Holiday Dread: Sleep By Other People's Rules

It’s hardly sleep at all.

Image: Quinn Dombrowski

In December, we head south. My family of heathen Soviet Jews has no interest in Christmas, so we go see my in-laws, who live beyond the Mason-Dixon line, perched on blue lily pads in vast red swamps.

Wherever I go, I can’t sleep. I once read that only half of your brain goes to sleep the first night you spend in a place that isn’t home. It’s some evolutionary adaptation to keep you safe on the open savannah. My brain needs even longer. I lie in bed listening to the sounds of the house, reviewing what I know of the universe. Fact: There are so many guns in America. What happens in the aftermath of this election? Suburban houses are so isolated, with hedgerows and yards. We are all so far away from each other, aren’t we? After that, it’s time for a pep talk. Why am I terrible person? Oh, let me count the ways. I watch the sky change from inky black to bruisy purple.

The birds start singing and I fall asleep just as people in other parts of the house are beginning to stir. I’ve never been a morning person; in my mind, the hours between 5 and 11am are for sleeping. If I’ve spent the better part of the night writing a letter to my college self then I’d like to sleep as late as I can, please and thanks. The letter says, he will never leave his girlfriend, over and over again, Jack Torrance style.

But the holidays are different. There’s an expectation of togetherness or at least some crazy notion that everyone will have breakfast at the same time. As I drift into my morning sleep, I can feel the house awaken. Toilets flush, feet shuffle. Somehow without discussing it, they’ve all decided to wake up at 8, and gather in the kitchen, yawning and making coffee. The bed pulls me in deep; consciousness is not an option. Then, at 11am, Kenan comes into the room, gently pats me on the rump, and delivers the bad news. “Everyone is awake,” and even worse, “it’s time to get up.”

Feelings of shame and chagrin momentarily overpower my fatigue. I am so tired; if I were home, I would just stay in bed. But, no. My absence from breakfast has been noted. I’m late and out of step and they’ve already gone for a walk and played hide and seek and now they’re ready to leave the house if I could just get out of bed. This feels terrible. It’s like I’m the one giant weirdo in a house full of normals, and every morning, the distance between them and me grows longer and longer. I don’t belong here, or anywhere. I also want to go back to sleep.

Of course, I can see that this is all a vicious cycle of interconnectedness, with words like “anxiety” and “depression” swirling nearby. If my brain weren’t slightly broken, I wouldn’t mind being different. Everyone has their own internal clock, and mine is set to “sleep late.” At the same time, if my brain weren’t slightly broken, I probably wouldn’t spend hours in the middle of the night having one-sided conversations with a friend who I’ve had a falling out with. Or maybe I wouldn’t have had the falling out in the first place.

“And so this is Christmas. And what have you done?” I think to myself, accusingly. Being the last person to get up is like showing up drunk to a baby shower. I am disheveled and unsteady, while everyone else is freshly showered. “Is there coffee?” I have to ask sheepishly, because I don’t know where anything is, or how to operate the contraptions. I eat lunch, instead of breakfast, because it’s midday and the window for eggs and pancakes has closed. As the day goes on, I catch up. I throw myself into activities with extra zeal to compensate for sleeping through the morning shift.

A steady intake of sugar and alcohol makes the day bearable until it’s finally time for sleep. At bed time, I am transformed into the greatest optimist. I observe my sleep hygiene rules with the precision of an astronaut. No screens. Write in my journal. Read a book on paper. By the third or fourth day, my over-vigilant brain stands down its guard, and I sleep through the night, axe murderers be damned. Just as I start to catch up, running now to breakfast when everyone is still at the table, lingering over crusts of their bagels, it’s time to go home. I miss my bed like it’s a person, and she welcomes me home without judgment.

Katia Bachko is an editor in New York.

Holiday Dread is The Awl’s series dedicated to the season of joy and other emotions. Previously:

Holiday Dread: “When Are You Having Kids?”