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Why We Can’t Sleep

Who can sleep during all of this?

Photo: Fotografía de eLuVe/Getty Images

I’ve always had issues with sleep: One of my earliest memories is wandering around the halls of my childhood home in the middle of the night, unable to get back to bed. Decades later, I’m still doing the same thing.

I’ve tried melatonin and prescription sleeping pills, weighted blankets, eye masks, and rain sounds. I invested in a SAD lamp (which actually is helpful) and supplements to lower my cortisol levels (less helpful). How I’ve slept on a given night will determine my entire day — my mood, my appetite, my ability to work or function as a partner and parent. Getting a good night’s sleep requires more attention than I’d like to admit. But over the past few years, I finally found the right combination of things to help me get the best rest I possibly can — in part by accepting that I’ll always be a bit of a night owl, requiring a healthy dose of sunlight when I wake up and Ambien when I’m ready to go to bed.

Then the pandemic hit. Who the fuck can sleep now?

Really — are any of you sleeping? All of my hard work and routines have gone out the window. I’m lucky if I fall asleep by 3a.m.; it’s a miracle if I get more than four or five hours of rest in a night. It’s the everyday stress, definitely, but it’s also the Groundhog Day boredom, the existential dread, and the up-in-the-air confusion about when, if ever, our lives will go back to normal.

Even before the coronavirus landed, Americans had trouble sleeping: Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2016 found that about a third of the population had insomnia. That figure appears to have only grown worse since Covid-19 arrived. A survey of adults in Europe showed that people are reporting worse sleep across the board, but interestingly enough — because of the extra time at home — some people were sleeping more, even if the quality of that rest was bad. In another study, a whopping 98% of participants reported the emergence of new sleep problems since lockdown started.

Even before the coronavirus landed, Americans had trouble sleeping.

It would be nice to dismiss our national insomnia as something that will go away when our Covid-19 nightmare is over, but the physical and mental toll that a lack of sleep takes on our bodies isn’t something we can set aside. Insomnia has been linked to depression, dementia, heart disease, and diabetes. And, ironically, because lack of sleep affects our immune system, it could also make us more susceptible to the coronavirus.

Given the extraordinary stress we’re all under, it makes sense that we’re not sleeping. And with all the unknowns surrounding when we’ll be able to go back to work or school or resume normal social activities, I can’t imagine we’ll have an answer to how we can relax anytime soon.

So we should continue our sleep hygiene routines — whether it’s Ambien or a warm bath — but workplaces and families should start talking about sleep as a vital preventative issue as well. When kids start their Zooms (or, less likely, go to class) in the fall, there should be no early morning sessions. Employers should be more understanding around meeting times or overworking their employees. And all of us should try to help our friends and family who are having a difficult time getting a decent night’s rest.

And, of course, we need to listen to the advice that a lot of insomniacs tend to ignore: Stay off your screen for a few hours before bedtime, don’t drink caffeine after a certain time in the afternoon, and don’t use your bed for anything other than sleeping and sex.

We don’t know how long the pandemic is going to last, and with the way American leadership has reacted to the coronavirus, I’m not feeling particularly optimistic — making it more important than ever that we try to develop good habits now. So, while the country tries to get used to this new normal, I’ll be up… waiting for sleep to come.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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