Sleepless in the PhD wilderness

by Anna Blanch on January 30, 2012

They say that going without sleep for 17 hours is equivalent to being under the influence of alcohol to the tune of .05.

Lately, sleep hasn’t been easy. It has either come very slowly or been interrupted. The hours between 0100 and 0400 feeling interminable as I toss and turn. Ocassionally, I just give up, turn on the lamp and write in my journal. Sometimes it is my thesis that is swirling around in my brain, sometimes it is the knots in my stomach where the stress my body is feeling betrays the fragile order my mind convinces itself I’m holding onto. I’ve grown in my love (if it were possible) for freshly laundered sheets and the comfort of the unbelievably-comfortable-and-worth-taking-to-3-continents merino wool underlay.

If it were possible, the last three days were almost the worst of all. Compounding the anxious lack of sleep was a malfunctioning smoke alarm, that consistant with its utility but not meeting its telos, has variously chirped between 2 and 6am. After changing the battery 3 times in 5 days, I finally called my landlord this morning to share my tale of sleeplessness. He was kind and came straight over acknowledging that the chirping of these hardwired alarms is nigh impossible to sleep through. We discovered that two of the alarms weren’t working properly. It was a slightly embarrassing moment for me, but my landlord shared that in sleeplessness we loose our orientation a little, and that he too would have stayed fixated on the one alarm.

Either way:

The sweet sweet sound of silence (apart from my tapping on the keyboard) fills the cottage. It is beautiful.

I must admit, though, that my temper is frayed. I feel overwrought. I want to sleep and yet have so much to do. Like the deadlines that have been and gone. Some self-imposed. Some for others. I don’t miss deadlines. Except, it seems I do.

There is a tunnel and there is light at the end of it, I have to keep walking. writing. kneeling.

I feel the eschatological tension of now, but not yet, in a way I’ve never really understood it before. It is the stuff of existential crises.

It is so easy to feel sorry for myself; to be self-absorbed.

This interrupted sleep seems to be fairly common among my colleagues lately. I see comments about insomnia on facebook. We all wax lyrical about good night’ sleep (so it follows that good sleep is not as common as we’d like it to be). Admittedly many of my colleagues have small children. I am grateful almost everyday that I’m free to pursue the craziness of the last stages of this PhD with only my own lack of sleep, hunger pains, and needs to take care of. Of course, that means that loneliness is a close companion right now.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so lonely. Yet, I have colleagues around and friends here and elsewhere. I love my church, yet, I feel the frustrations that exist in every church are getting to me more than usual. and then someone sends me a kind message or calls or drops by or gives me a hug and I know I belong.

The lack of sleep and the loneliness. And the lack of light.

Three things that have surprised me about this stage and this season.

Yet, I was grateful this morning (in the midst of the sleeplessness addled haze) as I reflected on all of the wonderful opportunities and the crazy adventure that is my life, that I get to do this.

*This* is my thesis. I get to do this.

This is a choice. Not a punishment.

Now, if I could just get a good night’s sleep, I might be able to knock out the rest of this draft and get it done in the next 6 months!!


Life: UnmaskedThis my third Life Unmasked post for 2012. In addition to my second for this year, A naked theologian, you may find my last life:unmasked post for 2011, A journeywoman, and my first for 2012, I’m an inbetweener of interest. All my 2011 Life unmasked can be found on this handy list. You can thank Joy of Joy’s Journey for pushing me to get involved in this weekly foray into ‘writing naked.’


Weird but true fact: in my time in the UK I’ve not once yet come across what we call in Australia, a ‘european’ pillow. that’s what we call the square ones. I remember that they weren’t easy to find in the US either. But, in the mist of this seemingly miscellaneous communication of bedding conventions around the world, I miss my boomerang pillow the most. They are self-explanatory: they look like boomerangs. Thankfully, they are soft and soft of mold to your body. did i mention that i haven’t had enough sleep lately.

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  • Matt

    This is so intensely personal and yet so universally applicable. I confess to being in the same state. Hold fast and know you are not alone.

  • JT Adamson

    When I was in college I got settled into a new church, and one evening I hitched a ride back to my dorm from a man I had only met a couple of times.  He took a genuine interest in how I was adjusting to school.  Then, like now, I wasn’t getting enough sleep and was feeling pretty bedraggled.  (Is “bedraggled uniquely American?)
    He pulled out his Bible and read what he said was his favorite college verse, Psalm 127:2

     In vain you rise early
       and stay up late,
    toiling for food to eat—
       for he grants sleep to those he loves.

    My first thought was, “I’m not getting enough sleep…does that mean God doesn’t love me?”  No, of course not.  But its certainly true God cares about every part of our day, even the sleeping part.  Hopefully the non-beeping smoke detector is the beginning of more restful blessings.  🙂

    And, I’ll pray this evening for your sleep (even though it’s almost morning for you now).
    Also, I sit for a living, and I sit at home to write and/or edit.  I’ve found that if I can get some physically activity regularly, I sleep better.  Is there any way to exercise in Scotland in the winter (other than curling?)

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