“All people here do is brag about how little sleep they get.”
This stopped me in my tracks. Usually, my mornings at Annenberg consist of controlling my quaking hands so my coffee doesn’t spill and making up fake lives for other breakfast-goers. The person two tables ahead preps for a marathon this weekend, picks at their egg whites and grilled chicken. The kid with the headphones and a laptop is furiously scribbling the answers to a p-set due in 10 minutes. I was beginning to marionette an alternate reality for the girl sitting diagonal to me, but her conversation piqued my interest.
“One person will say ‘Oh, I’ve got a midterm this week’, and the other will try to one-up them: ‘Yeah, I’ve got two midterms and a paper.’ And that’ll be it.” I take a sip of my coffee; the fault lines in my palms graze past each other, slow their movements. I catch a glimpse of my reflection on my phone screen; dog-tired eyes caricaturing a long night at Lamont, regret tucked soundly under shadows beneath them. I tasted my earlier comment on my own lack of sleep between my teeth, a bitter pill I wish I hadn’t swallowed. “I think it’s pathetic,” she says. Her friends nod their head in agreement. Their conversation stagnates. The boy next to me shifts uncomfortably. After some silence, the group says their polite goodbyes and dissipates. I finish my coffee, wiping the sleep from my face and folding it into my palm, ashamed. I head to class.
What can I say? She’s right—it is a huge component of the general conversation here. Sit down, talk about blocking/midterms/essays/clubs and guess what else? Lack of sleep. I, along with most others, have perfected the “haha I’ve got mountains of homework and responsibilities and haven’t slept but it’s great” look—the personification of the smiling emoji with the bead of sweat hovering at its brow; it never drops, and neither does this image. We out of habit pose ourselves as this tentative Jenga masterpiece, stacking a litany of responsibilities and stretching our capacity so thin just to see how far we can go until the blocks fall apart. Competition is in the air we breathe; from morning to night, wake to sleep, we are in constant flux with the people around us to see who has the stamina, the endurance to accomplish it all. This permeates every aspect of our time here—especially our sleep schedules.
While my interlocutor was right to point out that a lack of sleep should not be used as yet another vessel for competition at this school, dismissing the sleep rhetoric as simply “pathetic” glosses over the nuances behind why one would talk about it. This could be a plea for a shoulder to lean on, a subtle suggestion to others that you might be struggling but don’t want to ask for help. Putting ambitions and an unwavering will to succeed before mental and physical well-being is rote, a staggeringly common habit in this environment. Complaining about a lack of sleep could be a call for commiseration, a search for understanding and support for one’s actions. Too often is this aspect overlooked and deemed unimportant. Students would rather bottle up their exhaustion until it reaches the brim and overflows before they ask for help. This process of ignoring physical and mental health by making one’s lack of sleep a joke and relegating it to an insignificant soundbite is cyclic, rampant, and absolutely detrimental.
So instead of the usual alternate realities I attribute to passersby in Annenberg, I imagine how the girl from breakfast in Annenberg might actually walk through life. She might be incredibly conscientious and organized, fulfilling her responsibilities and completing her homework at reasonable hours. She might get eight hours of sleep a day, gifting herself extra hours on weekends. She might be a napper, and give herself a well-deserved sleep break when the stress builds up too high. She might have it all.
Or, she might have sleeping habits more consistent with the general Harvard student than first impressions suggest. She could spend her nights caged by bookshelves, mornings spent slamming the snooze button, trying to stop time with the weight of her hand. Bobbing her head up in down from exhaustion in lecture like a swimmer gasping for air before they dive right back into the abyss—but she wouldn’t tell anyone this struggle. She would shy away from her problems for fear of sounding like a regurgitation of the competition mentality she despises—and as her lack of sleep mounts, she wouldn’t have anyone to turn to to lessen the stress. It could consume her.
To those of us who don’t get enough sleep—it shouldn’t be a badge of honor, but it shouldn’t be ignored either. It’s not pathetic to talk about your struggles. Recognize them, seek out support, and try to rectify the situation through conversation rather than blanket them under the guise of humor or competition. There are multiple avenues to receive support—or just to have a person to talk to on campus—should this prove to be a large issue in your life.
Oh, and one last thing—get some sleep every now and then. It’ll do you wonders.Jessenia Class ’20 is a Crimson Editorial writer living in Canaday Hall. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.