Zombie Day


The 24 hours between the end of our second night shift and the beginning of our first day shift are a blur. You must sleep enough in the morning so that you can function in the afternoon and evening but not sleep so much that you do not sleep that night and therefore cannot function the following day at work. This is why I refer to this 24 hour period as zombie day.

In the last few years, I have expended considerable effort to improve my night-time sleep as a means of managing and maintaining my mental health. I have had years where I’ve slept as little as three hours per night for months on end and the occasional five hours of sleep seemed a blessed miracle.

It is well-known that shift work is damaging to your health and this is largely due to the fact that shift workers tend to sleep two to three hours less per sleep than their dayworker counterparts. But I was born to be a shift worker! Sleep has always felt better for me during the day than at night; I feel safer sleeping during the day, therefore I wake less and spend more time in deep and REM sleep (so says my fitness watch). On zombie day, I try to go to sleep earlier than I do after my first night shift, around 7.30am, and only sleep for about four to five hours. Without an alarm, I would sleep all day—a full eight hours plus. And if I get more than six hours on zombie day, I’m ruined for the following day as I will not sleep at all that night.

Historically, I’ve had a difficult time sleeping when alone in a house. This dates back to before my teens. I have needed another person in the house to feel secure, and when alone, I’ve sleep with the lights on. But a couple of weeks ago, G went interstate (north, almost 20 hours to Queensland) to look at apartments and holiday homes. I had to stay and work. This would normally cause significant anxiety, further inhibiting my ability to sleep but I was surprised to find that this time, I enjoyed the time. This is not something I’ve ever experienced before and although I was looking forward to G’s return, the week and a half I had on my own was refreshing.

When I feel safe, I rarely wake to even the loudest of noise. The surrogate dog can bark and bark, the hoons can rev engines and do burnouts at the intersection by our house, the person learning to play the drums next door can bang as loud as they like and none of these things will wake me. But when G required full-time care, and I slept in the room next door so as not to contaminate or infect him, he barely had to whisper my name and I was awake, alert, and ready for action. It is remarkable what the body and brain will do when necessary. Now that he is well, I have reverted to more sound sleeping patterns. But I still wake often in the middle of the night. Research shows that sleeping in a solid single block for eight-ish hours is a relatively recent development and may not be as beneficial as the previous bi-modal sleep pattern.

G, on the other hand, is a very light sleeper. The slightest sound, minutest movement, or beam of light will wake him no matter what stage of sleep he is in. And yet, he still seems to sleep more than me.

Today, I did not go to sleep early. I messed around until about 9am after arriving home at 7.15am. And then slept until 1.30pm. Which isn’t a lot of time but it means I rose later than I normally would so now–at 11.15pm–I’m not tired. G has already gone to bed but I often sleep in my bedroom while I’m on shift so that I don’t wake him when I get up to get ready at 5am. Otherwise, if I do, he will not get back to sleep.

A few months ago, we read a book by Olivia Arezzolo about sleep types called Bear, Lion, or Wolf. I am a wolf, and the only positive thing the book said about wolves is that they are pre-disposed to being great shift workers due to their alertness overnight. G is a bear these days but used to be more of a lion. We are practically opposites.

When he was in hospital, and my stress levels were so high I went to the hospital myself to make sure I wasn’t having a heart attack, I tried everything to sleep. I tried listening to special frequency music, I tried herbal sleep teas, I tried meditations, and I tried night noises. Eventually, I settled on a routine where I listened to a meditation mantra and then played 12 hours of “night noises” like crickets chirping by a crackling fire in the forest. Light rain falling, frogs ribbitting. Anything to calm me down.

There are things I want to say about sleep–about dreams–about the places we go in our subconscious. But it is almost midnight and I need to be up in five hours. So it will have to wait.

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