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New Year’s Resolution: Be human (+ an insomniac) first, then a PhD student

It’s been a month since I wrote, which is a much longer break than I’d anticipated. I’ve decided to write about something which is not terribly inspiring or creative, but rather which is real to me and has been for several months. I’ve been struggling with insomnia since early October, a piece of information which usually divides listeners into two camps: those who kindly sympathize, and those who have been there. Those in the latter camp tend to reflect, with a slow shake of the head and perhaps even a baggy-eyed “me, too,” compassion through their own membership in a group of people who are hidden among us.

We insomniacs – and to be clear, I’m a new member, at three months of difficulty staying asleep and counting – are a motley crew, and there seem to be many reasons why this plague of nocturnal glazed ceiling staring and doze-y thinking strikes and brings a new sufferer into the fold. Stress and anxiety seem to be major contributors to the onset and perpetuation of insomnia, as do major life changes. A simple key word search including “PhD” and “student” and “insomnia” will reveal page upon page of sites discussing how grad students flail around managing the cognitive output, pressure to perform, and anxiety about their future prospects all while trying to appear confident. I found, in a simple survey full of sampling bias (my participants were my acquaintances and friends), that many PhD students I know have struggled and continue to struggle with this issue.

A great irony of being an insomniac grad student, for whom anxiety is situationally likely and normalized as “just what we go through,” is that the insomnia effects its own cause. For PhD students, our ability to concentrate, to take in large blocks of knowledge and analyze and synthesize like little cognitive processing bots, is quite central to our success. So once the cycle of insomnia took hold, my ability to focus, let alone read and process this reading meaningfully, withered…and I got more anxious about my insomnia. Funny. Not so funny.

What’s even worse is that as a fledgling scholar, I found plenty of fuel to add to the fire of anxiety and stress in my already-sleepless brain. I tend to look up research to understand the phenomena I cannot explain. Within the first two weeks, I found connections between insomnia and all of the following: heart attack, shortened life span, bad skin, depression, and a whole host of other health problems.

By Mikael Häggström – All used images are in public domain., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6716058

Great. Not so great. What bothers me about the way this is talked about is that there are lots of people who have lived their whole lives with occasional, even self-inflicted bouts of insomnia. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg apparently has fought for equality between the sexes and many other progressive stances on U.S. legal decisions during periods of little sleep. I’m certainly not lionizing the notorious RBG, or anyone else – apparently, Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, and Salvador Dali thought fighting sleep was beneficial – for doing this, but I like to think that not sleeping for a while is not the worst thing that could happen to me.


Isaac Newton. By William Blake – William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=198284

Well, it’s 2018 and I am very much still figuring out the insomnia with the help of several professionals and nonprofessional supports. People love to give advice: drink tea, take baths, drink alcohol, try reading, try smoking a joint, listen to classical music, and on and on ad nauseum. But I can’t blame them. I’ve been drawing late at night, which has helped, or at least helped me to feel a little more human.

Smelly Girl has a lot to talk about late at night. Maybe I’ll start to listen and see if she can help me remember that this PhD thing is, at the end of the day, just one chapter of my story, and not the end of the world.

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