When I got into teaching full-time in 2015, I was asked to take on 3rd grade. I had never taught students that young in my adulthood; though I’d taught kindergarten in Seoul after college, most of that was pre-set curriculum and students who were very used to following directions. But, I’m game for most things (plus I needed work!), so I said yes.
Thus began two full years of insomnia.
In the very first week of class, I began to have trouble falling to sleep. This wasn’t terribly abnormal, as I’d had a few difficult sleeps following most large transitions in my life. So, I took it in stride (very caffeinated stride) and took an over-the-counter sleep aid, figuring it would even out after a few days.
As days strung to weeks, and now I wasn’t falling to sleep until 3 or 4 in the morning, I began to get concerned. Then came the nights when I didn’t really fall asleep at all. Sure maybe I “drifted” as I called it, but as to “put your head on the pillow, next thing you know it’s light out,” those days were far in the rearview.
So started a sickening amount of trial and error: eastern doctors, western doctors, over the counters, ayurvedics, prescriptions, sleep studies, hypnotherapists, foot soaks, acupuncture, dream apps, forest bathing… And lots and lots of tears.
I began to lose words, much like “mommy brain” affects parents of newborns, thoughts sluggish and unfinished. My hormones became imbalanced and I gained weight. My stress levels were astronomical. Even in the summer breaks, I was awake awake awake awake.
All. Because. I was teaching 3rd grade.
I say this with certainty because you know what happened last Fall when I began teaching middle school?
I feel asleep. And stayed asleep. All night.
And so it’s been, for all of the past year. Put my head down, wait a little, feel that blood-level “click” where I can feel whatever sleep hormone flood my system and in less than a minute, I’m out til morning.
So it was particularly jarring this week at our middle school retreat on Monday through Tuesday to find that it took me until nearly 1am to fall asleep while there and after we got back on Tuesday night.
I do know/believe 2 things about my insomnia years: I wasn’t sleeping because I was taking on the stress of my students, and could not for the life of me put up an energetic boundary strong enough to shake off their emotions. I took them in, a permeable mess.
I also know that the one and only month during my 3rd grade tenure that I slept was the month during which I exercised every single day for 30 days. After about 2 weeks, I was falling and staying asleep. But every day was very hard for me to keep up and I backslid.
As to this week, I know that spending 36 hours non-stop with students, particularly ones finding their way in the wide world of middle school—and doing so with … less aplomb than they’ll need to “make it”—is an acute stressor for me. It makes me aware that my boundaries are still extremely permeable.
I am apparently not cured of my insomnia; I just get reprieves from it. I learned a lot over my 2 years of battling and devolving under its battery assault, particularly about how I care for myself and my own stress levels. It’s clear that I need to call on that learning again.
Further, though my commute is much longer than when I taught the younger kids, it is going to be imperative that I find a habit that includes regular exercise again, as I haven’t yet settled into one for this school year.
I am grateful that last night I fell and stayed asleep — like viciously grateful — but I know there are huge red flags my body is throwing up. And if there’s anything a cancer survivor learns, it’s to watch those goddamned flags — and to heed what they’re telling me no matter how much extra mental or physical effort it will take. The alternative was a hell I never want to revisit.