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.

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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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Losing Monica

remembering monica

On November 18, 2013, we lost Monica. And I say lost, not as a colloquial term to avoid referencing death, but because that’s what it felt like—that one moment my brother’s beautiful, talented, kind-hearted girlfriend Monica was there, and the next she wasn’t. Gone. Lost. Never to be found.

I’ve been fortunate in my life, in that up to this point I had never really felt grief. Sure, I had experienced sadness—for lost friendships, missed opportunities, a difficult breakup—but I had never truly known what that all-encompassing, suffocating, painful grief felt like. I continue to be blessed with the love and support of all four of my grandparents, and my friends and family are in good health. It almost seemed like for the first 27 years of my life I enjoyed a sort of innocence—that I was blind to, and sheltered from, the harsh realities of loss.

In some ways, especially at the beginning, grief brings people together. Clichéd though it may sound, when you lose someone, you also lose a bit of yourself, and leaning on those around you helps plug the hole and stop the flood. I probably have never felt closer to my immediate family than in those first few days after losing Monica—at the very least, it had easily been a decade since we had all spent that much uninterrupted time together. My tears were their tears, and there was comfort in our shared sadness. And sometimes even through heartbreak, there are smiles—my younger siblings, Noah (now 6) and Leila (2), helped bring light to the darkest moments with their innocence, their laughter, and their love.

I was (and still am) touched by those friends and relatives who came to the funeral or visitation, who called or sent an email, or who reached out to tell stories of their own. I was grateful to my boyfriend for being the rock that I needed, and to my colleagues who picked up the slack, no questions asked. I also found a friend in Monica’s sister, who I had not met prior to her passing, and who I remain friends with to this day.

But when the dust settles, when life goes on for the people around you, grief is isolating and lonely. Everything seemed to be a constant reminder that I was no longer just Emily, that I was also now Sad. Returning to work after a week, finding my coffee mug in the exact place I left it and my computer still on, I felt alone and resented the normalcy that percolated around me. I found it hard to concentrate, and even harder to make small talk or sit in a meeting. When I heard people complaining about home renos or the weather or a subway delay, I wanted to scream, “Don’t you know what REAL problems and REAL sadness are?”

I was angry and fragile—like if someone pushed too hard, I would turn to dust and disappear. I hated to see people having fun. As much as I remembered and valued those who were there for me, I became fixated on those who weren’t. I was spiteful when people would ask politely how things were going and then shift uncomfortably in their seats if I told them the truth, or shared too much for too long, or—heaven forbid—cried. I know now, and probably deep down knew at the time, that this was unfair, but in my weaker moments it didn’t matter. To me, I had the right to be sad whenever I wanted, in whatever way I wanted, and that it was selfish and mundane to expect to talk about work or Christmas shopping when I had just lost Monica.

There were times when I too felt selfish, and guilty. Monica was a beloved member of my family, but I had only known her three years and she wasn’t someone I saw every day. Compared to my brother Jacob, or to Monica’s sister, parents and lifelong friends, I had hardly known her at all. I often asked myself if I even had the right to be as sad as I was, if perhaps in my grief I had claimed something that wasn’t mine to take. I had, after all, gone back to the office after just a week. I moved in with my boyfriend, had dinner with friends, even ran my first half marathon. On the outside I had resumed my life, even if in my heart I still felt Sad, Sad, Sad.

In time, I realized that to survive, I had to be gentle with others, and with myself. It was ok to cry, to wonder why, to miss Monica, but I also had to know that I couldn’t expect others to be sad alongside me all the time. I reminded myself that there’s no shame in accepting that things weren’t ok, but that running or working or having fun didn’t diminish her memory and didn’t mean I cared any less. Slowly I’ve also started to remember Monica, not just grieve her. She was a knitter, and I’d always wanted to learn, so I took a few classes—putting it mildly, knitting is not for me, but it helped me reconnect with the notion of Monica as a real person, not just someone we had lost.

It’s been a year now, and after losing Monica, I’m now on the journey of finding Emily. I have learned that grief can be erratic. It is confusing and completely non-linear, but it is mine and it is part of me, whether I’m alone or not, through the days that feel normal and those that don’t. I know that not one day has gone by where I haven’t thought about her, or missed her, and I know too that time may not, ultimately, heal every single wound. But, I’ve also learned that though there is so much pain in loss, there is beauty and even laughter in remembering—whether it’s something kind she did, a joke she made, a story she told, or with the scarf I’m (unsuccessfully) trying to knit.

This article is dedicated to the beautiful Monica Post (August 31, 1992-November 18, 2013), and to my courageous brother, Jacob Abrahams. I love you both.