For my entire childhood and young adult life I was labeled as a “difficult sleeper.” I accepted this, it was who I was. I mean, after all, it was true! My mothers friends would say I tortured her with my sleepless nights, my prolonged, agonizing bedtime struggles and my inability to sleep alone as a child. To say I was a difficult sleeper is not a stretch. When I think back to being a child and what it felt like, the one word I can really find for it is anxiety. In the ‘90s we didn’t use that word so freely, and I certainly wouldn’t have been labeled a child with anxiety like I would have now, but that is what I was. I remember the anxious feelings leading up to bedtime, racking my brain for ways to keep my mother in my room, to prolong our conversation so I wouldn’t be left alone in the dark with the spiraling whirlwind of panicked images and thoughts. I would play games like, “when I’m 14 how old will you be? And dad? Nanny? What about when I am 25?”. This would go on forever until my poor, patient, but frustrated mother would finally draw the line. It was a struggle every single night.
I could never pinpoint when it started and now that my mother has passed she can’t shed light on that for me, but I know it was very early. I have even heard things like “you never slept” from relatives and older siblings so my guess is that it started early. I grew up with the idea that I just didn’t need to sleep that much, mostly because I just didn’t sleep that much! I would spend hours awake in my room, building and dismantling barbie houses, writing, reading, doing anything to avoid a dark, quiet, lonely room. Sometimes even sneaking to the top of the stairs quietly and watching the TV where my mother couldn’t see me. I had these usual behaviours at home that I was able to use to keep myself calm, although awake. I could never sleep at anyone elses house. As soon as the lights went out, my anxiety arose from the dark and within minutes, I would call my mother to come and get me. There was no support for parents or children with this issue back then, so that’s why I was a “difficult sleeper.”
I spent my entire childhood never getting close to the proper amount of sleep that I should have. This meant falling asleep daily on the bus, in class and after school. I was exhausted all the time. It didn’t get better as I got older, I just learned how to manage my anxiety inside my own head so I didn’t have to bother my mother or anyone else. Again, I didn’t call it or recognize it as anxiety, I just thought I didn’t like to sleep, I didn’t want to sleep and I wasn’t ever going to be someone who slept normally; it just wasn’t for me. I now believe that a large part of the issue with my daily anxiety and sleep anxiety was the cycle that I was never able to break. I was anxious about going to bed so I didn’t get nearly enough sleep, and because I didn’t get enough sleep, my days were plagued with anxiety. The cycle continues. I was definitely moody, sleepy, disengaged at times, emotional - the list can go on, but I managed it. I was still a good kid, I did reasonably well in school, was considered smart and, therefore, no intervention was really deemed necessary.
As a middle and high schooler, things really got bad. I would be up until 2:00 AM before having to be awake for school at 7:00 AM. I am not quite sure how I managed to make it through my days, let alone each school year running on fumes. I am also curious as to the damage I did by not getting the sleep that was necessary for my growth and development. I still had good grades, some extracurriculars (when I could stay awake), friends, and even a few jobs while I was a student.
In University I continued on the same path with minimal sleep and just getting by. I think because I was ‘managing’ on such little sleep for as long as I can remember, I just lost all respect for sleep. It just wasn’t something I felt I needed, and it was nothing more than a hinderance for me and my days. Sleeping was a stressful and inconvenient time and I wanted to do as little of it as I could.
I became a shift worker (even before I was a nurse) and carried on that way for a full decade. A few years into my nursing career my anxiety seemed to finally catch up with me. I think we were just talking about it more, labeling and identifying it and treating it. I had known Marlee for years but she had gotten into a career in sleep that let her to a passionate pursuit of all the sleep knowledge she could soak up. What she learned she shared, and over the years she finally got through to me and made me look at my sleep.
It took me 30 years, but I finally looked at my sleep. The researched linked sleep with mental health so clearly. I wanted to learn more and was drawn to studying child and infant sleep consulting. Through that education I learned so much about myself as a child, my own struggles and experience were not unique, but there were actually interventions that could change the trajectory for children struggling with sleep like I had. I fantasized about what my life would have looked like if I had been able to get help with my sleep back then. There was nothing I could do to change the past but I finally found the motivation to let Marlee workshop my sleep with me. She was thrilled of course, she had obsessed about my sleep struggles for years just chomping at the bit to try and help me.
I knew that for my mental health and wellbeing I had to make some changes. With Marlee’s help I started to prioritize my sleep and sleep behaviours. It was weird, prioritizing something that had long been dead to me. I had placed absolutely no value on it for the first few decades of my life. Here I was, thinking about it, changing literally everything about how I managed my time. Instead of settling into the couch at midnight for a few hours of TV until I was basically unconscious and could easily pass out, I was in bed hours before midnight. In fact, I haven’t seen midnight, aside from night shifts, ever since. As a teen and young adult I could easily spend a day off in bed until well past noon if I didn’t set an alarm. I started waking up spontaneously before 10:00 AM, sometimes much earlier! This might seem odd to people who are normal sleepers, but for me that was huge. I knew it wasn’t normal to live the way I was, but I also didn’t have the knowledge and support to make the change. Once I did, there was no turning back.
I continue to work shift work but it looks completely different. I have pretty strict rules around my bedtime. I still very rarely see midnight, except for night shift of course. I have obsessively studied, scoured research, practiced every strategy and tool out there for managing sleep with shift work and continue to do so. I wear light blocking glasses, sleep masks, have a bedtime routine and a bedtime to ensure I am getting 7-9 hours of sleep every day, as often as I can. I know all of the research on why it’s incredibly important to make sleep a priority in your life. I also know what it feels like to be well slept. I still experience the social jetlag that comes with being a shift worker everyday, but the difference I feel now versus how I felt 3 years ago is my motivation. It’s a work in progress and probably always will be, but I know I am on the right track. I finally respect sleep, I understand its worth, how indispensable it is and honestly, its’ magic. I can never go back to where I started and for that, I am grateful. My only mission now is to figure out how to share what I know with as many people as I can in this lifetime. Sleep is not a ‘want’ and it’s not wasted, lazy and non-productive time. Sleep is a need every day. It’s what keeps my anxiety at bay, what keeps me healthy, happy, my body functioning, and what heals me every night.
I finally fell in love with sleep, and I hope you do too.