Stop glorifying exhaustion; let's reclaim our rest

BUILD YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM: Ample sleep is linked to lower rates of depression, lower blood sugar, lower risk of stroke and heart disease and a stronger immune system. Dreamstime/Tribune News Service

One year ago this month, I found out I had COVID-19.

I spent a few days in the hospital and then a few more weeks healing on my couch. I have to monitor my heart because the virus traveled there and did some damage, but I’m otherwise fully recovered.

One thing I’ve dramatically changed in the year since my diagnosis? How much sleep I allow myself to get.

It took me about six months post-COVID-19 not to feel exhausted all the time. I gave myself permission to finally get eight hours of sleep most nights, after years and years of subsisting — kind of proudly, to be honest — on four to five hours per night.

For decades, I bought into notions of sleep being an unnecessary luxury, even a bit of an indulgence. Who has kids and a career and enough sleep? No one I knew.

To be clear, there are people for whom life’s circumstances render enough sleep impossible. I was not one of them. I was mostly just saying yes to too much work, checking Twitter too much and drinking too much coffee to fall asleep at a reasonable hour.

I normalized feeling awful pretty much all the time. When I was diagnosed with COVID-19, I remember telling everyone who would listen, “I didn’t even have symptoms! I felt fine! I mean, my entire body hurt and I had a raging headache but, like, who doesn’t?”

Me, now that I get enough sleep.

Exhaustion is glorified and monetized in our culture. It’s the hallmark, we’re led to believe, of thinkers and doers. Brilliant minds never rest! I’ll sleep when I’m dead! (You can buy that second one on a coffee mug, natch.)

At rest, we’re not producing. At rest, we’re not selling products or closing deals or putting out proverbial fires or answering emails. At rest, we’re barely capitalists. (For shame!)

Better, we’re often led to believe, to rob your body of sleep and then fill it with caffeine from one of the 14 coffee places near work. Don’t like coffee? No problem. They’ve started caffeinating water.

I established my poor sleeping habits, like so many people, in college. Why would you sleep when you could be hanging out at the college paper? Or the bar, with the people from the college paper? The hours during which my childhood self slept became a secret garden of time. It felt subversive and grown-up to watch the clock tick past 1 a.m. and then 2 a.m. and then 3 a.m. and still be awake. Plus I could get so much done!

I course corrected in my 20s, only to backslide when I had kids. My babies weren’t great sleepers. My daughter spent years 2-11 resisting bedtime at all costs (our sleep, mostly). And, if I’m perfectly honest, I often stayed up longer than I needed to or got up earlier than I ought to just to experience some solitude.

It felt, again, like a secret garden of time. Look at me! Having kids! And a career! And still finding time to read contemporary fiction! Having it all!

But it all takes a toll.

Sleep, researchers have found, bathes your brain in something called cerebrospinal fluid, which washes away toxins that build up each day. Ample sleep is linked to lower rates of depression, lower blood sugar, lower risk of stroke and heart disease and a stronger immune system.

But you probably already know all that stuff. I did. (OK I didn’t know about cerebrospinal fluid until I read about it in an Inc. article a couple weeks ago. But the other stuff is pretty common knowledge.)

It’s hard to give ourselves permission to take care of ourselves though. It’s hard, especially, when taking care of ourselves means saying no to things and people we hold dear. I’m trying to find a balance: Stay up late if a kid wants to bond over midnight bread baking, but head to bed a little earlier than usual the next night. Pick one morning a week to set the alarm ridiculously early, but limit it to one morning only. Take an unapologetic nap on the weekend.

A bout with serious illness can be clarifying. It can shake us awake to some of our lousy habits or remind us how fleeting this one life is or inspire us to stop taking time for granted or a little bit of all of those things. That was COVID-19 for me.

But we shouldn’t have to hit a low point before we prioritize our health. In case no one has told you lately, you deserve good things.

You deserve to sleep. You deserve to reclaim your rest and bathe your brain of toxins and know what it feels like to walk around without the fog of exhaustion hanging over every one of your encounters. Your people deserve you at your best-rested.

That secret garden of time? It’s a mirage. That email? It can wait. Twitter? It’s a cesspool. Go to bed. You are so much more than you produce or sell or solve. Your heart and mind need rest, and they need you to grant it to them.


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