I see you. I was you. Here’s how I got through it.
I was three months out of graduate school when I found out I was pregnant. Not only did I not have insurance, but I also was up to my eyeballs in student debt and just at the very humble beginning of a career I hoped would lead to writing for film and television.
When my daughter was born, I was juggling freelance gigs while producing a play I had written, all in a desperate attempt to jump-start my work life and help pay the bills. My husband was an actor, and supplemented that income by working late nights at a midtown Manhattan restaurant, an hour’s commute from our Washington Heights apartment. From the moment right before my daughter arrived, there was little time to rest and no time to spare. To make matters worse, my baby was born small and jaundiced, making the pain medication I was prescribed after my C-section an impediment to her health. I refused to take it, so I was working, first-time mom-ing and in constant pain for the first six weeks of her life.
My husband and I danced around a ships-passing-in-the-night schedule of me writing around my infant’s needs until he got home from work at 3 a.m. Then, I would sleep as much as I could while my husband managed feedings. When he was about to drop, I’d take over again so he could sleep through the day until his night shift.
For those first three months, having no extra money for childcare, my husband and I had no help, no breaks and no more than five hours of sleep a day. I was so scared that I would fall asleep on and harm my breastfeeding daughter that I would fixate on a crack in the wall, tears streaming down my cheeks. It was a desperate time, alleviated a bit when my father returned from his upstate retreat to lend a hand.
When I look back I wonder how we produced a healthy, well-adjusted child and managed to keep our marriage in tact, but we did.
I don’t have all the answers on how to survive extreme exhaustion. But that experience did give me a few tools, many of which I still use after nights when my daughter is up sick, or when work or stress steals my sleep. Find some help in a fellow mom’s tricks to work on little or no sleep—or at least some solace in knowing you’re not alone in your severe fatigue.
1. Stop drinking coffee.
This suggestion seemed utterly insane when it was first brought to my attention. How did anyone expect me to keep my eyes open if I wasn’t allowed to caffeinate? I learned coffee and energy drinks give you an instant buzz, but they are overly processed and rob Peter to pay Paul in your body in order to wake you up so quickly. It doesn’t take long before you’ve depleted your body’s already-low resources, making you even more tired than you were beforehand.
Merely switching to tea, preferably organic green or black, is much gentler yet can help you stay alert and productive much longer. Tea was a Godsend for me, and the added health benefits supported my immune system, which is super-important when I don’t get enough rest. Spacing out my cups every four to six hours helped me soldier on without headaches, sweaty palms or crashing.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got in college was from a theater professor who said, “If you can’t eat, sleep. And if you can’t sleep, eat.” It is extremely easy to ignore your body’s basic needs when you’re exhausted, but add hunger or malnutrition to sleeplessness, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Treat your body like the temple it is. Fill it with good, healthy food, and don’t worry about portion size. Your body needs the nutrients and you can worry about your pant size later.
One more delicious, little trick: Salt is the transmitter and conductor of all electricity in the body. Seasoning your food with Himalayan or Celtic sea salt can increase energy, as well as detoxify and help your system achieve balance, which can be wildly thrown off when you haven’t slept.
3. Take breaks.
I know that for many, taking breaks while at work is difficult. I’m not suggesting you leave the office, or curl up in a dark corner and try to nap. But whenever you can, take a breath. Even just taking a minute to close your burning eyes and clear your mind is incredibly helpful and can prevent micronaps—short, involuntary spells of sleep for fractions of a second at a time, sometimes longer. Many a traffic accident and injury has been caused by micronaps. Taking a moment here and there to close my eyes and breathe kept me trucking, with eyes wide open.
4. Be kind to yourself.
Your fatigue isn’t because you are weak. Your frayed nerves aren’t the result of a personality flaw, and your body doesn’t ache because you haven’t gone to the gym enough. When you’re exhausted, it’s not the time to get on your own case. Sleep deprivation obviously can majorly impact your body, but it can more greatly affect your mind. When you haven’t slept, don’t dare let a single negative thought in. Tell yourself how wonderful you are, how hard working, how smart and determined. This one was so tough for me when I was a broke, first-time mom with a fledgling career. I sometimes felt like I had already failed, but at my husband’s urging, I kept telling myself how amazing I was, and eventually, the fog lifted.
5. Tell yourself you can.
The most essential tool I discovered in those dark days: I would sit there in the dark, staring at that crack in the wall, repeating to myself, “I can because I am. I can because I am.” It was a mantra I had picked up while reading a book and is meant to help people make their greatest dreams a reality. At that moment, however, I wasn’t concerned with my greatest dream; I merely wanted to get through that day. In a gigantic world of uncertainty, the fact that I was who I was, had gotten that far and so would ultimately get through this seemed to be the only one thing true and fixed. I clung to it for dear life, and dammit, it worked.
I still tell myself “I can because I am” regularly, but now it has a different purpose. I’ve made it to the other side of chronic sleep deprivation and am able to focus on my goals. I still have sleepless nights from time to time, usually before a day of travel or starting a new job, but as I drag myself out of bed on those mornings, I look back on those desperate days and think to myself, “I’ve done a lot more on a lot less. I can handle this.” And, because I am, I can and I do. My gut tells me you are and you can too.
Featured image provided by Working Mother