Gimme Sleep

A teenager's life without sleep

Overall, I’d rate my teen years a solid five out of 10. I felt physically and socially awkward just about always, “hairstyle” was not in my vocabulary, and I didn’t really know how to dress for my body type. I held a middling social status fraught with the ongoing drama, envy and posturing typical of teenage girls. That said, I had a group of friends, got decent grades, was never shoved into a locker and probably had a total of five pimples during my entire adolescence (seriously). By the end of grade 11, I had even landed myself a Real Boyfriend—not a very nice one, but the point stands.

Unless you live in the movies, none of these things – good or bad – will sound out of the ordinary, and they weren’t. In most ways, middle and high school were, for me, just like they were for the majority of the moderately uncool population—mostly uninspiring, sometimes unpleasant, with a few good moments and hearty laughs along the way. But one aspect of these years was definitely not normal, and that was the fact that I was always, always tired.

I don’t mean ‘oh I stayed up so late and I’m tired,’ or ‘wow, that gym class tired me out.’ I’m referring to constant, overwhelming, all-encompassing, and at times debilitating, exhaustion – where sleep is paramount and there’s never enough of it. I’m talking about being truly tired 100 per cent of the time.

In grade 9, I came down with a brief but harsh bout of mono. While I recovered from the initial illness fairly quickly, it took years for my immune system and energy levels to recover, and in some ways they never fully did. To this day, I require more sleep than most functional adults, I get sick often, I am most definitely not a morning person and I doubt anyone would describe me as the life of the party. Still, compared to my high school days, I’m basically the Energizer Bunny.

Grade 12 was the absolute worst. It was a tough year in general due to strained friendships, the aforementioned boyfriend and my parents’ separation, and with stress mounting, the exhaustion that had been increasing for years hit its peak. I couldn’t get out of bed, and if I did, I would usually fall asleep wherever I was—the TTC, school, other people’s houses. During the week, I’d take a two hour nap (after sleeping on the 90-minute commute home) before I even started my homework or practiced the piano. On weekends, I slept until 1, 2, sometimes 3 in the afternoon, and even then I would wake up feeling drowsy and unrested. Being tired consumed me, and it didn’t matter what I was doing, where I was going, or how much sleep I’d had the night before.

At school, if I could drag myself out of bed to go, I fell asleep during class, at lunchtime, during orchestra practice, with my violin slowly sliding off my shoulder, and even once during an exam as I struggled, painfully, to stay awake. And it was painful—everyone knows the excruciating feeling of trying to force your eyes open when they’re begging to close. Now imagine that all day, every day.

For most teenagers, there is nothing worse than not fitting in, or having a characteristic or quirk that makes you feel different from everyone else. So while I wasn’t popping zits or failing classes, I worried that my constant exhaustion made me appear weird, lazy and isolated, and to me this was devastating, but also seemed out of my control. As much as I wanted to be hanging out with my buddies or joining clubs and teams, a lot of the time that desire was trumped by a need to find a spot to curl up for my next nap.


In June of that year, my doctor referred me to a sleep clinic. I stayed for 24 hours and was hooked up to wires so that my sleep patterns could be monitored. As if the very idea of this didn’t add to my feelings of social isolation enough, this little slumber party took place the day after my prom, which was supposedly the most magical time of a 17-year-old’s life (in the movies). So in other words, my classmates were recovering from the night before, kicking off the summer together, and I was lying on a hard bed in a soulless clinic feeling like a complete freak. But, there was a glimmer of hope: perhaps these sleep analysts could find out what was wrong with me and fix it. I was off to Western that fall and eager for a fresh start, but I knew I couldn’t get that while feeling and acting like a zombie all the time.

The results indicated that I had an abnormal level of tiredness for someone of my age and size, but it wasn’t a thyroid issue or anemia or (thankfully) something more serious. The doctors thought I might have a mild level of narcolepsy, but there wasn’t much that could be done aside from focus on proper nutrition and exercise. These felt like cop-out solutions, and ones I couldn’t achieve anyway. I’m a lifelong picky eater and years of feeling too tired to do anything had made working out seem impossible. I had been hoping for some kind of pill or medication to make everything all better, but the best case scenario for me seemed to be to try to follow this advice, ride out the summer and hope that the wide world of university that awaited me would help to turn things around.

I’m pleased to report that this story has a happy ending. That summer, I had a job that kept me active and engaged, and at Western, I had the flexibility to choose my class schedule and was able to do so in a way that helped me maximize my energy. I never packed any one day full of classes, and tried to avoid taking too many early morning or late evening lectures. I lived near campus, so the days of long commutes were over, and of course like many of my fellow students, I discovered coffee…lots and lots and lots of coffee.

University helped pave the way for me to be able to function in the business world, and I haven’t looked back. I’ve spent nearly six years working in public relations—known for being a demanding and fast-paced industry, and work I couldn’t have pictured myself doing a decade ago. On a regular day, I won’t be up with the sun, but if I need to come in early or work late I can, and I’ll be ok. I get drowsy, yes, but head doesn’t thud against my desk, and I can even go out after work with my friends, have a few drinks, and not be a complete mess the next day. I even found my fitness passion in karate, which keeps me energized and motivated and gives me the confidence I lacked back then. Best of all, even though I still feel tired a lot, I also feel like myself, and I’m proud that my life isn’t ruled by sleep or lack thereof.

Bottom line? I’d say that overall, the awkward and isolated teenager has grown up and woken up…and is now off to Starbucks.

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