Every relationship has a tell. It’s that little indicator, that little relationship litmus test, that can be celebrated, be brushed under the rug, or be brought to the forefront in the heat of a whiskey-induced spat. For some romances, it’s how they act around your friends. For others, it’s the last sentence before they hang up the phone. For me, it’s sleep.
Sleep has ruined not one, but two of my relationships.
The first time sleep caused problems was with a guy I dated for seven years. At the end, we split up because I thought sleeping past noon was something only teenagers did. For years, I tried to stay up late to please him and he tried to wake up early for me. Maybe it was subsequent unrest that led us to bicker about who had the right approach. We split up a year after we each returned to our natural sleep patterns—in retrospect, our quarrels about sleeping habits stopped when our relationship should have.
The second time sleep disrupted things, it wasn’t because of too much sleep, but too little. From the start, he and I argued about everything–from the literary canon to the best places to buy wild boar salumi—perhaps in order to prove we could be the challenges we had each desperately sought in past relationships. And though at the time I found the lack of agreement playful, such meaningless diurnal confrontations set me up for denial when, night after night, we found ourselves arguing about my inability to sleep.
I think he took my restlessness personally. He believed if things were how they should be, I would relax. I would fall asleep. And I would wake up next to him, having not gotten up to read or listen to podcasts or leaf through his old art school projects. To him, sleep equaled stability. And peacefulness. And maybe even love. To me, as long as I could get through my coffee and my run the next morning, it meant nothing other than he was being overly sensitive.
Though we’ve long since abandoned our romance, his objections to my sleeping habits have continued to come between us. And frankly, they have stayed with me. After we stopped seeing each other, I spent months second-guessing myself—questioning whether I’m sabotaging my work and my body and my goals by not sleeping an uninterrupted eight hours. I’ve tried various apps, read countless articles, and seen therapist after therapist who recites all-too-familiar coping strategies. I’ve been hard on myself, comparing my habits to those of others whose ability to sleep on planes and in the middle of the afternoon felt like a subtle but irritating affront.
I still don’t sleep. But, I’ve stopped analyzing it. Finally.
A few months ago, I admitted to myself that I have crippling fear of sleep. Don't misunderstand me. Too often the fear of sleep is conflated with fear of The Big Sleep, with capital letters, and I’m not anxious about dying or having bad things happen in the dark. It’s quite the opposite, actually.
I'm afraid I'm going to sleep through something wonderful.
When we’re young, we accept without hesitation that the night before the field trip will be restless. We know from experience that we can stay awake all night listening for Santa Claus, dreaming about what treat our Mom will bring up for our birthday breakfast, or badgering our best friend until she finally admits she has a crush on our older brother. And with each morning, we woke up to realize we weren’t tired, despite not meeting our parents’ bedtime guidelines.
Call me naïve, but I don’t see why this can’t continue into adulthood. Why should my lifestyle and—gasp!—my age get in the way of my excitement for things?
Recently I’ve found myself incredibly content with my life. I am proud of my personal growth and I love living in Brooklyn. After each interrupted night’s rest, I wake up in the morning feeling more and more inspired by my work. And, after a string of disastrous misreadings of personality, I have started seeing someone new. With such positivity around me—and no, no, certainly not the rapid approach of my 30s and my subsequent push for self-acceptance—I’ve finally given myself permission to be that excited child every single evening, and find my need for little sleep a blessing.
Turns out, it’s working. Since I’ve stopped clinging to the sleepless ghosts of my past, it feels like my life has been flipped right side up.
It's admittedly quite early in my new relationship, but in a mutual enthusiasm for each other and the coming day, we’ve willingly flung ourselves into dating – skipping dinner and drinks to head straight for a weekend away together. It’s risky, but fun. It allows me to be six hours into what should be a four-hour drive, sitting at a dead stop on the BQE, being asked about sleep again. But something about his interrogation of my habits feels different now. We talk about Da Vinci’s sleep schedule, about our parents waking us up by 8:30 am even when there was no school, about duvet covers and top sheets and thread counts. This time, I hadn't brought sleep up, but also this time, we weren't arguing.
Maybe it helps that we have similar habits. The realist in me will concede his sleep proclivities validate my own. But as we sat among the throngs of eighteen-wheelers and tourists and oddly souped-up Acuras, I realized that the very reason I’m drawn to this person is the same reason I can’t sleep through the night. His ability to be curious and exploratory without being reckless inspires me to wring out every last second out of my own day, whether I’m with him or not. With so much to see, and so much to do, and so many different ways to grow and be, who has time to worry about normalcy, especially when everything feels natural?
So, in the face of my critics—admittedly, the most stringent of whom are my exes—I’m letting go of overanalyzing whether I get five or eleven hours of sleep. I’m satisfied with waking up feeling rested. I’m happy, and I’m going to jump out of bed each morning and treat each day like a field trip, even if it’s just to my DUMBO office.
In the meantime, if you find yourself awake and in need of some company, give me a call. I’ll put down my reading, I’ll make a midnight snack of wild boar charcuterie, and we can stay awake together, chatting until you admit you finally admit you may have just a tiny crush on my sister.
Kathleen Rommel manages marketing and communications at goods for good, a nonprofit that uses microenterprise to support orphans in Malawi. A lifetime of desperately trying to keep pace with her older siblings has made her an avid runner, and an admittedly overly enthusiastic punner. Her biggest regret is letting her third grade teacher bully her into abandoning “Bean” as a name.