Self-Love in the Time of Corona
Updated: Mar 2
Resetting my sleep cycle for my own damn good.
By Dominy Gallo
Everyone who knows me knows I’m nocturnal. When normal, functioning humans go to bed, my engines come alive. Something about the night hypnotizes me into an intense focus–maybe it’s the concrete darkness, absolute silence, or low buzz of muted city energy. And who the hell can write poetry in broad daylight? Not I.
But there’s a hitch. Nocturnal means “active at night,” and the unspoken other side of the coin is “not active during the day.” We nocturnals face a number of obstacles, most notably events before noon. Not to mention that my brain’s nighttime churning awakens anxieties I’m too busy to notice during the day. That’s right, folks: I’m a night-owl whose happiness depends on sunlight.
Obviously, my inexorable college cycle—4:00 a.m. bedtimes and groggy, breakfast-less mornings before class—needed to change. By second semester I declared, with the ritual earnestness of a prayer, “I’m resetting my sleep schedule.” Fat chance.
Enter COVID-19. My home life is such that quarantine is more of an inconvenience than a crisis, so the months of isolation suddenly presented themselves as an opportunity for self-improvement.
After volleying suggestions that I learn to bake, start designing clothes, or take up crafting, I hit my friends with a long-overdue declaration: “I’m going to sleep from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. every day.” They thought I was joking. I wasn’t. When my editor made the call for essays, it came to me: What better motivator than the threat of public shame and the heat of a deadline under your ass? I would commit to this ludicrous lifestyle change and simply have to follow through on the pain of humiliation in the pages of this magazine.
So began my challenge: Sleep from sundown to sunup and schedule every minute in between. For fun, I threw in an online psychology course at (gag) Yale, The Science of Wellbeing with Laurie Santos, which was released for free on Coursera near the onset of the pandemic.
I failed the challenge. I doubt that will shock you. This isn’t an article about how I totally transformed my daily routine and discovered that the key to happiness is to rise with the birds and slumber before your ten-year-old neighbors. Nor will I tell you that the way to really feel fulfilled is to schedule yourself so tightly you have to cross something out if you go to the bathroom.
Illustration by Rea Rustagi
I did manage to get up at 6:30 a few times, but the 10:30 bedtime was a joke. My body recoiled at the idea of winding down at such a geriatric hour (even my 75-year-old history professor wouldn’t be sending out the lecture outline for another two hours.) Well-rested or exhausted, even sleep by midnight remained a distant dream.
I also realized that I don’t live alone. My mother is nocturnal too. We typically eat dinner “on Barcelona time,” at 9:30. If someone can tell me how to be asleep within an hour of starting dinner, I would love to know. Not to mention, I wanted to spend time with her. How was I supposed to retire when my mother’s day had only half begun?
Every night, 10:30 would come and go, and I would admonish myself as I crawled into bed at 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, promising to be better tomorrow and wincing as I set my 6:30 alarm. When the alarm sounded, I would decide that it was worthier to sleep for seven hours than to haul my ass out of bed before the sun rose. The daily dawn wakeups fizzled into a mid-morning haze.
Scheduling every minute proved similarly unrealistic. If I were an island unto myself, I might pull off a schedule like that first day’s—6:35, brush teeth; 6:40, running clothes; 6:45, run. But I am involved in mankind! How could I know if at precisely 5:50 in the afternoon my widowed, working mom, tired from a day of homeschooling my brother, would be ready to walk the dog and buy groceries with me? Then there are my friends, who live in time zones from California to Palestine. My dinky little schedule couldn’t predict when they’d be available.
But it wasn’t all failure. I thought adapting my sleep schedule would make me less prone to anxiety, as if it were some psychological monster that only emerged after sundown. But when quarantine struck, the thoughts just crept in earlier to fill the empty space. Perhaps I had never had time during the day to sit with my thoughts long enough to process them.
The Yale course ended up being the real game-changer: It taught me the art of letting go. Call me beholden to the intellectual aristocracy, but I needed a tenured psychology Ph.D. to tell me what I could have learned had I listened to Oogway from Kung Fu Panda and “let go of the illusion of control.”
Listening to lectures on the psychology of happiness redirected all of the energy I spent worrying about disciplining myself and creating my ridiculous schedule into addressing what was making me unhappy in the first place. Dr. Santos put kindness and social connection high on the list of things that really increase our subjective wellbeing, so prioritizing friends over my routine wasn’t lazy–it was actually good for me. My minute-by-minute schedule may not have been the best idea since it cut down on what Dr. Santos calls “time affluence,” or having the time to do the things you want to do without stressing.
We spend 47% of our time mind-wandering, I learned. Our default network, the one our brain switches to when we’re not doing anything else, focuses on the past and the future, but never the present. When we’re mind-wandering, even about good things, we’re never as subjectively happy as when we’re fully immersed in the moment. And I was a chronic mind-wanderer. In this absurd pandemic world where we can’t plan a minute in front of us, let alone the scale of weeks and months and years I was considering, this habit could bring me nothing but negativity, no matter what time I went to bed.
I committed to doing what Dr. Santos calls “rewirements” every day. These are small, intentional practices proven to increase subjective wellbeing. I savored one moment from every day and wrote it down that night. I realized I was happiest running in Central Park or playing with my dog, so I made more time to be outside. I wrote nightly gratitude lists, an absurdly kitschy endeavor that actually helped. I prioritized kindness and social connection in my daily activities and even started meditating a little every day to bring my attention away from my default network.
Instagram, YouTube, and online clothing stores were also damaging my happiness. When I found myself, tape measure in hand, contorting myself to mimic the poses plastered across my Explore page and obsessively pinching my lower belly to see if that last five-miler had zapped that last shred of stubborn fat, I knew something needed to change. I deleted social media, and I felt a peaceful sense of self-acceptance I hadn’t felt for a long time.
The use of tenses in this essay has been complicated because the negative habits and struggles aren’t entirely behind me. I wrestle with them as they appear. Nor are the positive habits entirely in the present. I need to maintain them in the future for any of this to make any difference, but the path has been encouraging. I’m hoping that with a little more time to settle into healthier practices during quarantine, my days will be full and happy, I’ll feel safe with myself, and if I’m not free of anxiety, I’ll be capable of dealing with my worries so that I’ll be smiling at that fateful moment when I do finally decide to go to bed. Whenever that may be.