Register Sunday | September 19 | 2021
Sleep Shame Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine

Sleep Shame

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk knows rest is essential. So why does she feel guilty about getting it?

The unlikely things I’ve been stockpiling through the pandemic are rice cakes and clementines, neither of which I’m a huge fan of. Most mornings when I wake up, there’s a spread of Styrofoam-like rice cake crumbs and orange peels on a plate on my kitchen table. 

This was supposed to be the year my ten-year-old daughter started walking herself to school from our Toronto apartment. Instead, since she’s been in school virtually, it’s wound up being the year she’s started sorting out her own breakfast as I try to sleep. Hence the aforementioned grocery items, neither of which requires cooking or cutting. 

The past year has me exhausted. Or, rather, it has me admitting I’m exhausted. There’s been something about slowing down and only trying to meet my most fundamental needs—food, water, an income and housing—that has helped me realize my perpetual exhaustion is not a result of a hectic lifestyle, but more so my base level of being.

I live with chronic illness. On any given day, I’m managing fibromyalgia, endometriosis, an autoimmune disorder, disk problems in my lower back and more (without even touching my mental health limitations). Chronically ill folks have long known that we often need more downtime than the average person, either in the form of a calm space, rest or sleep itself. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve always had access to that downtime. 

Trying to meet the demands of pre-pandemic daily life—commuting, dealing with ever-epic transit fails, running between one thing and another—didn’t help me manage my energy or pain levels. And even though I’ve always been exhausted, I haven’t always been able to sleep. 

My sleep problems have ranged over the years: I’ve been unable to fall asleep, woken up throughout the night, woken up after a few hours of sleep and been unable to fall back asleep, or been unable to sleep all night and finally fallen asleep in the morning, which has been the case for much of the pandemic. 

The pandemic has brought all of us a new kind of stress and exhaustion. But being holed up in my apartment for the last year has also meant I haven’t had to overextend myself in the ways that I used to. My life and body are down to their most basic functions: I work, parent, cook, eat, sleep, shower, take occasional walks and wash seemingly endless dishes. (I do realize that there’s nothing “basic” about surviving Covid-19, mind you.) This simplified routine has helped me manage my chronic pain. 

Still, even without the hectic day-to-day schedule that full-time work and single parenting used to involve, I struggle to let myself sleep. When I do sleep, I struggle with the shame I feel around it.

Realizing I have this sleep shame is new to me because letting myself sleep is new to me. I’ve had life-long problems with sleep. I grew up in a chaotic, often violent household, where nighttime was prime time for things to erupt. I often stayed up to witness the drama, to seek out help, in terror, or to comfort my younger brothers. I lost a parent at a young age and had sleep issues then.  I moved out in my mid-teens and balanced full-time school, part-time work and a mental health crisis. With so much going on, sleep just wasn’t a priority.

In my twenties, I worked and drank in bars. I was chronically underemployed and kept odd hours. One of my bar jobs involved handing out fliers at an even later-night nightclub once we closed. Another involved regular social pressures once work had ended. At one point in all of this, I dated someone who worked a hotel switchboard job. Days and nights blurred. Sleep happened in small doses, but I never felt guilty about it when it did. 

I didn’t really start feeling guilty about it until I became a parent. At twenty-nine, I had a baby on my own, a baby who was “easy” by all accounts, other than the fact that she didn’t sleep. Not through the night, not for regular or irregular naps. She’d sleep in a stroller or carrier for a stretch at a time, not times I could also rest. Or she’d sleep for short intervals, often directly on top of me. I was regularly sleeping in mere twenty-minute bursts myself. I made a rule that we wouldn’t leave the bedroom until a certain time in the morning, just to have some distinction between night and day. My daughter has remained a poor sleeper through her childhood, the reasons for that shifting between growing pains, anxiety and nightmares (not to mention the time we lived above a noisy restaurant). 

The restrictions of pandemic life have been emotionally draining, but they’ve also given my body a break for the first time in as long as I can remember. I’m not experiencing as many symptoms from my chronic illness. Not having to rush to school drop-off or work in the morning gives me time that I didn’t used to have to rest. This means I’ve been waking up late: I’m often drinking my morning coffee when my daughter breaks for her 10:20 AM recess. 

Perhaps ironically, feeling better physically has made me feel even worse about needing sleep. No, I was not at work late. I was not seeing friends until late. I was not attending events. I did not have an apartment full of my daughter’s friends to contend with. I keep telling myself there’s no acceptable reason to be as tired as I am, to be reliant on Full House (and its awful reboot) to entertain my child in the evenings, or to be sleeping in consistently. I feel added guilt because I became a single parent by choice without a lot of external support. Part of me feels like I need to prove this was an acceptable idea, even a decade later. 

I also worry that taking rest when I need it will make me seem lazy. I worry I’ll seem like a bad parent. I worry I’ll seem selfish. I feel guilty for being tired for similar reasons: not being able to be as productive or attentive. And then, ironically, I feel guilty if I let myself sleep. It’s a cycle I apologize for on repeat. I go as far as to hide it. Once, my kid called me out for telling someone on a phone meeting that I couldn’t meet early because I had to get her ready for school, something she does on her own these days. 

I know that if other people in my life felt guilty for sleeping for any reason—including illness, injury, depression, or grief—I’d encourage them not to. Having seen many pain specialists and therapists, I know that sleep is a huge part of keeping one’s body and mind intact. And yet, most of us have internalized the idea that sleep is an indulgence.

In a 2016 HuffPost article, journalist and author Poorna Bell wonders why “we persist in this ridiculous idea that existing on as little sleep as possible means you’re somehow tougher or more resilient?” She notes that we treat it differently than our other basic needs. “Like eating and breathing, sleep is a necessity for your body,” she writes. “Yet we don’t give it the same importance. It’s an afterthought—something we try and sandwich in if we have the time.”

I think much of this belief system comes from weird capitalist pressures that celebrate pulling overnights or working overtime, as though rest is not necessary. We’ve all heard people talk about being so devoted to their work that they’ve never taken a day off, or brag about how many hours they’ve put into a particular project. Most of us buy into this attitude by commending those efforts, praising hard work and gruelling time commitments, even when they’re at the expense of someone’s well-being. But we can’t all manage at this pace—we all have to work within our abilities. And even if everyone could grind endlessly, why would we want to?

Beyond personal considerations, one US study found workers who slept fewer hours were less productive and tended to have more safety issues at work. Poor sleep is costly, too: each overtired worker led to a $1,967 loss in productivity per year. It’s a relentless cycle. Even though a good night’s sleep boosts our productivity, an obsession with productivity can lead to a lack of sleep—and an accompanying feeling that we should be doing anything but rest.

It doesn’t help that the pandemic has created epic levels of stress, which is causing a specific form of insomnia and, in turn, exhaustion. A UK study conducted by King’s College around the beginning of the pandemic found that half of the people surveyed were experiencing disturbed sleep. Some people were sleeping more than usual, some people were sleeping less—but in both cases, their sleep quality was waning. Many were having a harder time falling and staying asleep since sleep usually happens outside of clearly defined work and leisure or social time, both of which ceased to exist during lockdown. Burdens like financial precarity and around-the-clock caregiving also contributed to this loss of rest. 

Whether we’re feeling guilty about it, or repressing that guilt, many people have pretty messed up relationships to sleep—and they only seem to be getting more complicated.

If difficulties with sleep are prevalent in the overall population, they’re all the more prevalent among marginalized groups. Socioeconomic status and race, which of course intersect, play into both the duration and quality of one’s sleep. When people are navigating systemic oppression on top of the average stressors of the daily grind, managing rest and other forms of self-care can seem, or be, impossible. 

Racialized people are more likely to experience “shorter sleep durations, less deep sleep, inconsistent sleep timing, and lower sleep continuity” than white people, according to a study in the American research journal Nature and Science of Sleep. Black, multiracial and Indigenous people are hardest hit by the sleep gap—nearly half of those identifying as such report getting less than seven hours of sleep per night. Another study published in 2015 found that “the high prevalence of sleep disturbances and undiagnosed sleep apnea among racial [and] ethnic minorities may contribute to health disparities.” 

People of colour are also more likely to do shift work and work overnights, making it harder to prioritize sleep. In Canada and beyond, the pandemic has brought to light that racialized communities disproportionately contribute to essential work, and are more likely to be exposed to dangerous working conditions. Among high-risk health-care workers, disrupted sleep and daily burnout can lead to higher risks of contracting infectious diseases, more severe symptoms and longer recovery periods, according to one study. A single extra hour of sleep lowered these workers’ risk of contracting Covid-19 by 12 percent.

There’s a method for understanding these kinds of inequities. The “minority stress model” was originally coined to explain how experiencing prejudice related to one’s gender or sexual orientation can take a toll on one’s health. But the model is also a helpful way to think through how all forms of discrimination, including racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and fatphobia, are quite literally keeping people up at night.

In response, some people are asserting their right to rest. My friend Syrus Marcus Ware is a long-time disabled activist who has taken to speaking of rest as revolutionary. To paraphrase, the philosophy is that people cannot work non-stop to create change without also allowing themselves basic restoration. Rest, he says, is part of organizing a new world. 

On the Toronto-based Instagram account @maisiesghost, a popular post suggests different forms this can take. “Rest can look like sleep, or it can look like: being unproductive, time away from draining energies, solitude outdoors, logging off, a limited to-do list, a safe space, letting go.” These ideas around self-care challenge a culture that prioritizes “the grind” and the “work hard/play hard” sentiment that has become hard to escape.

Atlanta-based Tricia Hersey, a Black activist, performance artist and community builder, is part of this push, too. Hersey links Black exhaustion, particularly Black women’s exhaustion, with Black people’s continued oppression. In 2016, she founded The Nap Ministry, “an organization that examines the liberating power of naps.” The Nap Ministry considers rest a “radical tool for community healing” and believes “rest is a form of resistance.” The project uses performance art and installation to create safe spaces where people can gather to take naps together in public. 

During the pandemic, many of us have been talking about the ways in which our “normal” lives revolve around capitalism, endless working and buying and commuting. What would it mean to continue a conversation post-pandemic about our collective well-being, and about rest and sleep as a core part of this? Is it possible to come away from this pandemic with a changed attitude toward sleep? 

When I first mentioned the guilt I feel around sleep on social media, I was surprised by how many people said it resonated with them. Jenna Reid, a Toronto-based disability activist, replied that she and mornings don’t get along. She wrote that when she does sleep, it’s often because of the effects of her medication, but she refuses to get up early and hates talking about it with people—that familiar shame. 

Toronto writer KJ Aiello recently tweeted “It has taken me almost forty-two years to come to the conclusion that not being a morning person and crawling out of bed at 11 AM does not, in fact, make me a lazy irresponsible person. It’s the best I can do, and that’s my boundary. I’ll trade sunrise for sunset any day.” 

Seeing my sleep habits through the eyes of others has helped me understand that feeling sleep shame isn’t only unhealthy and unproductive—it’s also a form of internalized ableism. I want to live in a world where we’re able to give ourselves and each other the accommodations we need. Throughout the pandemic, more able-bodied people have required the types of accommodations that disabled and chronically ill people have needed for a long time, but haven’t always had access to. I hope there’s some compassion when life resumes and some of us still need those options. 

I have other wishes, too. I’d like to see more flexible working hours, and honestly just fewer working hours overall. I’d like to see remote work continue to be an option for those who would benefit from it. I’d like to see more flexibility for parents juggling school commitments and hours, childcare and extracurriculars. And I’d like to have discussions about the role of rest and the reality that we can all use more of it in post-pandemic life. 

Rest, I keep reminding myself, is both radical and essential. I have hopes for a post-pandemic future where I can still preserve my physical needs. In the meantime, I’m glad my daughter has breakfast covered.

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Montreal-born, Toronto-based writer and editor. She’s been published in Joyland, Taddle Creek, the Best Canadian Poetry 2016, PRISM, Poetry is Dead and elsewhere. She has three books of poetry, most recently Whatever, Iceberg. She is currently the editor of This magazine.