Sleep Deprivation Was Banned by the Geneva Convention, You Know

Shannon Frost Greenstein

I feel like my corneas are made of sandpaper, the very act of blinking causing pain to radiate across my eyelids.

“Wow, it’s early,” my husband comments.

My stomach is vaguely queasy; all of my joints ache. My limbs seem to weigh one hundred pounds apiece. I feel a layer of sediment coating each of my teeth.

“It’s your turn,” my husband reminds me.

I struggle to sit up in bed as the world spins, literally spins, and the newborn’s wailing ratchets up another decibel. I stand and wait for the usual flurry of shooting stars to stop obscuring my vision, comets of iridescence with sparklers for tails. They trail through my line of sight and fade into the periphery as I trudge across the bedroom to the crib, wondering absentmindedly what sleep used to feel like.

 

We have been parents for about five weeks; long enough that the oxytocin has worn off, not so long that our offspring can sleep more than three hours at a stretch.

“What’s taking so long?” my husband asks. I can barely hear him over the maddening cacophony of our brand-new son reminding us he is – yet again – ravenously hungry.

I squint in the murky darkness of dawn, certain I left the sterile nipple to our baby’s bottle next to the sink. There is no nipple, and a wave of frustration and fatigue washes over me like grief. Exhausted tears well in my eyes as I consider the energy it will take to search for it, and instead I sigh and lean against the wall, my legs suddenly too weary to be load-bearing.

“I can’t find the fucking nipple,” I say, my voice teeming with big feelings, layered one upon the other, like a DJ is spinning the mix of my amygdala. There is irritation and exasperation, directed inward; there is the pain that comes with knowing your child is in distress. There is the overwhelming feeling that I have failed at feeding my young – the most basic of evolutionary tasks – and the impotence that comes from reckoning with fallibility and losing.

“The cat probably got to it,” my husband suggests.

At that, I break down.

“DAMMIT, Lady Macbeth!”

I am just so tired, and the cat is just such an asshole, and everything feels disproportionately more difficult before the sun comes up. 

I cry for a bit while my husband gets up and finds the nipple and washes the bottle and feeds the baby, even though it is indeed my turn. Then I cry because I’m missing my turn.

 

Eventually, the sky brightens, and the newborn sleeps, and there is coffee and laughter and a brand-new day. Even through the fog of perpetual lethargy; I am in love with motherhood; every second with my son is a blessing.

But I am really, really bad with sleep deprivation.

 

 

I’ve been tired my entire life.

My Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GED) has always caused my brain to spin late into the night, hours when I should be resting; my hypomania (Bipolar II Disorder) always makes me too agitated to sleep. My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) finds me awake, agonizing over rituals I have failed to complete, and I would have nightmares from my Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) that made me frightened of unconsciousness. But when I was young, no one had yet to notice these maladies. No one saw how much I was suffering.

And so I strived, without respite, to act normally; to be normal. I took AP classes, as many as possible, each with a collegiate amount of homework and study hours. I was training to be a professional dancer, which consumed literally all of the waking time I was not in school, and even some of that occasionally, too. I took daily ballet classes that stretched into the evening. I would stay up until 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning, writing essays, reading biology textbooks, conjugating verbs, desperate to get on top of the Sisyphean academic and athletic demands.

I exerted enormous amounts of daily energy into my dance training. I lived under enormous academic pressure to distinguish myself among an upper middle-class student population wherein everyone had the resources to be distinctive. I never rested; I never slept. Eventually, I developed an eating disorder (Anorexia Nervosa) and then I never ate, either.

Suffice to say, I burnt out pretty spectacularly after that. College was rough, and young adulthood was rough, and the beginning of my relationship with my soulmate was rough. Working two crappy jobs was rough, and dealing with a newly-diagnosed mental illness (BPD) was rough. I did not fully bloom into the person I am today until much later; I lost myself in pain for quite some time. It took a lot of work to evolve into the “normal” human being I had once only emulated, and my sleep cycle has never recovered from all the shit I put it through before the age of 25.

And now, I cannot stomach being tired.

 

 

 

“It’s not fair!”

I know it isn’t. I know his complaint is valid. But I also have become so finely attuned to my mental health that I can sense negligible shifts in the emotional wind, and I am certain this is the way things have to be.

“I’m sorry!” I exclaim to my husband. “I didn’t hear him get up!”

“You never wake up!” he responds.

This is true. The infancy of our relationship was marked by jackhammers and bulldozers tearing up the city street outside his first-floor window; they started at 6 or 7 a.m., apparently, but I never woke up to hear them. I am a Very. Heavy. Sleeper.

“It’s not on purpose!” But this is my common defense, and he is tired of it.

I recognize his argument; certainly I do. But the alternative to this scenario impacts our family and lessens my quality of life and threats my very existence with clouds of suicidality, so a cost-benefit analysis is pretty clear on that choice.

You see, I have rapid-cycling Bipolar II Disorder. I was diagnosed five years before my son was born and spent months working with a psychopharmacologist to find the proper medication. Later, I saw a fetal medicine specialist to fine tune the pills I would have to take while pregnant, because I simply do not function well enough when I am unmedicated.

My Bipolar Disorder is characterized by wildly swinging moods and deep periods of depression or hypomania. Medicine helps a lot; DBT has been a lifesaver. And regulating my sleep cycle is also one of the few ways I have to regulate my mood. It’s all about sleep hygiene, and it all involves things like not pulling the all-nighters in which I used to revel in college. It requires regular periods of sleep at regular times, and if I do it well enough, my mood stays stable and I function like the neurotypicals do. If I do not do it well enough – if I stay up late too many nights in as row, or if I become sleep-deprived – my mood swings, I turn hypomanic, and then I spend the next week grinding my teeth and doing too much impulsive online shopping.

So you can see, I hope, how important it is that I sleep; you can see how parenting a newborn presents a unique kind of difficulty.

“I’m sorry!” I say, overwhelmed with frustration at my husband’s frustration. “I can’t help it that I need to sleep!”

“But it’s not fair!” he responds, and here we are, full-circle, a Hegelian dialectic between opposing spouses in the evolution of a marriage.

It is not a vicious fight, and it ends quickly, but it sticks with me. Every day, I battle the omnipresent worry that I am not a good mother; every day, I am concerned I am not doing enough. Surely, getting up with the baby half-the-time should be included under the “good mothering” umbrella, especially when half-the-time was the agreed upon schedule. Instead, I am very clearly not pulling my weight in the nighttime feeding department, and that means – in the dark and scary place which is my cerebrum – an overwhelming sense of worthlessness and irredeemability is not far behind.

But the alternative is hypomania (followed, naturally, by a plunge into the deepest depths of depression, the other side of the Bipolar coin), and that has to make me a worthless mother, too. Surely, failing to adequately function in society will not benefit my offspring; surely, the suicidality I battle more often than I like to acknowledge is more a detriment than an asset to my parenting.

So what’s a heavy sleeping, rapid cycling, attachment parenting Bipolar new mother who promised to get up for nighttime feedings half-the-time to do???

 

 

 

In addition to Bipolar Disorder, as I said, I also have Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD.) Undiagnosed mental illness didn’t help, but a lot of it stems from extended periods of time while growing up when I did not feel safe; when I did not have the emotional or physical resources I needed to develop in a typical, healthy manner. Trauma can look like many things, of course, but the impact is always injurious and the effect is always cumulative; my complex trauma emerged after years of invalidation, manipulation, and outrageous expectations.

It is not strictly abuse or neglect or lack of love or long periods of stress or chronic illness that causes a condition like CPTSD. Instead, it is all of the above and more, a byzantine labyrinth of cause and effect, overlapping tendrils of nature and nurture and genetics and environment winding like vines through my brain. Complex trauma is a woven fabric; it is threads of lived experience forming an elaborate design in which individual beginnings and endings and boundaries and definitions cease to be discernible at all.

Years of sleep deprivation, years of overexercise, years of chronic sickness and pain, took a toll from which I suffer even in adulthood. I have visceral reactions to growing ill these days, creeping dread and anxiety attacks filling my days whenever I get a sore throat. Exercise is a chore, now, and something in which I take no delight; I avoid it at all costs, feeling inordinately stressed when faced with a multi-floor walk-up. And presently, at the age of 39, with two children and a career and complex trauma behind me, I hate, I hate, I hate being tired.

I loathe my alarm clock; it takes me hours to fully awaken for the day. I literally fear mornings when I know I will not get enough sleep. I ward against tiredness at all costs, consuming coffee like water and napping frequently. In direct contrast to my young adulthood, I am no longer a night owl; instead, I often go to bed with my children. Being tired also seems to affect me disproportionately to the situation at hand: I move through a metaphorical sludge, each of my limbs weighted down, cowed by the cosmic effort it takes to stand up and begin to clean. I snap at my husband; I leave dishes in the sink; I cannot always enjoy time with my family, so focused am I on the discomfort of being sleepy.

Sleep and I do not have a great relationship. It is wrapped up with so many sense memories and so many bad experiences that I take no solace in it. However, nor can I just accept that tiredness is just a necessary evil of being alive; nor can I embrace that, sometimes, we have to go through life tired. Instead, I expend far more energy than necessary lamenting sleep deprivation due to new parenting, due to insomnia, due to poor sleep hygiene. It is a near-constant state of trying not to feel tired, of fearing the inevitable moments when I will feel it nonetheless; it is a near-constant state of being on guard, and that – just as much as with the complex trauma – is really starting to exhaust me.

 

 

 

“How did you sleep?” my husband asks as we maneuver around each another in the bathroom one morning.  

“Eh,” I respond, yawning, chugging coffee.

We dress and brush and groom, late as always, and discuss the schedule for the day.

“I can’t believe the kids are still asleep,” I say, looking at the clock, engaged in the backwards mental arithmetic at which mothers are so adept in order to figure out what time the family needs to leave the house.

“I know,” he says. “No one even got up in the middle of the night.”

“No one” is our two year-old daughter and our five year-old son. Gone are the bi-hourly nightly wake-ups; gone are those late nights feeding a baby at 3:00 a.m., the world asleep and the nursery so lonely when dawn is hours away. The children still wake up in the night sometimes, but it is becoming less and less, and easier and easier to get them back down. We do our fair share of co-sleeping, and bedtime is always late, but there is no question that our sleep situation is better now than it has been for five long years, since a time when Lady Macbeth was our only child.

“I appreciate you,” I remark suddenly, but not apropos of nothing. Now, on this side of infancy, even I can see that sleep-deprivation isn’t forever; I can see the luxury of rest is becoming more and more attainable. I can see I am lucky to have dodged the Bipolar bullet that is altering my circadian rhythm, and I can see it is solely because of my husband’s efforts that I am this fortunate.

 

“What?” he asks, understandably confused.

We are supposed to meet in the middle, but he has carried me far more often than I’ve carried him, his 60 % overcompensating for my 40 % -- though, I so long to be capable of 100% all the time, every time. Nonetheless, here we are, the parents of toddlers who actually sleep, and I glimpse light on the horizon; I think I see a life where I am no longer petrified of being denied a respite.

“Thanks for getting up with the kids all the time,” I say, inarticulately but genuinely, wrapping my arms around him, hugging him from behind. “You’re a great father.”

He hugs me back, and we go wake the children, late as always, and go about our day.

 

 

 

I am grateful that sleep deprivation is in my past, just as I am grateful to be overcoming complex trauma. Because we all deserve to sleep, and sleep deprivation is the absolute worst.

It was banned by the Geneva Convention, you know.

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Shannon Frost Greenstein (she/her) resides in Philadelphia with her children, soulmate, and persnickety cats. She is the author of Pray for Us Sinners, a collection of fiction from Alien Buddha Press, and More, a poetry collection by Wild Pressed Books. Shannon is a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy and a multi-time Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, Bending Genres, Epoch Press, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, and elsewhere. Follow her at shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on Twitter at @ShannonFrostGre.