SocietyAugust 18, 2021

What Emily Writes has learned from a life without sleep


Sleep Week: After nearly a decade of not sleeping, Emily Writes shares what the wee small hours have taught her. 

All week, The Spinoff is tossing and turning through a range of perspectives on sleep – read more Sleep Week content here. This post was first published on Emily Writes Weekly.

I think I used to be a good sleeper before my kids came along. It’s hard to remember now, because I’m coming up to nine years of not sleeping.

I stopped sleeping as soon as my eldest son was born. He was medically fragile from birth, though we had no idea just how bad it would get way back then.

Our life was split between the children’s ward and home. The nighttime sounds of the ward, the constant nursing checks, the babies crying, the sound of his shuddering breaths – it’s not a set-up that helps you sleep. And I wanted to be awake. I was worried I’d miss something.

At home I was more comfortable, but we continued to check his breathing throughout the night. We were never quite able to settle into a stress-free, uninterrupted sleep.

He woke every 45 minutes and hospital sleep tests showed he couldn’t fall into REM sleep. His brain was just wired a little differently. We needed to adjust as his parents because he couldn’t help it. When our second baby was born, they slept, well, like a baby (waking up regularly, screaming for milk).

Emily Writes was a good sleeper before her kids came along. Photo: supplied (design by Toby Morris)

Our first baby’s health managed to stabilise just as our second baby’s sleep just… stopped. We tried white noise and sleep drops and weighted blankets and sleepy bath time stuff, melatonin, Phenergan, and magnesium – everything.

Nothing worked. So we just waited. I wrote each night as he slept and woke and slept and woke next to me. It turned into a book. Then a job.

He’s six now and he falls asleep with a sleep story – usually the calming tones of ‘Islands of the Puget Sound’ or ‘The History of the Tooth Brush’. He sleeps beside me and wakes every few hours and we put a sleep story on and he will fall asleep again. I still write with him tucked up beside me.

As he settled into a kind of sleep pattern that works for his little brain, our eldest son hit another health crisis. We are coming up to two years of needing to check him every two hours or so throughout the night to give medication, to keep him safe.

My husband and I are perpetually tired. We are always functioning on a few hours sleep. Strangely, it doesn’t hit so hard anymore. It’s like our bodies have just adjusted to never getting as much rest as we need.

This is not the life I thought I’d have. I do have some grief wondering what kind of mother, wife and friend I’d be if I got more sleep. But I also know that the person I am today has been shaped by these endless, exhausting nights.

I have come to find beauty and peace in the night. When things are calm and dark, I can hear things I can’t during the day. I hear my son giggle in his dreams – it’s a completely different sound to his laughter in the day. I hear the sounds of my husband’s heavy feet drawing insulin with care and precision and his voice, whispered in the dark, saying “just a top up buddy”. I look out the window and see lights on in homes by the bay and I feel affinity with those out there who also can’t sleep.

These days, I have stopped trying to sleep. I used to lie in bed and my brain would race.

He will wake up in 40 minutes if you don’t fall asleep now.

Go to sleep.

Now you have 35 minutes.

30 minutes.

I would squeeze my eyes closed and will myself to sleep. Now I just read. I potter around the house. I listen to audiobooks. I write. Sleep sometimes comes. And sometimes it doesn’t. But I no longer fear the night. I let it wash over me. 

In the night, I think about the gifts I’ve been given by being so endlessly awake. Some of my best work ideas come to me at night. I can write quickly and usually it comes fairly easily because I’m so used to seizing tiny pockets of time in the early morning. Having hours in the night to finish a piece of work feels like a luxury.

The best ideas happen at night – and some of them can even turn into a book. Photo: Wikipedia (design by Toby Morris)

As a mother, I feel like I belong in many ways to my children. But in the night I’m mostly mine. I settle them back to sleep, administer medication, push their sleepy little bodies into the bathroom – but the rest of the time is mine.

Another perk is that I almost zero memory these days due to sleep deprivation. That has helped my tendency to overthink events because I literally can’t remember them. I can also fall asleep anywhere. Standing up, in the car, on the couch. It doesn’t have to be dark or quiet.

I can power nap for 10 minutes at a time anywhere. It means I can claw back sleep that I don’t get at night and I rarely get too tired when I’m touring or travelling for events because I can steal naps at any time. Some days I have three 10 minute naps. Or one 40 minute nap. My body is trained to snatch sleep. I can sleep from 6pm till 7pm and still fall asleep again 9pm to 10.30pm then again from 1am till 3am. Sleep is no longer linear.

The desperation I once had for sleep has slid into an easy creativity I am lucky to have. I have been productive over my years of sleep deprivation. It has been rewarding to wake and see chapters of a book finished – even if it was written somewhat feverishly.

After years of it feeling like torture, it just feels kind of normal now. I don’t think this will be my life forever. But I am glad that when I look back on it, I can say that I was there when my kids needed me. It has been hard. But it hasn’t broken me. Years from now I’ll have sleep again. And I’ll know I did what I could with what I had.

I used my endless night.

Keep going!