep.

Sometimes, I still find myself slipping into my bed at noon. My natural reaction to hyper emotion is sleep. When I cannot deal with anxiety, or fear, or anger, or sadness, I sleep.

Sometimes, I still find myself staring at my ceiling at three a.m. My natural reaction to apathetic emotion is staying awake. When I cannot deal with memories, or flashbacks, or worthlessness, or dread, I remain awake.

Last week, I stayed up until five am and only forced myself to close my eyes when I realized my mom would be waking up soon. A few days ago, I slept for fourteen hours. Neither is healthy, but something about sleep is so easily manipulated, that it’s hard to be consistent with a bedtime. People always say that those who are most successful have a structure sleep schedule. But then again, aren’t the greatest ideas born at three am? Aren’t the best hours between two and five a.m.?

Who knows, but it’s pretty late. Maybe I should get some sleep.